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Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2006 11:41 am

Buy this Bond

Casino Royale joins the short list of best-ever James Bonds

Daniel Craig is the latest incarnation of Fleming's Bond.

Every now and then the James Bond films need to scale back to a sense of reality. The Roger Moore Bonds became a bit too spacey, but the Timothy Dalton cure didn’t take hold. A fine actor, Dalton is too blandly serious for the acerbic spy. Pierce Brosnan was an improvement, but the gadgetry and special effects got out of hand. Now, with a change of actors to the excellent Daniel Craig, the franchise is back to basics, and the new Casino Royale is the best of the Bond series since its glory days in the 1960s. The source material is appropriately Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the introduction to Fleming’s most famous character. The story was adapted twice previously. Barry Nelson was the first actor to portray Bond in a TV production, as part of the anthology series Climax!, in 1954.

The second version, made in 1967, is a bizarre farce starring David Niven as the real Bond and Peter Sellers and Woody Allen as surrogates. Four Bond films stand above the rest. From Russia with Love (1963), the second in the series, should be a lesson to anyone who is convinced that a sequel can’t improve on the original. The evil organization SPECTRE sets up a trap for Bond to avenge the demise of Dr. No from the first film. The physical action, culminating in a classic extended fight scene on a train with Robert Shaw as an assassin, is intense, but it never overwhelms the story. Next up is Goldfinger (1964), the film deservedly ranked as the best Bond. German actor Gert Fröbe, in the title role, set the standard for villains, and the plot to rob Fort Knox of its gold supply is wonderfully daring. Bond’s greatest gadget, the Aston Martin DB5, also makes its stellar appearance.

You Only Live Twice (1967) rarely gets a fair shake, but it most definitely ranks with the best Bonds. SPECTRE rears its ugly head again in the face of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s most frequent nemesis. Blofeld plans to set off World War III by capturing an American space capsule and implicating the Soviets. His base of operation inside a Japanese volcano is the scene of one of the series’ great climaxes. The reputation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) suffered with the departure of Connery. George Lazenby may not have been the ideal replacement, but Bond aficionados correctly rank this among the best. The action scenes, particularly a harrowing ski chase, are breathtaking,. After all these years it could not have been expected, but the new Casino Royale rounds out the top five.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Dec. 12): World Trade Center, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Devil Wears Prada, Material Girls, and Barnyard: The Original Party Animals.

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