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Daniel Craig
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in "Casino Royale." Despite initial controversy, fans are quickly warming to this latest Bond. (Columbia Pictures)

Craig. Daniel Craig.

Dismissed as blond and bland, the sixth 007 plays Bond dark and dangerous

Breaking in new actors to order James Bond's legendary vodka martini has always been a controversial process.

Critics and audiences gutted one-shot wonder George Lazenby, rashly dismissed Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan as pretty boys, and declared Timothy Dalton too serious and theatrical. Even the venerated Sean Connery initially failed to win over the spy series' original producer , Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli, who wrote in 1961, "Do not care for Connery . . . we can do better."

None, however, has suffered half as much grief as Daniel Craig, the blunt-faced and chisel-chested Brit chosen by the Broccoli family to headline this Friday's "Casino Royale," the 21st entry in Ian Fleming's espionage series.

Dismissed as blond, bland, and most unfortunately, a potato - head upon his introduction in 2005, the 38-year-old has spent the better part of the past two years on the offensive after criticism from caustic fans. But in an ironic twist, one of the most mocked of Bonds is now fast on his way to generating perhaps the best reviews of anyone in the 007 club for his brutal and engrossing performance in "Royale," a $150 million franchise reboot that returns to the gritty and emotional roots of Fleming's character.

"I wouldn't have signed on unless I could strip the character back to basics," says Craig, looking dapper in a pale blue suit. Speaking in a quick, jittery fashion from a Manhattan hotel room, he adds, "I wanted Bond to be somebody who was foul -- someone who makes mistakes and gets involved in situations where things may go wrong. Dramatically, it's just more exciting."

As re-imagined by screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the duo behind 2002's "Die Another Day," and Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis ("Crash"), whom director Martin Campbell brought aboard for a character make-over, Bond 6.0 is darker, coarser, and most strikingly, more dangerous than secret agents past.

Shielded from the groan-worthy puns, far-fetched gadgets (an invisible car -- really?), and increasingly hokey CGI effects (mountainside windsurfing!), audiences are instead presented with a Bond who brandishes his fists, is tortured and seen recuperating in a wheelchair, and is overwhelmingly . . . real. Craig is the Bond who bleeds.

"Bond is human again," says Campbell, who hasn't directed an 007 film since first easing Brosnan into his Brioni tux for 1995's "GoldenEye." Previously courted to revisit the series but reluctant to repeat himself, the Kiwi director was lured back by the original story. "Bond's character in this book is a lot more interesting than what he had become in the movies. In all the previous films, he's such an icon, you can predict what he's going to do. This is much more serious, and as a character, he's a much more developed guy."

Based on Fleming's slim 1953 novella, "Royale" revolves around the newly promoted "00" agent as he is sent by MI6 leader M (Judi Dench) to defeat mercenary banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in a high-stakes poker game to ensure he can't repay his debt after mistakenly betting on a terrorist attack. In the process, Bond also falls -- hard -- for his governmental bankroller , Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a development that forever influences his treatment of the fairer sex.

"The real heartbeat to this film is the love story," says Craig. "It's an affair that toughens him, and without that aspect to balance out the action, it's not a complete movie."

But by recasting Bond as Fleming originally described him -- with a face like "a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal, and cold" -- producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson took a fairly significant risk, tweaking a formula whose last product, 2002's "Die Another Day," grossed a spectacular $432 million worldwide.

"There's certainly much more staked on this [reboot] than "GoldenEye," says Campbell. "On that film, all the arguments were about restarting the genre in general, because there was an eight-year gap between films. This was a tougher job because the last movie was a financial hit, so there's the risk of not wanting to break what's not broken."

Judging from early audience reaction, however, the gamble seems to have paid off, especially in terms of choosing the film's leading man -- an irony not lost on Craig.

"I had prepared to a degree for a negative reaction [to my casting], but certainly not as much as it did," says Craig, who was, among other things, falsely accused in the press of not being able to drive a stick-shift car . "It's something you can't plan for, or else you'd get paranoid very quickly. But now the response is really positive."

"He had quite a hill to climb, with all the criticism," says Campbell. "But he's also, I think, the best actor ever in a Bond film in the sense that he's more ' art house ' -- whatever he does, he's got this chameleon-like quality."

Craig's artistic leanings are partially a product of his devoted mother, Carol, who encouraged her sandy-haired son to take up acting after he dropped out of high school. At 17, he joined the National Youth Theater in London and later studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. A dramatic natural, Craig made his film debut as a sergeant in 1992's "The Power of One," a role that slowly escalated into a steady stream of work, primarily in indie dramas.

The intensely private actor began making a splash in America in 2002, when on-screen, he starred as Paul Newman's murderous son in "Road to Perdition." He quickly followed up with memorable turns in an adaptation of IanMcEwan's "Enduring Love," Matthew Vaughn's heist drama "Layer Cake," and Steven Spielberg's controversial "Munich." Currently shooting the children's fantasy "His Dark Materials" with Nicole Kidman, Craig was on the set of another Kidman project -- next year's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" remake, "The Visiting" -- when he received The Call.

"I really wasn't expecting [to be offered the role] at all," says Craig, who was shopping at a Baltimore Whole Foods when he heard the news. "In hindsight, it was easy; I mean, Bond is one of the biggest icons in movie history and to not accept it would have bothered me. But it certainly wasn't an easy decision [at the time]."

Once the choice was made, however, Craig threw himself into the role. To prepare mentally, the actor re-watched all of the previous Bond films several times each to appreciate the lineage, but then threw out all he had taken in from the old portrayals. Says Craig, "What's the point of doing another movie unless it's different and the character experiences change within himself in the movie?"

Then there was the intensive physical training. Already a gym rat, Craig hired a personal trainer and after shooting began, upped his five-times-a-week workout schedule to every day.

"It was important to me that I do as many of my own stunts as possible for authenticity," says Craig. "Take the Madagascar sequence [in which Bond chases after a would-be bomber who's jack-rabbiting across construction beams 150 to 200 feet up in the air]. I wanted to be seen jumping from crane to crane, physically exerting myself. [Stunt coordinator] Gary Powell and I wanted to get this as real as possible. I didn't get fit just to take my shirt off. Although that applies a little."

Craig certainly wasn't afraid of parading his newly buff bod in a tight swimsuit, nor was he embarrassed about appearing fully nude in a torture scene right out of Fleming's novella where Le Chiffe attempts to make mincemeat of Bond's manhood. "I was protected by fiberglass, thankfully," says Craig. "Although at one point when Mads was hitting it with the whip, it cracked and I flew across to the other side of the room."

The man who will be Bond lets out a laugh. "We shot that entire scene in one day, and strangely enough, there were a lot more people on set that day." And if all goes according to plan, Craig can shortly expect crowded audiences every day.

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