Yet taking the world's greatest spy back to his roots as a raw, impressionable brute whose cockiness at times fails him and who can lose his heart to a woman was a keen stroke of intelligence.
"Casino Royale" may weigh in a bit lighter than many of the 20 preceding Bond flicks on explosions, gunplay, fisticuffs and other action.
What it does have in those regards is riveting, clever and well-choreographed. Yet the appeal this time lays much heavier on Bond as a person, on his development as one of cinema's deadliest killers and most heartless womanizers.
Craig plays Bond at a crossroads, which could lead him deeper down the loner's path of international intrigue or into a more conventional, happier, companionable life.
He stacks up well against his five Bond predecessors. Craig is no Sean Connery (who is?) but he delivers one of the finest performances ever in a 007 flick, rich with a range of feeling we generally don't see in the emotionally stunted Bond.
Directed by Martin Campbell — who also made "GoldenEye," Pierce Brosnan's first time out as Bond — "Casino Royale" is based on the first of Ian Fleming's novels about the British agent.
The 1950s story is updated from the Cold War era to modern times by veteran Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade ("Die Another Day," "The World Is Not Enough") and Paul Haggis, who no doubt contributed much of the foreboding drama to the action (Haggis co-wrote and directed the 2005 best-picture Academy Award winner "Crash" and wrote the screenplay for 2004 Oscar champ "Million Dollar Baby").
Freshly bumped up to "Double-Oh," license-to-kill status, young Bond already is his own man, alternately impressing and infuriating spymaster M (Judi Dench, making a welcome return from the Brosnan era and bringing her usual wondrous imperiousness to the role).
Bond is assigned to play in a high-stakes poker match in Montenegro orchestrated by Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a financier of global terrorism who needs to win the $100-million-plus stake to pay back clients' money he squandered on an investment.
That Bond was the reason his investment went sour makes it all the more poetic, as the card game and its ramifications will have such a huge impact on Bond's destiny.
A Treasury official — beautiful, of course — is assigned to keep tabs on Bond's gambling stake and make sure he's playing prudently with the Crown's chips. Eva Green's Vesper Lynd is everything most Bond girls are not — smart, sarcastic, willful and fiercely independent enough not to give in to Bond's charms.
And she's no sex kitten. Green looks glorious in her various gowns, but she doesn't prance around in a bikini or topple into bed with Bond by way of saying hello.
Vesper is James' equal in so many ways — not a fighter but a thinker, able to do a magnificently witty dissection of 007's character and accept with grace his own playfully insightful critique of her.
There's almost a "Thin Man" quality to their banter. You can imagine William Powell and Myrna Loy's Nick and Nora Charles started out cutely bickering this way before they became such suave lovebirds.
Unlike past Bond films, where our hero's most important relationship is with the villain he's trying to take down, it's the love story that really matters here. "Casino Royale" plays out like a grand, doomed romantic epic in which James' callous nature is cemented in place by the outcome of his attachment to Vesper.
The groundwork for so many of the Bond trappings is deftly laid here. This James Bond doesn't care whether his martinis are shaken or stirred. He's surprised at what a difference a finely tailored tux makes when he looks in the mirror. By chance, a classic Aston-Martin comes his way, and it's easy to see why it becomes Bond's automobile of choice.
We also see his first encounter with his CIA cousin, Felix Leiter, played by the always sly Jeffrey Wright, who's underutilized here but hopefully will return in an expanded role in future Bond adventures.
Giancarlo Giannini adds fine continental charm as an Italian operative who's Bond's local contact.
When Craig was cast, much was made of his look — the first blond Bond. The weight and grandeur Craig brings to the role shows that superficial looks do not a Bond make. Craig has the spirit of the character, rascally yet dark, blithe yet brutish, amorous yet lethal.
In a climactic showdown with Le Chiffre, Craig's Bond is arguably more vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, than we've ever seen 007 (though the tragic end of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," George Lazenby's sole, unpropitious turn as Bond, comes close).
And at this moment, when he could be broken for good and left a wispy shadow who never would have become a golden boy of British intelligence, Bond's cheeky humor and unbendable pigheadedness assert themselves — a terrific foundation for the adventures to come.
It's a formative moment in a movie full of formative moments that spell an ominous but productive future for Bond, and a brilliant and even more productive future for Craig as Bond.