The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part I

Casino Royale was the first Bond novel by Ian Fleming, but it is the twenty-first “official” Bond film. Its selection signified a very intentional reset: for the first time, the EON-produced Bond films broke the hazy aura of continuity that had maintained the first twenty Bond movies, effectively bracketing off the films from 1962’s Dr. No through 2002’s Die Another Day into what we might call the “prime” timeline.

These films, however, are fairly haphazard about continuity, and muddy the waters by holding over Judi Dench’s M (who had appeared in all the films up to that point since 1995’s GoldenEye). This ambiguity about the relationship of these films to its forebears will be exacerbated by references made to the “prime” timeline in later Daniel Craig films. But Dench’s M is not yet in the picture when Casino Royale starts.

Casino Royale starts and concludes so confidently, so defiantly, that it is easy to forget a lot of the rickety stuff that occurs in-between those brilliant bookends. Here, we’re immediately thrust into black-and-white (temporarily deprived of the gunbarrel logo that so memorably opened the previous twenty Bond pictures), with a chilly, snowy vista of Prague.

This feels a bit more Le Carré than Fleming, a tonal shift that sets the stage for the Craig era in general. If the Craig era begins with a return to the source material, it also paints over Fleming’s colorful, hardboiled fantasy with a veneer of moral and political ambiguity that had not previously permeated the series. This is one of many respects in which the Craig films take after the Bourne film series, which might have little to do with Le Carré, but nevertheless preserve his sense that spycraft is inherently dehumanizing and depressing.

But if this opening sequence will set the stage for the Craig era’s enduring dramatic conflict–will Bond stay in the service and lose his soul, or will he get out?–it is also triumphantly bad-ass. This is the most fundamental tension of the Daniel Craig Bond films: they continually underline the dehumanization of his spy work while making that spy work seem so utterly, indescribably cool. And, back in 2006, Bond had not seemed this cool in ages. When Craig’s Bond is first revealed, sitting in noir-ish shadow, it’s a brilliant bit of posturing.

Posturing will prove to be a key part of Craig Bond’s appeal, because his Bond is almost entirely about body language, and the films will largely succeed and fail by their willingness to put Craig’s body language front-and-center. It’s worth noting that this kind of “posing” isn’t a big part of the Bond films prior to Brosnan’s GoldenEye, which, like Casino Royale, was directed by Martin Campbell. Connery, Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton all have very distinctive body languages, but scenes are rarely filmed and staged to showcase their body language in the way that the post-GoldenEye Bond films do. Brosnan, who generally moves more like a model than a proper actor given the way he’s directed in his Bond movies, is the first one who really feels like he’s been placed in poses to maximize his own Bond-ness. Craig takes that same emphasis and makes it work for him. Craig’s body language is both unusual and varied, and one of the great pleasures in watching these films is just admiring the way Craig moves, stands, and sits: it’s always fascinating.

Then there’s that stare. Craig’s eyes are his greatest facial feature: they’re piercing and ghostly, even in black-and-white.

Dryden: “Your file shows no kills, and it takes–”
Bond: “Two.”

The smash-cut here to a bathroom brawl (which was not how the sequence was originally written; there’s an extended version of the scene on the DVD and Blu-ray where you can see the original build-up to the bathroom brawl, which injects the scene with more “classic Bond” exoticism) is devilishly effective. It’s a further leap into Le Carré-ian grime, and a dose of vicious physicality that stands not just in stark contrast to the invisible cars and robo-suits of its immediate predecessor, Die Another Day, but to the very ethos of the Bond franchise up until this point, draining the moment of escapist appeal so that the violence loses any air of fantasy.

That said, it doesn’t quite have the same visceral impact of the Bourne films–even at its grittiest, there’s still some kind of blunted, PG-13 staginess to the violence here, something the sequel, Quantum of Solace (which does get very nasty), will discard–but it still works.

“Made you feel it, did he?”

Bond films so rarely linger on the consequences of violence. Violence in Bond is traditionally something that caps a moment of peak excitement just before a punctuation mark seals it off (usually in the form of a quip, either by Bond or the villain).

When Craig pulls back from the sink, breathing heavily, we don’t really get a sense for how he feels–he’s too internal, too much a cipher–but the ugliness of the moment still has time to settle, leaving some existentialism to hang in the air. Someone was here, and is now here no longer. But if Craig’s Bond truly feels anything at this moment, he’s soon suppresses it enough that his second kill doesn’t affect him at all.

The effect of Dryden toppling over in the chair with the whooshing edit is really a nice touch from Campbell and his collaborators Meheux and Baird, even if the sting of David Arnold’s score is a bit over-the-top (as it will prove to be throughout much of the ensuing film).

“Yes, considerably” isn’t quite a quip, but it’s delivered with a kind of bitter self-amusement and efficiency that makes it an excellent punctuation mark for this scene. The sequence could end here and cut straight to the credits.

But, no, we linger, because here comes the the famous gunbarrel logo, now given an origin story as being a depiction of Bond’s first kill. The spin-and-turn into Bond’s “gunshot” pose here is more ferocious than that of any of this Bond’s predecessors (the gunbarrel turn-and-shoot for previous Bonds was often downright leisurely), making it the perfect embodiment of this new, primal Bond, the bringer of death.

5 Replies to “The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part I”

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