The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part II

Casino Royale‘s delightful title sequence evokes the dust jacket of the first edition of the Ian Fleming novel. Title designer Daniel Kleinman, a true asset to the franchise since he came on-board with GoldenEye, takes the card/casino motif and runs with it: crosshairs become roulette wheels, spades become bullets, and thugs disintegrate into cards. Bond stalks through this cartoon world as an unstoppable threat, dodging attacks and his assailants, until he stands alone, staring defiantly at the viewer (it has always bothered me to an irrational degree that this final image of Craig has clearly been distorted to stretch him out vertically; the effect just seems so unnecessary).

The title sequence briefly breaks out of the cartoon surrealism for a “real world” image of Bond’s “00” status being confirmed in a computer system, clearly a holdover from earlier drafts of the script, which proposed that the entire title sequence should be built around Bond’s ID being printed, which was a rather prosaic idea that was thankfully discarded for this more hypnotic dream. This makes it the only other Bond title sequence to break into the “real world” other than Casino Royale‘s predecessor, Die Another Day.

Chris Cornell’s machismo-injected rock anthem, “You Know My Name,” fully evokes the burly, headstrong essence of the bulked-up Bond of Casino Royale, and it ranks as one of the better Bond songs when all is said and done. Sure, it’s extraordinarily cornball–practically all of the Bond songs are (it’s a feature, not a bug)–and it sounded dated even back in 2006, but it’s vibrant and fun and catchy, even if the odd sound mix used for the film doesn’t do the song many favors.

It may be utter folly to parse Bond song lyrics, which are typically nonsensical in the extreme. But I intend to make a habit of paying the lyrics at least a little attention in this series, in part because there seems to have been a concerted effort on the Craig Bond songs to truly reflect the narratives of the films (which is not something that has always been true of the Bond songs). As far as “You Know My Name” is concerned, I’m struck by these lines, in particular: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights / but you yourself are nothing so divine.” Given the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond being a orphan, I find it tempting to read the line as a oblique reference to the death of Bond’s parents, who tumbled to their death in a fatal climbing accident (“Skyfall,” the name of Bond’s ancestral home in the Craig film of the same name, has a similar resonance).

Composer and “You Know My Name” co-writer David Arnold weaves instrumental versions of “You Know My Name” through his score as a proto-theme for Bond, given that the Monty Norman/John Barry theme has been held for the end credits. It’s very high praise when I say that that the “You Know My Name” cue has more than enough swagger to fill the gaps left by the Bond theme’s conspicuous absence. The theme may actually be underutilized in Arnold’s score; it gets full statements in a few “scene transition” moments, but the lengthy action scenes cry out for a robust, fist-pumping statement of the theme that never arrives.

The titles lead us into the muddy backlot of Pinewood Studios! Sorry, “Uganda.” It’s not exactly a convincing mock-up, and, it’s not the only time that Casino Royale can seem a little cheap (indeed, Casino Royale on the whole will feel fairly artificial, giving it all a slightly more cartoonish vibe than its successors). It’s a brief scene, so it’s easy to forgive the fakery. It’s not as easy to forgive the clunkiness of the writing as we’re inelegantly introduced to three major players here in quick succession: Mr. White, Le Chiffre, and Steven Obanno.

Let’s start with Steven Obanno, played with gusto and menace by Isaach de Bankolé. Obanno belongs to the Lord’s Resistance Army, though the film never specifies that detail in dialogue. Earlier drafts of the script did more to establish the bizarre religious ideology of that group (in the script, Obanno had a short anecdote about the child soldier who ends up playing pinball in the scene), but in the finished film, his “Do you believe in God, Mr. Le Chiffre?” is reduced to a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything. (It is a sample of what I call “trailer dialogue”–dialogue that sounds “cool” when taken out of context for a promotional video, but really means nothing at all in-context. I’ll be using this term a lot when we get to Quantum of Solace.)

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White gets some very fine material in the sequels, but in his introductory film, he is just a man in a suit. The dynamics of his organization (later films label this organization “Quantum,” which will later be retconned as being a cell/project of SPECTRE itself) and his relationship to Le Chiffre remain pretty ambiguous throughout Casino Royale. Does Le Chiffre work for Mr. White? Is Le Chiffre merely holding on to Mr. White’s money? The sequels suggest that Le Chiffre is a full-fledged member, but, on its own, Casino Royale might be read as suggesting that he’s independent. Certainly this scene indicates that they are peers, with the concluding shot of Mr. White staring after Le Chiffre hinting that Mr. White has his suspicions about Le Chiffre’s tactics.

Then there’s Le Chiffre himself, played by the dependably-great Mads Mikkelsen. Le Chiffre’s first memorable action is to take a puff on an asthma inhaler, an odd character tic that comes from the Fleming source material. This establishes Le Chiffre’s unique vulnerability; in a long tradition of Bond supervillains, all malevolent and brooding, Le Chiffre emerges as being merely a middleman, a middle-tier criminal who only turns especially savage after Bond puts him in a tight spot. It’s a nice change of pace, although there’s little in the action or dialogue here that memorably plays off of this new dynamic.

The filmmakers do seem to have hedged their bets a bit, though, in giving the character a sinister appearance to balance out his vulnerability. Mikkelsen has naturally imposing features, and the film goes one step further by giving him an eye deformity (one that has no precedent in the source material). It’s outrageous and gratuitous, but also appealing in that traditional Bond way, where villains manifest their own decadence through physical grotesqueness. The eye deformity will add a note of menace to all those close-ups that become so critical later in the film.

Stuart Baird’s editing is typically commendable throughout Casino Royale, particularly in the action sequences, but there is one odd beat toward the conclusion of the sequence where the negotiations between Le Chiffre and Obanno are punctuated by a strange cut to a glowering LRA soldier. The soldier hasn’t been a player in the scene up until this point, and it breaks away from a sequence of edits that seems to be resolving the three-way power balance between Obanno, Mr. White, and Le Chiffre. I suspect this edit is made because this particular LRA soldier actually appears later in the film alongside Obanno and that they want to set-up that threat, but the character’s later appearance needs no set-up.

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