Alien: Covenant

Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the titular beast that serves as the series’ most distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s (underrated) Alien 3, the creature’s antics seem perfunctory, thoroughly demystified through familiarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the beast has become so obvious that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to avoid any audience impatience; the creature’s gestation and growth, which seemed somewhat drawn-out in the first three pictures, now seems to occur in a matter of minutes.

Little wonder that subsequent Alien films have tried to find ways to divert focus from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never properly featured the beast at all, content to only gesture at it through distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focus: an android Frankenstein’s monster grappling with his disappointment in his human creators.

This same monster, Michael Fassbender’s David, serves as the center of Covenant, and his mad artist-cum-scientist proves to be much more terrifying than the CGI beasts that also populate the film (outside of one or two moments, Covenant‘s beasties–some familiar, some vaguely new–are treated with all the ho-hum obligation that characterized the use of velociraptors in Jurassic Park sequels). He also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings seem to have been drawn using dotted-lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the curious insanity behind David’s ambitious, horrifying attempt to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation, which Covenant accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter, both his double and his foil.

Covenant has other admirable touches when Ridley Scott goes full-on Ridley Scott, recreating Böcklin paintings and utilizing excerpts from Wagner operas on the soundtrack. Covenant has vistas that few recent blockbusters can match, including a haunting necropolis–the Pompeii-like ruins of an alien civilization–wherein much of the story’s action unfolds. These elements add aesthetic grandeur to what is essentially a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau (following after Prometheus‘ variation on At the Mountains of Madness).

Alas, much of Alien: Covenant finds Ridley Scott straining to be James Cameron. Scott has never been particularly skilled at building the kind of clockwork blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the careful sense of geography, of meticulous setup and payoff, required for big, thrilling, action spectacle. The big set-pieces in Covenant (which generally feel like rehashes of iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory that it’s inert.

Scott has been open about his intention to make many more films in the series, and, accordingly, Covenant follows contemporary blockbuster convention in teasing yet another installment as it concludes. The lingering questions raised by Covenant aren’t enough to combat the feeling that the series has been suffocated by the staleness of its own conventions.

Twin Peaks and Entropy

The remarkable new episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival are burdened down by the weight of time. It’s not just the weathered faces and voices of our beloved characters, but the sense that the status quo has changed, that things were lost that can’t be recovered, and the darkness of the world remains as baffling and terrible as ever.

The moment where Badalamenti’s “Laura” theme returns in its most prominent statement–for me, one of the most moving moments in these first four episodes–sums this all up in a concise dramatic moment. The reprisal could have easily been gratuitous fanservice, but Lynch turns it into a deep expression of loss, of the effects of entropy on communities and people.

In this new Twin Peaks, nostalgia hurts.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VII

Casino Royale consists of two mini-movies. The first of these involves Bond’s hunt for the meaning of “Ellipsis,” a cryptic codeword being traded among mercenary terrorists. This mini-movie climaxes here, with the Miami airport setpiece, before the film resets and transitions into a glamorous spy thriller built on the skeleton of the Ian Fleming source material.

This somewhat ungainly structure has some merits and some substantial weaknesses; this action-driven first half does grant us ample time to familiarize ourselves with this reckless, rookie Bond’s default settings. But, aside from establishing Bond’s prickly relationship with M, this narrative material also feels fairly isolated from the story that follows. Additionally, front-loading the film with spectacular action setpieces results in a perceptible slowdown when the film realigns during the second half.

If I’m being honest, the Miami material ranks as my least-favorite stretch in Casino Royale. It’s competently-conceived and executed (more so, in fact, than some of the material that precedes and follows it), but it suffers from landing so close to the more exhilarating and more colorful Madagascar chase. The Madagascar sequence keeps changing the game by varying the playing field throughout, continually changing tones and scenarios, while the Miami airport chase stays stuck in a steady rut for the bulk of its running time. It does not help matters that the primary foe Bond pursues in Miami, Carlos, lacks distinction. He’s a generic nobody introduced for and disposed during the sequence at hand, his only distinguishing feature being his use of a keychain bomb.

Bond’s confrontion with Dimitrios, which precedes the airport chase, plays stronger, by virtue of the nightmarish venue for that confrontation and because Bond and Dimitrios have an established rivalry. They meet in the midst of the controversial Body Worlds exhibition, in which preserved corpses, posed as though they were in the midst of real-life activity, become spectacle for the onlookers. The filmmakers stage the sequence around a tableau where three corpses play cards, foreshadowing the life-and-death card game of the film’s second half.

Old-school spycraft mingles with new-school spycraft as Dimitrios delivers equipment to the terrorist-for-hire, Carlos, via a bag check, notifying Carlos of the delivery via text message. After dispatching of Dimitrios, Bond cleverly identifies Carlos in a crowd with a phone call from Dimitrios’ phone. This improvisation on Bond’s part may be the only time where the film’s insistence on cell phones serving as a key story element doesn’t seem forced.

David Arnold’s over-the-top underscore only slightly weakens the considerable suspense as a knife wavers back and forth between Bond and Dimitrios (Arnold’s score throughout this entire Miami section opts for frantic cacophony). Bond wins the struggle through a mixture of smarts and brawn, and dispatches Dimitrios with the efficiency that has become his defining characteristic. The playful pat on the cheek Bond gives the deceased Dimitrios further underlines his tendency to gloat in victory; Bond’s addiction to being 007 is, at root, an addiction to winning, to outsmarting and humiliating his prey.

Bond tailing Carlos in the airport delivers the next significant “rookie Bond” moment. Bond gets sloppy in his attempt to surreptitiously observe his target, and Carlos splits. Given Bond’s prior scolding of Carter for being too obvious while surveilling Mollaka in Madagascar, this strikes me as a bit too amateurish to be credible.

“Ellipsis,” Bond discovers, is the Miami International security code, and Carlos is going to destroy a brand new (empty) airplane. Not the most satisfying of payoffs, admittedly–Bond is now put in the position of putting his life on the line to protect corporate assets–but it mostly works due to the way the sequence’s momentum kicks into gear once the pieces fall into place.

The individual stunts that comprise the chase across the tarmac impress, but the sequence does not do an especially strong job of building them into an actual narrative chain. The geography of the airport remains pretty murky throughout; we very rarely get a sense of just how close Carlos is to his target.

The sheer physicality of it all still gives this chase some urgency. By the end of the chase, Craig’s Bond has been so beat up that he’s lucky to be alive. Craig’s exasperated, befuddled look as he realizes he successfully stopped the attack nicely humanizes the character, as does the fact that his wounds remain visible in the next scene.

Bond’s chilling smirk as Carlos blows himself up points, once again, to his love of winning. In stopping Carlos, though, he’s backed a more intelligent adversary into a corner. The aftershocks of Le Chiffre’s forthcoming humiliation of Bond will reverberate throughout the entirety of the Craig era.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VI

Bond’s break-in to the Ocean Club’s security office may be the most uninteresting scene in Casino Royale. This moment consists of Bond looking at conspicuously-branded Sony technology products and matching timestamps, a silly demonstration that the Bond of 2006 is hip enough to know his way around the tech of its era. This all over-complicates and draws out what should be a straight-forward version of a “Bond identifies his target” narrative beat, offering us little visual or narrative pleasure to distract us from such tedious questions as “How did Bond know exactly which security camera would show him his target?” and “Why wasn’t the GPS signal Bond pulled from M’s laptop be sufficient to identify Dimitrios?”

The film thankfully bookends this brief scene with more interesting moments. Bond trashing the Goldfinger-lookalike’s car delivers some welcome levity (particularly when punctuated by Bond’s “I don’t give a damn” car key toss), and the scene that follows the break-in offers our first glimpse of this Bond’s roguish charm. Despite the character’s savagery, Craig’s Bond frequently displays extraordinarily good manners, at least in verbal terms (if you need confirmation, look no further than this oddly hilarious clip compilation).

The way Craig draws out the word “compelled” in his exchange with the desk clerk serves as a good example of Craig’s occasional playfulness in regards to dialogue. Craig’s Bond generally has a more muted approach to language; he’s a quiet, internal, intense character in general, and his speech has more efficiency than elegance. His witticisms and puns, when he does deliver them, do not have the same spirited quality that characterized the more memorable puns of Connery or Moore. This tends to keep the focus on Bond’s physical presence, rather than his sound. But every once in a while, Craig draws out a single word and really sinks his teeth into it (see also the way he delivers the word “skewered” when talking with Vesper on the train).

The Craig films do not celebrate Bond’s promiscuity the way the classic films do, preferring to punish and scold Bond for his callousness and detachment. However, as much as these films frown on Bond’s approach to women, they also glamorize it, uncomfortably applying the same have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach that often characterizes’ the Craig films’ approach to violence. The weaponized, warped masculinity that defines Bond-as-killer feeds directly into his seductions. Craig’s Bond seduces women with the same force of will with which he dispatches his enemies, relying on displays of strength and intensity that, particularly in the latter films, cross the border from flirtation into overtly threatening, bullying behavior. In Casino Royale, he’s a bit more restrained. He wins over Solange primarily by staring her down while smirking.

In a somewhat misguided attempt at a “Lady Godiva” moment, Solange rides (awkardly) along the beach on horseback, clad only in a bikini. This is but a preface to the real spectacle, when Bond emerges from the sea, clad in absurdly-tiny baby-blue swim trunks, and catches her eye. This recreation of the famous Honey Ryder moment from Dr. No (one that was also homaged in Casino Royale‘s predecessor, Die Another Day) demonstrates one of the key shifts that occurs within the Craig era: Bond becomes the films’ primary sex object.

Indeed, no prior Bond has ever had such a gratuitously-sculpted physique, and the Craig films make sure to show it off with great regularity. Even when Bond remains clothed, his clothes are tailored in such a way as to draw attention to the musculature underneath (even his suits will seem painted-on at times, straining to contain that large chest and biceps). The women in these films get showcased, no doubt (Casino Royale, in particular, has two moments where it enjoys the spectacle of beautiful women walking in beautiful dresses), but there’s a comparative chasteness to how they’re presented when you look at the treatment of women in the prior Bond films. Take, for example, Bond’s brief interactions with Solange in his bungalow: she remains clothed in an attractive dress, but his shirt’s unbuttoned, and the camera lingers on his abdominal muscles. Even if you only go as far back as the Brosnan films, the emphasis tends to be the opposite.

Naturally, this all ties right back into the Craig era’s emphasis on posing, fixating on Bond’s movement and posture. This, incidentally, sustains the film’s numerous card-playing sequences, the first of which occurs during Solange and Bond’s second meeting. There lies little drama in cards shifting and changing across green felt (though Casino Royale does its best to manufacture it by creating preposterously “epic” poker hands around which the course of the film’s poker games pivot), but there lies some drama in watching Craig carefully adjust and shift with each new turn in these card games. Martin Campbell, in cooperation with Baird, does a marvelous job of paying close attention to these subtle changes and how they reflect the shifting power balances throughout the games. Here, as Bond plays with Dimitrios, Craig’s body language expresses Bond’s calm control as he goads Dimitrios into humiliating himself.

Dimitrios has little to define his character beyond an ill-temper and an apparent affection for classic cars. Likely due to the creative mandate to scale Bond back after the excesses of Die Another Day, there seems to be an apprehensiveness about making things too colorful and bizarre, so outside of Le Chiffre himself, most of the supporting villains lack a little flair. (Early drafts of Casino Royale did more with the character; Dimitrios was originally a version of Krest from Fleming’s short story “The Hildebrand Rarity,” a wife-beater preoccupied with a rare fish, and Bond killed him by stuffing said fish down his throat.) At any rate, the film at least situates Dimitrios in fairly well-built scenes, and his two direct encounters with Bond (both the card game in Nassau and their lethal confrontation in Miami) are highlights of this section of the film.

Solange’s character template has recurred throughout the Bond films as a cornerstone of the Bond movie formula: the sacrificial lamb who aids Bond and pays the price. Never before, though, has a Bond film lavished so much attention on it as a dramatic pivot. Casino Royale frames Bond’s dalliance with Solange as part of a behavioral pattern, illustrative of his recurrent use and abandonment of those around him. Bond serves as a vessel of death for both his foes and his allies.

The banter between Bond and Solange leaves much to be desired (consider this lamentable exchange: “Why can’t nice guys be more like you?” / “Well, because then they’d be bad”). Casino Royale, and the subsequent Craig films, will really struggle to give Bond and his cohorts genuinely clever repartee. Thankfully, in this film at least, Craig is mostly able to work his way around the clunkers. Bond’s initial interactions with Solange does give us one rare display of Craig’s Bond simply having a bit of boyish fun, both by playing a light joke on Solange and by briefly taking his newfound prize–the iconic Aston Martin DB5–for a spin.

Aside from that moment, the impression one gets from this scene is that Craig’s Bond indulges pleasure only when it doesn’t distract from his mission. When he finds out that Dimitrios is on the move to the Miami, he quickly tosses Solange aside (though not before ordering her a parting gift of caviar and fine champagne), and speeds off. Sex doesn’t offer as much of a thrill as the hunt does.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part V

Casino Royale takes a turn for the familiar as Bond travels to Nassau. As if to signal the film’s turn to classic Bond formula, the Bond vamp roars on the soundtrack as a sea plane lands near the Atlantis resort. Bond, looking quite fashionable in a gray linen suit, disembarks and looks out at the harbor to glimpse Le Chiffre’s yacht cutting through the waters. (In a subtle nod to the Fleming novels, Bond wears a short-sleeved white shirt with his suit, an alleged fashion “no-no,” but an affectation that both Fleming and his literary creation shared.)

The film then introduces us to Bond’s new automobile. A BMW? A Lotus? An Aston Martin? Nay, it is but a modest Ford Mondeo! As one of the features of the film’s “Bond begins” arc, Bond hasn’t yet earned his trademark “fancy car,” and will now have to slum it by using a commonplace rental car like the rest of us mere mortals. If Casino Royale must have overt product placement, this isn’t such a terrible way to integrate it into the film. At the very least, this has some payoff when Bond wins the DB5 a few scenes later. On the other hand, the attention this montage draws to the vehicle, like a later call-out to Bond’s watchmaker, passes beyond the boundaries of good taste.

Despite the character’s strong association with luxury, Bond regularly demonstrates contempt for extravagant wealth in the Ian Fleming novels. Bond’s dislike of the upper classes shines through in moments like his journey to the Blades Club in Fleming’s Moonraker, where Bond muses about how out of place he seems among the upper classes, or in Goldfinger, where Bond gets a taste of the high life thanks to a rich acquaintance and recoils from it in disgust. Yes, Bond’s taste for fine food, fine wines, fine cars,  and fine watches all finds its root in Fleming, but it might be more properly said that Fleming paints Bond as a man of particular tastes rather than a man of extravagant tastes. In fact, Fleming regularly expounds on Bond’s affection for scrambled eggs, and notes Bond’s affection for spaghetti bolognese and cheap red wine, not exactly models of culinary decadence!

Consider this description of Bond’s car from Thunderball, which mingles a disdain for the elite with an appreciation for the fine automobile as fine machine, rather than status symbol:

“Bond had the most selfish car in England. It was a Mark II Continental Bentley that some rich idiot had married to a telegraph pole on the Great West Road. Bond had bought the bits for £1500 and Rolls had straightened the bend in the chassis and fitted new clockwork–the Mark IV engine with 9.5 compression. Then Bond had gone to Mulliners with £3000, which was half his total capital, and they had sawn off the old cramped sports saloon body and had fitted a trim, rather square convertible two-seater affair, power-operated, with only two large armed bucket seats in black leather. The rest of the blunt end was all knife-edged, rather ugly, trunk. The car was painted in rough, not glass, battleship gray and the upholstery was black morocco. She went like a bird and a bomb and Bond loved her more than all the women at present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together.

But Bond refused to be owned by any car. A car, however splendid, was a means of locomotion (he called the Continental “the locomotive” . . . “I’ll pick you up in my locomotive”) and it must at all times be ready to locomote–no garage doors to break one’s nails on, no pampering with the mechanics except for the quick monthly service. The locomotive slept out of doors in front of his flat and was required to start immediately, in all weathers, and after that, stay on the road.”

So, in Fleming, Bond’s affection for fine automobiles stems not from a love of the status they carry, but in their quality and dependability, in their usefulness on his missions and to his pursuit of a thrilling lifestyle. Similarly, the Rolex Bond adopts in the Fleming novels was a demonstration that Bond had selected what was, in Fleming’s time, an extraordinarily well-made and durable tool, rather than a flashy sign of upper-crust decadence.

This hasn’t been exactly replicated in the Bond films, which have tilted ever more in the celebration of luxury. Whatever factors have contributed to this, the most essential is the desire to deliver true cinematic spectacle through the thrill of beautiful people enjoying the best of everything. So in its current state, the Bond series gives us impossibly exclusive cars (the Aston Martin DB10 used in Spectre was created for the film, with a production run of ten automobiles total), exceedingly high-end watches, ostentatious clothes, which all give the sense that Bond–or his employers–have extraordinarily deep pockets. This has been compounded by Bond’s increasingly anachronistic status, which tends to position him as a reminder of a more elegant era. This was strongly signposted during the Brosnan years, where Bond became an explicitly-defined avatar for old imperialistic Britain, accosted for being a “dinosaur” and a “stiff-assed Brit” out of touch with the times (Craig’s Bond gets a bit of this, too, but not in his first two entries).

Even so, some of the Bonds preserve a bit of that original Fleming dynamic. Certainly Connery–who Fleming originally accused of looking like a “bricklayer”–has a roughness that distinguishes him from the more mannered upper crust (which especially shines through in the scenes where, as in Goldfinger‘s dinner with Colonel Smithers, he interacts with the British elite and seems both somewhat bored and out of place). This carries through into Lazenby’s relatively rugged performance, too, who turns down a small fortune in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Well-poised, well-mannered Moore remains the most aristocratic of the Bonds, even if he retains an impish streak beneath his gentlemanly air. It’s during his era that Bond begins to feel more and more like a man out of step with the times (even if he does sport bell bottom trousers in his 70s films), a sense accentuated by the degree to which Moore visibly aged throughout his long tenure in the role.

Dalton’s Bond defies easy categorization, but more than any other Bond, he avoids clear iconization. Dalton returned Bond, however briefly, to being a weary, working professional, and he generally avoids flashy displays of wealth. He seems very well-educated (in The Living Daylights, he has a knowledgeable appreciation for classical music, and Licence to Kill has Bond making puns based on Hemingway titles), but does not appear especially beholden to any old-fashioned notions of Britishness. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on making him seem like a contemporary action hero; Licence to Kill even has Bond abandoning British tailoring for popular American styles.

Then there’s Brosnan, who embodies bits and pieces of all of his predecessors and becomes a kind of man-outside-of-time, an embodiment less of an actual character than the very idea of Bond as it existed in the public consciousness at the time of his run. Brosnan may be accosted for being a figure of the past, but he never really feels like he belongs to it. He seems more like a timeless constant in a changing world. Brosnan’s Bond rarely finds himself in situations that would define his own class status, but he blends in seamlessly among the very wealthy, and is typically draped in the the sort of apparel that would appeal to a wealthy businessman with good taste.

Craig’s Bond, returning to the roots of the character, has a pronounced “working class” streak. Craig’s Bond doesn’t start out with a luxury automobile or a perfectly-tailored dinner jacket. He has to obtain these relics of Bond-dom as part of his journey from mere human being to cinematic icon. Nothing underlines this as much as Bond arriving at the exclusive Ocean Club, only to be mistaken for a valet by a demanding patron (somewhat modeled after Bond’s iconic foe, Auric Goldfinger). In return, Bond ruins the patron’s day by damaging his vehicle, and then later twists the knife when the patron realizes that Bond is actually one of the hotel guests.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IV

Bond’s actions in Madagascar have repercussions, both for his employers and for his foes. When Le Chiffre receives the news of Mollaka’s death, he’s hosting a private poker game on his private yacht. (One of the participants, Madame Wu, is played by Tsai Chin, who appeared in 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Her character reappears during the high stakes poker game later in the film.)

Casino Royale has a clear sense of the psychology and bearing of its protagonist, but flounders a bit when it comes to its antagonist. Bond’s introductory scenes are tight and confident, but Le Chiffre’s initial scenes feel less like fleshed-out scenes than a list of bullet-points: Le Chiffre uses an inhaler, he weeps blood from a wounded eye, he calculates advanced statistics with ease, he loves poker, he plays the stock market, he becomes vaguely threatening when he encounters an obstacle.

At least Mikkelsen infuses the character with an icy menace that prefigures his extremely memorable turn as Hannibal Lecter (although his Le Chiffre has very little of Lecter’s twisted hedonism). One of the pleasures of Mikkelsen’s performance lies in the way his composure gradually breaks down as he meets with setback after setback until we reach his nasty, desperate final moments with Bond.

The material introducing Bond’s superior, M, plays a bit better. As I noted earlier, Judi Dench’s M is the most significant holdover from the Brosnan Bond years. Dench entered the franchise to memorable effect in 1995’s GoldenEye as an embodiment of the shifting sexual and international politics in the wake of the Cold War. Brosnan’s Bond went through some rough patches with M, and she chastised him now and again, but a clear fondness developed between them. If what they shared wasn’t quite friendship, it was nevertheless a warm, mutual respect and trust.

The Craig films build a different trajectory. The Brosnan films present M as a newcomer, fighting to establish a new path after the Cold War, but the Craig films present her as a world-weary, scarred veteran of the secret service. The uneasy respect between Bond and M comes with some substantial suspicion, as well as a note of codependency (something Skyfall will accentuate and develop to great effect).

This “distant mother”/”wayward son” dynamic serves as an extension of the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond’s psychology. Casino Royale will only lightly touch on the way the death of Bond’s parents plays into their dynamic, but that’s enough to invite us to fill in the gaps.

Dench’s first scene here plays to her widely-recognized talent for extracting humor from displays of grouchy exasperation. The scene lays things on a bit thick; Dench has been able to do more with less, and she seems to be straining just to keep up with all the wordy dialogue. Additionally, M’s indignance seems somewhat unwarranted given the circumstances.

Her “I miss the Cold War” stinger repositions the franchise in alignment with a new political landscape. As the following installments will emphasize to an even greater degree, the realm of espionage is murkier, the lines between the heroes and villains less clear. These early scenes in Casino Royale set the stage for an ongoing struggle between Bond, M, and the political bureaucracy that will carry on throughout all four Craig adventures.

Indeed, this Bond has an anti-authoritarian streak that far exceeds that of his predecessors (who, outside of a few instances, acted like professionals following orders, even if they bent the rules on occasion). Only in movieland could breaking-in to his superior’s apartment, the location of which is apparently a state secret, be anything other than a career-ending violation (to say nothing of stealing his superior’s credentials and hacking into her computer!).

Reading Skyfall back into Casino Royale enriches this scene by suggesting that M’s relationship with Bond is actually the latest iteration in a series. Skyfall reveals that M is instinctually-drawn to surrogate son figures with exceptional talents and a willingness to flout the rules, which provides a kind of explanation for her willingness to overlook Bond’s substantial shortcomings.

M discovers Bond in her apartment just after he has made use of her (Sony) computer, which apparently has unique access to a call-tracing program. How Bond got her password, address, or name is left a mystery. When questioned about it, Bond becomes smug, a brief reappearance of the know-it-all Bond of old. I like to imagine that Bond actually seduced the information out of a lower-level MI6 clerk. (Curiously, the suggestion that M’s identity is a state secret will never really come up again in these movies. For what it’s worth, props used in the making of Skyfall list M’s real name as Olivia Mansfield.)

“We’re trying to figure out how an entire network of terrorist groups is financed and you give us one bomb maker. Hardly the big picture, wouldn’t you say?”

Coming to understand “the big picture” isn’t just the nature of Bond’s character arc in Casino Royale, but it’s actually the arc of all four Craig films, and it plays out on both personal and political levels. We’ll have more to say about the ways the later films play into that when we get there.

“I understand double-0’s have a very short life expectancy, so your mistake will be short-lived.”

Craig delivers this line, a surrogate child’s bitter rejoinder to a surrogate parent, with melancholy self-awareness. He’s acutely aware of his own death wish.

“So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman?”

Craig’s Bond compares himself to clergymen with surprising consistency. He does so here, and then later in Quantum of Solace and Spectre. (Skyfall might offer a childhood rationale for this, due to the priest hole and chapel that lies on the Bond family grounds.) Like a priest, Bond has set himself apart from the rest of society, but while a priest gives life, Bond takes it.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part III

It’s not difficult to imagine a version of Casino Royale that begins with the Madagascar chase, omitting the black-and-white pre-title sequence altogether. Which isn’t to suggest that the opening sequence is extraneous (though many of the “origin story” elements of Casino Royale are a gloss on the story rather than essential narrative components), but that the Madagascar chase also serves as an introduction to this new Bond. It’s not just one of the best action scenes of the series, but one of the best action sequences of all time: a kinetic character study.

The Bond franchise may have helped establish the action film genre, but the Bond films do not contain many exceptional examples of action filmmaking. Yes, the series contains a lot of breathtaking stuntwork, but that’s not the same thing. In the classic films, the actual nuts-and-bolts filmmaking in the action sequences tends to be dependable and efficient, but rarely venerable. To the credit of director Martin Campbell, his second unit director, Alexander Witt, and editor Stuart Baird, Casino Royale‘s Madagascar sequence feels as tightly-constructed as action films get, a perfectly-paced series of inhalations and exhalations that maintains a clear sense of geography over a complex environment.

That environment gets an appropriately Bondian introduction by way of a mongoose/cobra fight that feels like it could have come straight from Ian Fleming. There sadly isn’t much travelogue in the Bond films these days–the films’ pacing has become too aggressive to allow for it–so there is a tendency in the recent films to establish some colorful details up-front and rely on them to suggest the exoticism that the Bond films once wallowed in. Given that the rest of this sequence will reduce “Madagascar” (a combination of on-location shooting in the Bahamas and some backlot material) to some slums, a construction site (admittedly set against a strikingly-blue ocean), and a run-down embassy, this touch is appreciated.

Classic “movie Bond” might have strolled into this slum looking somewhat out of place (perhaps Roger Moore’s Bond might have even pulled out that safari suit he sported in Octopussy), but Casino Royale‘s Bond attempts to blend in with apparel that could have been borrowed from Jason Bourne’s wardrobe. As ever, though, Bond still sports an expensive watch, a visible hint of Bond’s taste for the finer things in life. (Costume designer Lindy Hemming gradually introduces the formal attire we associate with Bond throughout the film, building up to the ostentatious three-piece suit that punctuates the final scene.)

I noted the importance of body language to Craig’s performance, and just look at how great he looks during these introductory moments, leaning back against the wall like some immovable tree trunk, only to spring into action when things take a turn for the worse.

Casino Royale routinely juxtaposes Bond’s skill with his impatient hot-headedness. This supports the “Bond begins” arc of the film, but will also end up being maintained in subsequent installments (Craig’s Bond grows up a bit, but he will always be something of a blunt instrument and a rebel). This tense exchange with Carter is the first clear story beat to play with the idea (though, as my friend Jack Rodgers suggested to me, the first true example might be said to occur in the pre-title sequence, when Bond initially fails to drown his target and thus puts himself at risk of being shot). Carter’s exaggerated incompetence contrasts with Bond’s control, but Bond will break his cool soon enough.

Mollaka, who we’re told is a bomb-maker, is the first of a series of relatively-forgettable lower-level assassins and middle-men that we’re going to be introduced to in these early chapters of Casino Royale. In classic Bond fashion, Casino Royale‘s terrorists aren’t ideological. They’re opportunists, scrubbed of real-world specificity. In the Bond films, evil is generally a matter of sinister, shadowy economics. Bond even muses aloud about whether or not this bomb-maker has insurance.

Mollaka’s scarred face, a standard-issue villain disfigurement, does little to distinguish him in the pantheon of Bond henchmen, but the character has the benefit of being played by Sébastien Foucan. Foucan, a practitioner of parkour, brings his own dazzling brand of stuntwork to the sequence. A film couldn’t ask for a better special effect than Foucan’s effortless and fluid contortions as he leaps from obstacle to obstacle.

Craig is, by some measure, the most physical Bond (again, the influence of the Bourne films–Bond is now not just an adequate brawler, but a masterful close-quarters fighter), and he’ll weather some tumbles that should maim or kill him. To keep Bond from coming across as too invincible, the Madagascar sequence keeps him consistently in the position of underdog. Mollaka will make find a shockingly-elegant way around some obstacle and Bond will be forced to quickly improvise in a messy-but-efficient way. There is no better demonstration of Bond’s problem-solving approach than when Mollaka gracefully slips through a small vent, and then, to pursue him, Bond throws himself full-force through drywall.

Craig’s Bond lightens up a bit in the later installments as the films attempt to bring in more of the “classic” Bond sensibility, but here, he has no time for witticism. He’s too focused on his prey. (An earlier version of the chase gave Bond a brief callback to iconic Bond dialogue. When Mollaka tries to shoot him on the crane, Bond was going to utter a variation on Dr. No‘s “You’ve had your six,” but this was cut from the film. I suspect this is the reason for the slightly-strange edit during this beat.)

Bond’s single-mindedness reaches its peak when Bond causes an international incident by infiltrating the embassy of the fictional nation of “Nambutu” in order to obtain his target. There’s a note of old-fashioned imperialism in the way Bond’s intrusion lays waste to the embassy, even if this incident is used as the movie’s most dramatic illustration of Bond’s recklessness (note that M later chastises Bond for causing a major political incident, not for any collateral damage left in his wake). Additionally, the rebuke Bond earns for his actions here is somewhat weakened by the implicit validation the story gives him by rewarding him with valuable intelligence.

That intelligence, a consolation prize Bond receives after he abandons his initial goal of taking Mollaka alive, comes in the form of a text message with the word “ELLIPSIS” (a word presumably chosen by the screenwriters because it sounds vaguely mysterious). Thus begins Casino Royale‘s awkward relationship with technology, which, thanks to product placement, only exists in the form of conspicuously-branded Sony products. The subplot begun here becomes a fantastic example of the narrative over-complication that plagues all of the Craig Bond films.