The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IX

Following Casino Royale‘s narrative reset, the film settles into a relaxed groove where narrative urgency doesn’t overwhelm these sequences of beautiful people talking and eating in beautiful locations. This rhythm hearkens back to the Fleming novels, which are largely structured around meals in exotic locations and the conversation that accompanies them. Casino Royale‘s “Montenegro”–actually the Czech Republic–is generally attractive, but lacks any true distinguishing features. If we can’t have the exotic, at least we get the luxurious. Following Casino Royale, the Craig films will never again return to this pleasurable tempo, opting instead for the more propulsive feel that came to mark the Brosnan films (and, to an extent, the Dalton films before them).

Bond and Vesper’s primary mode of interaction, extending from their first meeting, remains feisty banter that contrasts their personalities and agendas. In this case of “opposites attract,” both characters somewhat represents the other’s idea of an enemy; for Vesper, Bond embodies the sexist, egotistical, reckless sort of masculinity she’s spent her career struggling against, and, for Bond, Vesper models the bureaucratic control Bond loathes coupled with controlled, powerful femininity.

Bond and Vesper’s “religion” exchange in the cab strikes the right balance of clever and playful, but Bond teasing Vesper about her codename being “Stephanie Broadchest” plays less well. This nod/send-up of the franchise’s penchant for outrageous female character names feels a bit too crass and blunt for this Bond, even taking his impish streak into account. This exchange does, however, reinforce Craig’s Bond’s abhorrence for codenames.

So when Bond and Vesper check into the hotel, he defiantly chucks aside all pretense of cover story. Craig’s Bond prefers to play the spy game as a clearly-defined match between himself and his foe, having little time for what he perceives to be half-hearted subterfuge that amounts to mere pageantry. We’ll see Craig’s Bond do this again and again in the ensuing films, even as a seasoned agent.

Bond’s car gets another upgrade: now MI6 gifts him with a gadget-equipped Aston Martin DBS V12. The in-story justification is that he requires an expensive car to reinforce his backstory as a high-stakes poker player, and the DBS also serves as a vessel for smuggling in his firearm across national borders (which Bond subsequently stores with the hotel desk clerk for easy access later, a clever touch showcasing Bond’s resourcefulness).

Bond and Vesper take the Aston for a spin to rendezvous with René Mathis, a charming character who is somewhat ill-used by this film and is downright abused by its follow-up, Quantum of Solace. Mathis recalls those seasoned, world-weary allies like From Russia with Love‘s Kerim Bey, allies who are largely exposition-machines given a bit of local color and the demeanor of a energetic uncle. Mathis’ first scene, in which he demonstrates his resourcefulness by having the local chief of police (Bond producer Michael G. Wilson, in his traditional cameo appearance) framed and arrested, may be his best; for the bulk of the film, he’ll be reduced to over-describing the events of the poker game for the audience’s benefit. But here, he has a sparkle in his eye as he gets to show off his own expertise.

In preparation for the big game, Bond surprises Vesper with a dress, stating that he wants to use her as a visual distraction for the other players in the game. But Bond becomes somewhat indignant when he finds that Vesper has pulled the same move on him, providing him with a chic dinner jacket, noting that his own dinner jacket simply isn’t fine enough to make him look like a millionaire. (The film leaves how Vesper was able to have the jacket tailored something of a mystery. I have always imagined that Vesper requested Bond’s measurements from MI6.)

This plays into a few major strands of the Craig-era’s interpretation of the character: the “working class” streak that we’ve seen the film toy with in the preceding scenes, as well as his place as the films’ primary aesthetic object. The film lingers on Bond as he models the Brioni dinner jacket for the first time, finally clad in the character’s iconic attire. Vesper laughs, a declaration of her own triumph. Bond accepts the light rebuke. He knows he’s been bested. Indeed, Bond looks terrific as he strides into the casino with a panther-like gait that recalls Connery’s own unique form of movement.

He’s utterly unfazed by his first meeting with Le Chiffre, who greets him with the uneasy warmth of a gladiator greeting another before a tournament. Craig and Mikkelsen anchor all of the card-playing drama that follows, and director Martin Campbell and editor Stuart Baird do a truly wonderful job of simply building moments and exchanges just out of their expressions and gestures, constructing a rivalry that peaks during the film’s memorably nasty and intimate torture scene.

Vesper’s entrance interrupts the game. She wears the dress Bond purchased for her, but she’s unwilling to enter on his terms, choosing instead to be a distraction to Bond rather than the players at the table. Having reveled in the pleasure of seeing Bond’s physique framed by black-tie attire, the film now observes Vesper in her striking dress. Bond’s open-mouth gape as she enters serves as a sharp example of Craig’s under-celebrated ability to create comedy out of facial expression, something he plays with in all of these scenes where he is repeatedly challenged, frustrated, and enchanted by Vesper.

Shortly after Vesper’s entrance, Bond effectively halts the game to order his martini, a recipe taken straight from the Fleming novel (an unforgivingly hard blend of vodka and gin only slightly softened by Lillet Blanc). It’s yet another bit of distraction, as well as a declaration of Bond’s own personal affectations. As much as the moment showcases Bond’s character, the bit I always remember most belongs to Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter, whose “keep the fruit” achieves a sublime mixture of preposterousness and coolness (more about Wright’s wonderful Leiter later).

So far, Casino Royale has largely let Vesper have the last word in her prickly interactions with Bond so far. As Bond collects his martini, Vesper chides him for losing so much money so quickly. Bond reveals that he’s been playing strategically; he lost big on the latest hand to identify Le Chiffre’s “tell,” an eye-twitch that shows that Le Chiffre’s bluffing. He walks away and she samples Bond’s martini, entertaining the possibility that Bond might actually know a thing or two.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VIII

James Bond, released from the custody of the Miami police, disembarks from a helicopter at Dimitrios’ villa and stumbles upon an unexpected, gruesome sight: the body of Solange, tangled in a hammock.

M twists the knife:

“Quite the body count you’re stacking up. She was tortured first.”

Whether M is scolding him or testing him remains unclear. This same ambiguity will trickle over into Skyfall.

At any rate, Bond does not take it well. The camera creeps in on Bond’s face, allowing us to scrutinize Bond’s discomfort. Bond looks away as he nakedly lies to M about how much he had told Solange. Bond exposed himself, and, in his hunt for the villains, has now become indirectly responsible for the death of an innocent.

The Craig films are uniquely preoccupied with the death of women. In Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall, a grand total of five women die through their association with Bond. This trope becomes something of a crutch for the film cycle–indeed, Quantum of Solace will wholesale rehash Casino Royale‘s narrative beat with Solange, with similar chastisement for M–but it also creates this sense that Craig’s Bond, insofar as he remains 007, remains trapped in a repetitive cycle. He’s a variation on Scottie Ferguson from Vertigo: a man perpetually losing women who are really all the same woman. Spectre will release Bond from this cycle.

So it is fitting that this midpoint of Casino Royale, in which the film focuses on the character’s central dilemma, takes the form of two back-to-back conversations with the two most significant women of the Craig era, Judi Dench’s M and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Each, in turn, puts Bond under the microscope, confirming just who this Bond is, and beginning to investigate just who he might become. Both of these women will pull him in different directions.

The Craig era does not indulge the classic structure of Bond films insofar as the standard-issue “mission briefing” trope is concerned. This standard-issue Bond formula component still appears, but it is always repositioned or reworked. This sequence at Dimitrios’ villa, excluding the Solange bookends, may be the closest the Craig films come to giving us the standard-issue exposition dumps that characterize the traditional M/Bond briefing scenes.

M portrays Le Chiffre as a schemer who made a fortune on 9/11, painting him as a War on Terror profiteer (there was additional dialogue cut from the scene that took this to even further lengths). Bond’s thinks that M merely wants Le Chiffre dead (“Do you want a clean kill, or do you want to send a message?”), again underlining his short-sightedness. Bond thinks of himself only as a killer. M wants information.

When Bond suggests that M knew that Bond wouldn’t let the case go, M replies:

“I knew you were you.”

This ambiguous statement qualifies, on one level, as “trailer dialogue” (as previously noted, dialogue designed more to sound significant rather than have any real meaning), and M certainly has already delivered her share of it in Casino Royale. Nevertheless, this serves as a fitting expression of M’s caginess. She refuses to let Bond see what she genuinely thinks about him. It’s a power play and a kind of self-preservation; she needs to always be able to see Bond as a pawn, not as a friend.

The primary cinematic reference point for Bond and Vesper’s meeting on the train is Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and if Casino Royale‘s dialogue doesn’t achieve that same elegance, the chemistry between its leads is still tremendously strong and elevates the sequence. On the page, Vesper’s part is rather thin; Casino Royale reduces her relationship with Bond to a series of clear bullet point scenes rather than anything more organic. Eva Green, who is often among the best aspects of any film in which she stars, gives Vesper an enigmatic allure beyond the script’s meager characterization.

Bond and Vesper’s initial banter works well enough (“I’m the money” up to “What looks good?”), never becoming preposterously over-stylized, and Craig and Green play off of each other well. In Fleming’s novel, Vesper is little more than a glorified secretary, but in the film, she is smartly made an official of the Treasury who has the power to deny Bond additional funds. Thus the film’s Bond/Vesper relationship unfolds as an ongoing power struggle. Bond films gesture at this sort of give/take relationship all the time, but very rarely do they give the relationship the time and attention to let that dynamic play out with any sort of narrative weight. In this regard, Casino Royale sets the high-water mark for a Bond/Bond girl relationship.

When the scene takes a leap forward in time, we find that Bond has been explaining the rules of poker to Vesper (one of many such moments in the film; the filmmakers clearly did not trust the audience to be able to track with the twists and turns of the card game). This serves as a lead-in to an absurd, but memorable, scene in which Bond and Vesper both analyze and dress-down the other using nothing but the few details they’ve observed in their brief meeting together.

Bond’s observations about Vesper are much more plausible than her observations about him. He lightly touches on her childhood (she’s an orphan, he surmises), but focuses most on how she presents herself professionally, an attractive woman trying to prove herself in a world of men. In order to give her the upper-hand, the film has Vesper making some deductive leaps that, outside of the world of Bond fantasy, seem fairly absurd; she deduces just from the way he wears his clothes some fairly detailed notions of his biography.

Vesper notes that Bond wears his suits with “disdain,” which again reinforces the “working class” streak that characterizes Craig’s Bond. Vesper speculates that this stems from Bond’s school career (at “Oxford or wherever,” she states; per Fleming, Bond attended Eton and Fettes), where he was acutely aware that he wasn’t one of the rich kids surrounding him.

That said, whatever disdain Craig has for the trappings of wealth has not prevented him from pursuing fashion. His trendy look separates him from the more subdued, classically British attire that defined Connery or Dalton, who were the embodiment of Hardy Amies’ maxim that “a man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” Craig’s Bond, with his gelled hair and snazzy designer looks (in Casino Royale, he wears Brioni, and in the following films, he wears Tom Ford), could have stepped out of a photo spread from Esquire.

The scene would be considerably better if it didn’t pause to inject gratuitous product placement in regards to Bond’s Omega Seamaster, which may be the most egregious and offensive moment of product placement in the entire Bond canon. In terms of checking-off the elements of the Bond persona (Vesper talks about his suits, his watches, his work), mentioning his interest in expensive wristwatches would have been quite enough.

In summing up Bond’s attitude to authority–he’s an orphan, and thus inclined to seek for surrogate parents in the form of “Queen and Country”–Vesper effectively summarizes what will become the foundation of the Craig-Bond character. The Craig era concerns itself primarily with “Bond the orphan,” repeatedly turning to the question of Bond’s origins and familial drama. The dominant question of the Craig era is whether or not this damaged Bond can break away from the surrogate family structure he has found in MI6 and create a new, genuine family.

Bond’s smirk after Vesper exits never fails to make me smile. The element that best sells Bond’s attraction to Vesper is that Bond just seems to be having so much damn fun when they’re together. We’re having fun, too.

Alien: Covenant

Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the iconic beast that serves as the series’ distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s Alien 3, the creature’s antics became perfunctory, the beast having been thoroughly demystified by overfamiliarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the creature has become so rote that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to assuage the audience’s impatience with it; the creature’s gestation and growth now seems to unfold within a matter of minutes.

Little wonder that the many of the Alien sequels have tried to find ways to divert focus away from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never featured the alien at all, only gesturing at it through the appearance of its distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focal point: an android by way of Frankenstein’s monster.

This android, Michael Fassbender’s David, also stands at the center of Covenant, and has now evolved into a mad artist-cum-scientist out to use humanity as raw material for his sinister creative projects. David proves to be much more frightening 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). David also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings are sketched using dotted lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the peculiar insanity that motivates David’s attempts to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation. Covenant keenly accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter (also portrayed by Fassbender), who is both David’s mirror image and his foil.

Covenant displays many other admirable touches, from a natural Böcklin painting recreation to smart allusions to Wagnerian opera. Covenant offers striking 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 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 suited for the blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the meticulous sense for geography, of setup and payoff, required for thrilling action spectacle. The larger setpieces in Covenant (which often rehash iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory, so listless, that it renders the sequence inert.

Scott has been open about his intention to make more films in this series, and 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 with the Miami airport setpiece, and the film subsequently resets and transitions into a glamorous spy thriller built on the skeleton of the Ian Fleming source material.

This 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 how Bond previously scolded 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 a 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 emphasizes 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. It 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 his 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 with 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.

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, its fixation 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 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 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 theme 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, which are 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 the spectacle 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 explicit 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 bored and somewhat out of place). This carries through into Lazenby’s relatively rugged air, too (Lazenby notably 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. 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 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.