The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part I

Casino Royale was the first Bond novel written by Ian Fleming, but it became 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.

The Bond films are generally haphazard in regards to continuity, and here they hold 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. At any rate, Dench’s M is not yet in the picture when Casino Royale starts.

Casino Royale opens and concludes so confidently, so defiantly, that it is easy to forget 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 glimpse of snowy Prague.

This feels a bit more Le Carré than Fleming, a tonal shift that sets the stage for the Craig era. If the Craig era starts 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.

If this opening sequence sets 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 badass. 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 pretty cool. Back in 2006, Bond had not seemed this cool in a while. 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. This 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, whose Bomd generally moves more like a model than a human being, is the first one who really feels like he’s been placed in poses to maximize his own Bond-ness. Craig’s body language is more 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.

There’s also 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) makes a further leap into Le Carré-ian grime, witb 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. It drains the moment of escapist appeal so that the violence loses the veneer 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 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 of a cipher–but the ugliness of the moment still has time to settle, leaving some existentialism to hang in the air. Someone was here, but is here no longer. If Craig’s Bond truly feels anything at this moment, he 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 a nice flourish 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 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 we linger, because here comes the the famous gunbarrel logo, now given an origin story. It’s Bond’s first kill. The spin-and-turn into Bond’s “gunshot” pose here is more ferocious than that 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.

The Facts of Death: Introduction

“I never left.”
~ James Bond, Quantum of Solace

Over the past few months, the rumors have been flying: after a few years of great uncertainty about the state of the Bond film series, it appears that Daniel Craig will be back as James Bond for one final adventure, capping the journey the character began in 2006’s series reset, Casino Royale.

As a devotee of the Bond film series, I intend to spend the next few months writing this series–which I have entitled “The Facts of Death,” borrowing its title from the Raymond Benson novel of the same name–by taking a very deep dive into the complexities of Daniel Craig’s four existing cinematic ventures as James Bond (Casino RoyaleQuantum of SolaceSkyfall, and Spectre). These four films are strikingly consistent, if not in aesthetics or tone or entertainment value, then in their underlying thematic ambiguities and general ambivalence about the place of this icon in the world of the 21st century. I hope to make a persuasive case that these are genuinely interesting, odd movies, even when they are at their very worst.

So to you, dear reader, I raise my vodka martini. Here’s to the blondest of Bonds!