A Unified Theory of the Daniel Craig Bond Films

Due to other commitments, my ongoing “Facts of Death” series, in which I laboriously examine the four existing James Bond films that feature Daniel Craig as the deadly spy, is on hold for the foreseeable future. However, seeing as production on Bond 25 (its official title is yet to be determined) is underway with a planned release in April 2020, I wanted to share with you my reading of the overarching trajectory of the Daniel Craig era to date.

For all of its fluctuations in tone and aesthetics, the Daniel Craig films have a fairly consistent sense of its protagonist’s psychological crises and construct a relatively consistent dramatic and thematic arc around it. The fundamental concern at the heart of the Daniel Craig Bond films is the notion of family, or, rather, the lack of it. In these films, “James Bond” is not a stable identity but a kind of constructed persona adopted by a man in a state of psychological and emotional turmoil, and the films dramatize its protagonist’s attempts to reconcile himself to himself.

In Casino Royale, we meet James Bond, one of the many “maladjusted young men” with a death wish swept up into the secret service to give his life on behalf of his country. An orphan with great ambivalence about authority and mistrust of personal relationship, Bond relies on MI6 as a surrogate family. Judi Dench’s M serves as the pivotal mother figure that he both rebels against and whom he seeks to impress. In the course of Casino Royale, Bond meets Vesper Lynd and contemplates abandoning his surrogate family to establish a life with her, and then recoils when that possibility is taken from him.

Quantum of Solace deals with the aftershocks of that loss, and over the course of that adventure, Bond meets his double, Camille. She, too, has lost her family. Together, they wander a family-less wilderness of grief and violence, and neither is able to wholly reconcile themselves to it or to each other. At the climax of Quantum of Solace, they find that the pain is too great to allow them to build a connection (family) with one another, and so Bond reintegrates himself with his surrogate MI6 family and once again submits to his “mother,” M.

Skyfall finds Bond questioning his submission to that surrogate family as, following a perceived betrayal at the hands of his “mother,” he becomes entangled in a battle with one of M’s previous surrogate sons. The course of the battle forces him to revisit the formative trauma of his youth, the death of his parents, which bleeds over into the battle of the present. He defeats his “sibling” and proves himself to be the “true” son, but the battle still costs him his mother.

Not unlike how Quantum of Solace traced the shockwaves of trauma from Bond’s loss of Vesper, Spectre follows where Skyfall left off, depicting Bond as grappling with the loss of M and the subsequent corruption of the secret service in her absence. Bond pursues her last wish as he hunts down the mysterious organization that orchestrated her demise. That quest for answers brings Bond into contact with another person in need of a family (“orphan” Madeleine Swann falls in love with Bond in part because he is a representation of her father) and brings him face to face with his archnemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Here, Blofeld is quite literally made into a sibling for Bond, a kind of onetime brother for the young, traumatized Bond, who, perceiving Bond as a rival, effectively orphaned himself and attempted to create himself anew. Having reconstructed his own origin story, this Blofeld overtly relishes the opportunity to rob Bond of any possibility of establishing a new family with Madeleine. At the end of Spectre, Bond triumphs over Blofeld by abandoning the role of state-sponsored assassin, leaving his surrogate MI6 family to build a new life with Madeleine.

Where Bond 25 proceeds from here, who knows? What little we know about Bond 25 suggests that his tranquil retirement with Madeleine will be short-lived. But, given the trajectory so far, I have a suggestion: if Bond 25 is to continue this arc, might it not make sense to see Bond become a parent? This has some level of precedent in the source material; Bond fathered a child in Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, although Bond was unaware that his child existed.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIV

Thus we arrive at the closing moments of Casino Royale, in which Craig’s Bond fully embalms himself in the armor of his constructed persona, and steps out into the world to confront sinister villainy as a state-employed thug in elegant attire.

Even though the ending of Casino Royale was always intended to function as a gateway to the sequel (the initial versions of which were being written by Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as Casino Royale was filming), Casino Royale‘s ending feels less like a cliffhanger than it does the completion of the film’s arc. This is certainly how director Martin Campbell felt, who declined to return for its successor due to a feeling that a sequel would not add much to his work on Casino Royale. Still, Quantum of SolaceSkyfall, and Spectre will each, in their own way, see this finale as a kind of pause rather than a full statement. The Craig era exists in a constant push-and-pull wherein Bond’s identity is asserted and subsequently challenged.

The conversation with M consists of an embarrassing amount of exposition, most of which serves to clear up the mystery surrounding Vesper’s motivations. These motivations have been relatively obscure and clumsily dramatized, and will still remain a bit hazy after this conversation (this murkiness surrounding Vesper’s motivations, and her boyfriend, provides Quantum of Solace with its foundation). M’s comments to Bond contain much supposition along with the few facts she provides. If this conversation achieves anything dramatically, it is to refocus the film around Bond’s relationship to M, who chastises Bond for being coldhearted while also knowing that she needs him to be exactly who he is in order for him to be useful to her and the state she serves.

The conversation does not serve Craig’s Bond especially well, reducing him to a grim-faced listener. The film tosses away the iconic, nasty closing line of Fleming’s novel, suggesting that it is included more out of obligation to the source novel rather than out of clear dramatic purpose. In Fleming’s novel, it was a searing final exclamation mark in the hardboiled tradition, a blast of misogyny that extended from Bond’s wounded masculinity. Here, it is stated and then subsequently challenged, overwhelmed by M’s musings.

Vesper’s cell phone enables Bond to track down Mr. White. It’s suggested this was her intention all along. Mr. White is clearly somewhat negligent when it comes to the use of cell phone tech. Giving Vesper his personal number and retains the same phone after this affair is concluded. You’d think he would at least have the same sense as a low-class criminal and use a burner.

The finale, staged at Mr. White’s beautiful lakeside villa, concludes Bond’s character arc by showing that he has been absorbed by the character’s iconography. The sequence serves as a purpose statement for Bond: he’s the killer who brings violence wherever he goes, hunting down the criminal elements that cloak themselves in luxury and wealth.

Bond sports an atypically rakish outfit. Given that the dinner jacket was already presented mid-picture, costume designer Lindy Hemming was tasked with effectively created a Bond outfit that could out-Bond the dinner jacket, and she settled on the three-piece suit, which nods back to Connery’s attire in Goldfinger. Where Connery’s gray suit was tasteful, Craig’s is ostentatious. This pinstriped suit is not the suit of a gentleman educated in “Oxford or wherever,” to borrow Vesper’s words, but the suit of a hoodlum. The gangster-ish effect of the outfit is further magnified by Bond’s choice of weapon, which might as well be a Tommy gun.

His smug delivery of the “Bond, James Bond” line rings out both loud and hollow. This is, as Fleming once described him, the man who is only a silhouette. Death will follow in his wake. Cue, for the first time, the James Bond theme.

The Facts of Death: Quantum of Solace, Part I

Quantum of Solace derives its peculiar title from Ian Fleming’s short story of the same name. In the Fleming story (which bears no relationship to the film), it refers to the minimal amount of comfort two people need to find in one another to preserve a healthy romantic relationship. In this film, it speaks to what Bond needs to find in the wake of Vesper’s death, while also (nonsensically) alluding to the name of the villainous organization that drove her to suicide. The title was chosen very late into production; screenwriter Paul Haggis’ proposed title was Sleep of the Dead.

As noted earlier, Casino Royale was always envisioned as being the first part of a two-film arc, and while the sequel was subject to many frantic rewrites that shifted the emphasis of the sequel, the majority of Quantum‘s components can be traced back to that original story outline. Quantum of Solace was always intended to pick up shortly after Casino Royale ended off, allowing the audience to see the aftermath of Bond’s confrontation with Mr. White.

Casino Royale ends with a blast of triumphant iconography, and Quantum of Solace immediately seeks to undermine that sense of Bondian bombast. Casino Royale ended with David Arnold’s robustly orchestrated version of the Bond theme, but Quantum of Solace opens instead with ominous underscore. The studio logos lead into the full-shot introduction, a beautiful vista of an Italian lakeside mountain (the iconic gunbarrel opening, which was given an origin story of sorts in Casino Royale, is withheld for the end credits both in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, returning to its traditional place at the beginning of the film with Spectre). The warmth that suffused Casino Royale‘s images of Italy has been drained away.

Quantum of Solace will be, in many ways, more aesthetically refined than Casino Royale was–the cinematography, the score, the production design, and costume design are generally stronger here than in Casino Royale–but the aesthetic here is fairly stark and chilly. The luxury and exoticism of the Bond series will be present, but will be pointedly juxtaposed with third-world squalor, and even when it does appear, it will rarely seem especially inviting.

As the camera sails across the water to the Italian shore, edits give us glimpses of Bond’s eye, the hood of the Aston Martin, the spin of the wheel, guns being readied. It’s a bit of atmospheric calm before the hysterical impatience of the car chase overwhelms us, and it’s one of the film’s more elegant flourishes. The car chase that follows, alas, is somewhat obnoxious, taking the frantic, dizzying editing popularized by the Greengrass Bourne films to absurd heights (both editor Rick Pearson and second unit director Dan Bradley worked on the Bourne movies before joining the Quantum team).

Bond had flirted with quick-cut editing in the 1960s, as Peter Hunt worked as an editor to develop an impressionistic action-editing style that reached its apex when he graduated to director on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Hunt’s approach to action still paid close attention to what was in the frame at any given time (indeed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its sumptuous use of widescreen shot composition). Quantum of Solace is much sloppier. The car chase has little sense of geography, and feels pasted together from shots that have no real business occurring in sequence (there’s even a preposterous cut to a shot that is, essentially, of nothing; we get the glimpse of a back-fifth of a car as it leaves the frame).

After the clean, carefully dramatized action of Casino Royale, this is something of a crushing disappointment. This frenetic onslaught of image and sound robs these action scenes of any opportunity for suspense; there’s little-to-no attention paid to geography, and it remains quite difficult to register exactly what choices are being made when and by which characters. In this regard, the car chase will not be the worst sequence in the film, but it’s still significantly more exhausting than exciting, and unfortunately squanders some very fine stuntwork.

Eagle-eyed viewers will note that Craig is actually not wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the end of Casino Royale. Taking over from Lindy Hemming, costume designer Louise Frogley decided to shift designers (the suits in Quantum of Solace, which, incidentally, are the most attractive and best-tailored suits of the Craig era, were provided by Tom Ford, whereas Casino Royale‘s suits were provided by Brioni), and instead of replicating the Brioni three-piece suit outright, she shifts to a two-piece suit with a similar color and pinstripe pattern.

Bond escapes and wheels his battered Aston Martin into Siena, Italy, and the film gives us the first appearance of one of the film’s recurring motifs: the title card for each locale lists the city’s name in a unique font, often using the architecture of the location to frame the text. It’s a clever idea, if not always well-implemented (the text is occasionally too stylized to read easily). Part of me wishes that the subsequent Craig films had made it a recurring feature of the era. The end of the pre-title sequence sequence will offer another stylistic flourish: a freeze-frame of Bond’s smug look as he tells Mr. White to get out of the boot of his car.

These touches are rooted in a fundamental dissonance that runs throughout Quantum of Solace, wants to cling to some semblance of playfulness in its approach to the material even as it gets particularly nasty and severe. The title cards are not, by themselves, too incongruous, but there are uglier displays of this dissonance. When Quantum of Solace‘s climax juxtaposes a buffoonish, impotent henchman getting his pants blown off by an explosion with an attempted rape, Quantum of Solace manages the dubious distinction of achieving a level of distastefulness that no prior Bond film had ever managed to achieve.

The title song for Quantum of Solace was originally going to be provided by Amy Winehouse, though she was unable to complete the track, and Jack White and Alica Keys were brought in to provide the Bond series’ first duet. The resulting tune, “Another Way to Die,” may not be the worst example of songwriting ever attached to a Bond film (“Another Way to Die” is oddly structured and lacks a good hook, but the camped-up lyrics, which hearken back to the Bond songs of the early 70s, are amusing enough), but, as performed, it’s nearly unlistenable. If White or Keys had sung the song in isolation, the track might have been passable, but whenever they sing together, the result is unpleasant. The underlying cause of this unpleasantness might be the poorly-implemented raw analog production more than the vocals themselves.

Composer David Arnold did not have a role in composing the theme, but after Quantum of Solace was concluded, he collaborated with lyricist Don Black, Bond veteran, to work thematic material from his score into a song for Shirley Bassey, “No Good About Goodbye.” “No Good About Goodbye” may just be a so-so pastiche, but it’s much better than “Another Way to Die,” if only because it’s performed by the great Shirley Bassey.

At Marc Forster’s request, MK12 designed the title sequence of Quantum of Solace, interrupting Daniel Kleinman’s run as the title designer since 1995’s GoldenEye (MK12 also designed the location title cards and the intricate computer interfaces used by characters throughout the film). The sequence, which features a shadowy Bond traversing an empty desert while haunted by shadowy women, lacks verve and imagination, though it offers at least one spectacular image: Bond, tumbling through space, falls through a zoetrope of female silhouettes, which circle around him like Saturn’s rings.

The title sequence’s final image is of Bond firing a bullet into a sand dune and scattering sand everywhere, which may or may not serve as an effective metaphor for Quantum of Solace‘s general imprecision and dubious trajectory.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XIII

“The big picture.”

These words, lifted from Bond’s chastisement at M’s hands earlier in the film, reverberate with a darker significance as Bond murmurs them to Le Chiffre.

The “big picture” involves more than the details of the organization that employs Le Chiffre. The “big picture” suggests the entirety of the complex web of political power in which these individuals find themselves. With greater understanding of context also comes greater understanding of self, and thus the Craig films’ trajectory pairs its investigations into the shadowy corners of the “big picture” with ever deeper dives into the shadowy corners of Bond himself.

Craig’s Bond never comes to terms with his place as a pawn of state power, even if he craves the sense of purpose that comes with it. Bond often chooses to exceed or contradict the orders of his superiors to pursue his own impulses (this trait has always been part of the Bond character from his inception, but remains more prominent for Craig’s Bond, a man perpetually revolting against himself and the world around him). At this moment, having faced near-death at the hands of Le Chiffre, Bond will reject the role of a hired assassin to pursue an uncertain future with Vesper.

Bond recovers from his ordeal at Le Chiffre’s hands in scenic Lake Como (this being a Bond film, a standard hospital simply would not do), and the film takes the lull to fix its gaze on Bond and Vesper. The scenes that unfold here are, on a writing level, some of the weakest in the film, failing to properly showcase the complexities of these characters and their doomed romance.

Nevertheless, I remain entranced by Eva Green, who, even as she has to suffer the indignity of uttering incomprehensibly strange dialogue about Bond’s little finger, remains incandescent and enigmatic. Vesper has clearly begun to fray, though Casino Royale frustratingly fails to offer moments that truly allow for Vesper’s psychological state to take center stage. Vesper may be a less complex character in Fleming’s novel, but the equivalent material there does put Vesper’s emotional disintegration front-and-center. Still, Green makes the most of these little moments she’s given, underlining the way her guilt complex plays into Vesper’s idealization of Bond. 

M will suggest later to Bond that Vesper had made a deal with Mr. White for Bond’s life, and that Vesper likely knew through these days with Bond that her death was imminent. Thus, Vesper’s escape with Bond remains, for her, an excursion into fantasy before the end of her world, and we can observe moments where the fantasy is punctured by awareness of her own mortality.

I noted before that the plotting regarding Mathis fails to satisfy. This section certainly needs some notes of anxiety and menace, but the “Is he or isn’t he a traitor?” ambiguity leads nowhere. The film flirts with Hitchcockian suspense as Mathis provides Bond with a drink that may or may not be poisoned, but the scene never draws out the suspense enough to make it register.

The visible uncertainty that Craig brings to Bond’s admission to Vesper that he doesn’t know what a real job underlines the fragility of their romance. They have constructed fantasy versions of each other, each seeking an escape from their situation, one that the real world would likely shatter even if Vesper wasn’t carrying a secret burden. Vesper fully knows that it is a fantasy, but Bond does not.

When Bond and Vesper bid goodbye in the hotel lobby in Venice, you can see that Vesper knows she’s seeing Bond for the last time, that this is the last happy moment of her life and she wants it to sustain her through whatever follows. Vesper then becomes a prop, a cipher whose motivations are left to be explained by another character in the aftermath of her demise. 

The Venice section of the film had a different structure in earlier drafts of Casino Royale, allowing her the chance to speak for herself. Originally, Vesper’s suicide preceded the action climax. Bond found Vesper dead in their hotel room, along with a video created by Vesper in which she explained her actions, and then pointed him toward Gettler and the money. 

This structure was changed by Paul Haggis, who felt that that structure squandered the emotional momentum of Vesper’s betrayal. The final version does allow Bond’s emotional state to propel the action, but the gunfire and spectacle also has the effect of overwhelming the relationship between Bond and Vesper.

The overcomplicated mechanics by which Bond learns of Vesper’s betrayal are confusing and inelegant. Bond checks Vesper’s phone as he gets a call from M about missing money, then quickly calls the banker, Mendel, who is able to see that the funds are being withdrawn from a branch nearby. After this flurry of clunky exposition and coincidence, Bond leaps into action.

I very much like the sequence as Bond trails Vesper (she wears a red dress, a nod to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now). Bond, stung by the betrayal, instinctually returns to the role of a killer as he moves with purpose through the shadowy corridors of Venice (nicely lit by Meheux).

Earlier versions of the sinking house sequence were more subdued and might have been more dramatically balanced (early drafts had Bond facing off against only Gettler, not a group of thugs, thus making it a brutal brawl more akin to the stairway fight), but, likely in order to provide a stronger action climax, it became more complicated and grand.

The sinking house in Venice reinforces classic Bond formula (a climax in a imploding space, typically a villain’s lair, is a Bond staple, and one that all of the Craig films follow). The collapse of the Venician house serves as a metaphor for the collapse of Bond’s hopes for domesticity with Vesper, hopes which were always as vulnerable as a house suspended on the water.

The unfortunate effect of placing Vesper in the midst of this action climax is that, contrary to Haggis’ intent, Vesper becomes a prop, rather than its centerpiece. Confined to an elevator, she gets little else to do but scream as the house begins to disintegrate.

Gettler, the miniboss of the Venice setpiece, has an appealing retro look. He would have perhaps benefitted from some additional setup to make his appearance here more of an event, rather than justt serving as another unestablished character like Carlos from the Miami chase, appearing only to justify the existence of an action setpiece.

The geography and number of players remains murky throughout, so what gives this sequence definition and propulsion is the spectacle of Bond cutting his way through his surroundings with unflinching viciousness. He seems more Terminator-like than ever, yanking out a nail that has been buried in his shoulder with little concern. (One touch, visible if you break the sequence down shot-by-shot, is that Bond uses his Omega as a knuckle-duster, a nod back to Ian Fleming.)

Vesper defies Bond’s attempt to save her, choosing death rather than confrontation. The horrifying sight of her drowning is much more vivid and harrowing than Fleming’s version (suicide by overdose) could possibly have been if translated faithfully to the screen, further heightening the drama by making Bond an active participant, struggling but failing to save her.

Bond pulls Vesper from the water and begins administering CPR, only to recoil when he becomes aware of his actions. Bond’s identity crisis, emblazoned on Craig’s contorted, red-eyed face, has come to a head. Bond belongs neither to the service nor to Vesper. He gives in to his grief and moves to Vesper, cradling her lifeless form.

Thus Casino Royale offers an image that will become one of the recurrent motifs of the Craig era, appearing in Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall: Bond holding the body of someone he failed to save, while a solitary witness looks on.

Here, the onlooker is Mr. White.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XII

Dinner scenes have traditionally been a staple of the Bond formula, though they have dissipated with time as the series has come to privilege the spectacle of action over the spectacle of sensuality. Even during extended dinner scenes, films, for both practical and aesthetic considerations, tend to deny viewers the spectacles of stars chewing. Not so here. While enjoying caviar on a cracker, Craig’s Bond chews and talks with his mouth full. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films, as we have noted, presented Bond as a manicured image, and the Craig films have carried on a similar preoccupation with posture and presentation. The difference lies in the way that the Craig films sustain and frequently highlight the tension between the image and the man.

This moment of Bond consuming food, in all of its human awkwardness, coincides with a nice bit of banter between Bond and Vesper in which Bond’s constructed image briefly slips away. Bond attempts to charm Vesper through a manufactured line only to provoke her laughter. Bond, deflated, becomes sheepish and awkward: “I thought it was a good line.” Vesper clarifies that she wasn’t laughing in derision, but pleasure: “It was a very good line.” How easily, though, Craig’s Bond returns to his performance just a few moments later. Vesper asks him, “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” He responds, with typical deflection, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.”

Bond takes notice of Vesper’s Algerian love knot necklace, which will become an object of greater scrutiny in Quantum of Solace. This necklace was given slightly more attention in earlier drafts of Casino Royale as a clear set-up for the sequel, in which Bond was always intended to find Vesper’s Algerian boyfriend (Casino Royale was conceived and approached as a two-film enterprise, though the planned narrative emphasis for Quantum of Solace evolved during that film’s production). The necklace is a beautiful, expressive prop, a kind of leash for Vesper, but, also, in its spiral motif, a kind of callback to Vertigo.

The awkward, vague mechanics by which Bond suspects that Mathis is working for Le Chiffre set up a hazy, unfulfilling narrative trajectory in which Mathis’ ultimate allegiance remains ambiguous (though M hints that he’s innocent, and Quantum of Solace carries that thread and fully exonerates him). The moment where Le Chiffre suggests that Mathis is on his side stands out as some especially clunky signposting, as though the filmmakers were aware that Bond’s exclamation of Mathis’ name at the dinner table was a moment of profoundly weak dramatization and desperately needed some reinforcement.

Bond’s pursuit of Vesper, which builds momentum and then jarringly cuts things short with an astonishing, disruptive stunt, makes a spectacle of Bond’s failure. The destruction of Bond’s car, a glittering, expensive Aston Martin, serves as a keen visual introduction to the torture sequence that follows. Bond’s fleeting victory at the casino now gives way to emasculation and near-castration.

Casino Royale does not wholly commit to the wanton sadism of the sequence from Fleming’s novel, but it nevertheless feels like an astonishing break from anything that preceded it in the film franchise (even the savagery of Licence to Kill feels somewhat tame when compared to Casino Royale‘s torture scene). Looking back, there’s something astonishing about the way in which Casino Royale skated by with a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers did try to stack the deck in their favor by leavening the scene with some humor, even if it is of a very dark, nasty stripe, and were seemingly successful (when I saw Casino Royale in theaters back in 2006, this scene got the biggest laughs of any scene in the movie).

The sequence remains stark, fixated on the human body and the mechanics of torture (here, Le Chiffre’s implement for inflicting pain is a thick piece of rope, which allows for the camera to capture its horrifying sway; Fleming’s novel had Le Chiffre using a carpet beater, undoubtedly a less cinematic implement). Phil Meheux’s cinematography casts everything in shadows, the orange tones of sweaty, shiny flesh standing out against the dark background. Craig’s imposing physique has been the subject of the camera’s attention before, but where he seemed imposing before, his form now seems fragile and impotent.

The undercurrent of homoeroticism in Le Chiffre’s attention to Bond here (“You’ve taken good care of your body,” as well as his final vulgar threat to Bond) establishes a kind of precedent for Craig Bond villains, who are consistently presented with a kind of ambivalent sexuality. That Bond has been typically positioned as the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy juxtaposed against villains who are coded as homosexual or somewhat deficiently masculine is hardly a novel observation. Indeed, that dynamic hardly originates with Bond. Pulp storytelling, as a default position, often reinforces masculine fantasy. But the dynamics of desire are always somewhat slippery, and therefore pulp storytelling is also the arena in which cultural notions begin to fracture and self-implode. With Craig’s tenure as Bond, Bond’s default position in this schematic feels less fixed than ever before.

Craig’s Bond does his best to maintain his sense of masculine ego, egging Le Chiffre on and then attempting to humiliate him with a scatalogical put-down when Le Chiffre tries to confirm his position of power and control. The scene, as written, leaves a lot to be desired (Mikkelsen and Craig are both to be credited with cutting through some of the exposition here), but Craig invests it all with such ferocity and haunting despair that it achieves greatness. The moment that leaves the greatest impression are those seconds where Bond’s strained laughter gives way to shudders and sobs, his bravado crumbling before our eyes.

Le Chiffre tells him that he and Vesper are expendable, and Bond registers Le Chiffre’s words as truth. Bond’s only possible victory over his opponent lies in willful resignation, in his refusal to yield even in the face of brutal death. This is the path Bond takes. But Bond and Le Chiffre are not the only people playing the game.

 

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XI

The Craig era’s extraordinary ambivalence about the James Bond character manifests itself in the way it routinely denies Bond the clear victories that his predecessors often enjoyed. The Craig era predominantly offers narratives of loss and failure. Consider how Craig’s Bond does not earn the traditional “Bond and a girl” finale until he quits the secret service at the end of Spectre. His only true victory can be escaping himself.

In this section of Casino Royale, Bond meets with his first unqualified failure and responds with suicidal petulance. Bond’s underlying pathology is such that failure is unbearable to him; it shatters his constructed self and forces him to confront the void within. We’ll see similar kinds of death-wish responses in Quantum of Solace, wherein Bond’s loss of Vesper sends Bond careering out of control, as well as in Skyfall, where a failed mission sends Bond on a bad bender.

Bond masks his profound psychological instability with calm reserve and impeccable attire, and the morning after his fight with Obanno, Bond seems to be his typically collected self as he and Mathis converse on the hotel balcony. Mathis impishly prods Bond about Vesper. Bond gives no quarter.

Giancarlo Giannini again proves that he’s one of the film’s most welcome presences. Here, Giannini’s Mathis once again proves to be a keen improviser. He’s used the bodies Bond hid in the stairwell to strip away some of Le Chiffre’s resources by framing one of Le Chiffre’s henchmen.

It’s a shame that this essential intelligence is nowhere in evidence when Mathis is reduced to a spectator during the card game, dumbly narrating the beats of the game for the audience. Bond’s loss at Le Chiffre’s hands would be so much better if it wasn’t accompanied by heavy signposting about Le Chiffre’s “tell.”

First time viewers don’t know this yet, but it’s clear by the end that Vesper sets Bond up for failure, enabling Le Chiffre to provoke Bond into an overconfident maneuver that strips him of all of his assets. This lends her confrontation with Bond some complexity, and it’s a strong scene for Green. It’s a weaker scene for Craig. The “bloody idiot” line feels much too scripted for its own good and Craig is forced to stumble over it.

He’s much better in the moment that follows, where Bond snaps “Do I look like I give a damn?” to a bartender who asks him whether he wants his martini shaken or stirred. It’s a gag about Bond history, but also a significant character statement. Previous Bonds were defined by their unwavering sense of taste, but Craig’s Bond wears all the accoutrements of luxury as an adopted persona that he quickly discards when caught in the grip of an identity crisis (see also his extended bender at the beginning of Skyfall). When this Bond is humiliated and confused, he just wants to get trashed.

Blinded by rage, Bond grabs a steak knife off of a table and rushes to kill Le Chiffre. If he can’t win the poker game, he’ll assuage his ego by defeating Le Chiffre with brute force, even if it costs him his life.

Irresistibly cool CIA agent Felix Leiter stops Bond and offers him a less dangerous road to victory. Jeffrey Wright’s Leiter gets such a promising introduction in Casino Royale, an ally whose cooler head balances out Bond’s hotter temperament. Alas, that potential is never quite fulfilled in these movies, but Wright still makes the most of his material.

Bond returns to the game with renewed confidence, much to Vesper’s surprise and Le Chiffre’s dismay. In a last-ditch move to dispatch Bond, Valenka poisons Bond’s martini, forcing Bond to stumble out of the game.

The poisoning serves as a loose analogue to a suspenseful section of Fleming’s novel involving a gun disguised as a cane. Even if some of the sequence’s grace notes (like Bond inducing vomiting by swallowing a lot of salt) are clever, it’s all a bit ridiculous.

Bond has a convenient medical pack in his car, including a self-defibrillator, and establishes a link to MI6’s medical team. M and the MI6 crew watch on via computer monitors as Bond hovers near death, issuing instructions to Bond about how to prevent death. Bond is ultimately saved via Vesper-ex-machina; he falls unconscious before he can activate the defibrillator, only for Vesper to stumble upon him. She (improbably) knows exactly what to do to save his life.

It’s clearly meant to balance the Bond/Vesper relationship, but as a result of the sequence’s awkwardness, it doesn’t connect on a dramatic level. Bond’s unflabbable resolve to return for the game is good for a chuckle, though, as is Vesper’s flabbergasted response.

Bond’s return to the game gives us a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand nearly killed me”), a Connery-style line that Craig delivers with Dalton-style intensity. Craig’s Bond so often feels distinct from the previous Bonds, but in this moment he does seems to exist on a continuum with his predecessors.

As soon as the line has been delivered, Bond’s victory in the card game is assured. For anyone who knows poker, the final hand seems absurdly overdramatized. That said, the climactic poker hand allegedly replicates an actual poker hand that occurred while the film’s creative team was playing poker to learn the rules, so perhaps my complaint is baseless.

Having won the day, Bond’s first thought is of a celebratory dinner. “You were almost dead an hour ago,” Vesper reminds him. Bond doesn’t acknowledge her remark. Bond’s enduring appeal as a fantasy figure lies in his flippant attitude toward death. Even here, where Bond’s bravado is so directly rooted in a kind of madness, it’s impossible to deny its allure.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part X

The high-stakes poker game has only just begun, but now Casino Royale takes a break from the card table. Somewhat burdened by blockbuster expectations–the days in which Bond could deliver a low-key, relaxed thriller like From Russia with Love now firmly in the series’ rear-view mirror–Casino Royale never lingers too long on the card game itself. Accordingly, this film adaptation of Casino Royale fails to capture sonething of the atmosphere that Fleming’s novel conjured up with its memorable opening lines:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling–a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension–becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.”

Of course, Fleming knew he couldn’t sustain his thriller on atmosphere alone, and threw in some narrative devices to heighten the suspense (including a failed bomb attempt, and a tense moment involving a gun disguised as a cane). Fleming’s devices are more subdued and better-integrated into the game itself than the film’s equivalent sequences. To the film’s credit, this next action beat serves as an indispensable component of the film’s structure, and proves to be one of the defining sequences of the entire Daniel Craig era.

With the help of Mathis, Bond bugs Le Chiffre’s inhaler, grabs Vesper, and collects his gun from the front desk. Bond’s intent here remains very vague, but Bond clearly intends to use Vesper to maintain a viable alibi for whatever follows.

Surprising both Le Chiffre and Bond, Obanno has arrived to threaten Le Chiffre and recover his money. Never before has a Bond film so thoroughly humiliated its primary antagonist as Casino Royale humiliates Le Chiffre here, and it’s a credit to Mikkelsen that Le Chiffre can both seem utterly out of his league against Obanno while still retaining an air of menace.

Le Chiffre’s relationship with his henchwoman/lover Valenka has a chilly air; they interact as though they’re robots. Le Chiffre certainly doesn’t care enough about her to stop Obanno from nearly mutilating her, and while Valenka seems loyal (even after Le Chiffre shows that he’s willing to sacrifice her to save his own skin), she doesn’t display any affection for Le Chiffre.

When Bond and Vesper are discovered (their cover is blown when Bond’s earpiece is spotted), they become entangled vicious close-quarters brawl in a stairwell. Just how vicious the brawl feels depends a bit on which cut of the film you’re seeing, due to minor edits that were made for the film’s theatrical release in major markets.

Casino Royale is not the first Bond film to allow a Bond girl to be distressed by the violence of Bond’s world (GoldenEye has Natalya confront Bond about it), but it is the first to suggest that this violence can result in legitimate psychological trauma. Vesper emerges from this encounter with Obanno somewhat broken by the experience. Bond doesn’t emerge unscathed, either, but he’s also a professional killer; he buries the memory with a glass of whiskey and re-emerges at the card table, exchanging barbs with Le Chiffre as though little happened. But Vesper isn’t part of Bond’s world. He finds Vesper, in a sequence seemingly inspired by Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, alone, sitting in the shower with her clothes on.

The scene was originally scripted (following after Alfredo Garcia) to feature Vesper in the nude. Eva Green smartly objected, and her argument with director Martin Campbell over the moment was settled when Craig also took her side. We’re lucky that Green won the debate, since the alternative possibility feels rather icky, particularly given the structures of masculine fantasy that undergird the Bond character and his world.

Bond joins Vesper in the shower, cleaning the imagined blood off her fingers with his mouth. It’s an awkward gesture that Craig plays awkwardly, and in its sheer strangeness and clumsy physicality it gives some weird humanity to Craig’s man-child Bond, as though he’s fumbling for a way to relate to Vesper in this moment of grief.

So Bond turns the water temperature up and together they sit beneath the spray, neither one knowing how to process the moment or its implications.