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James Bond analysis project

Some months ago, I re-watched Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace with some friends, for the first time in at least two years, and I was completely blown away, as I hadn’t been the previous times I’d watched them.

I was so impressed that I immediately bought both from iTunes and vowed that I would eventually go through them, to analyse the goals, obstacles and solutions that can be inferred simply from the shape of the story and characters that end up on the screen. So I’ll be going through them, sort of scene by scene, or whatever works. It will be long, very in-depth, and in many installments. It will likely be more organic than organized. The idea is to dissect the superb story construction demonstrated throughout both movies, and its effectiveness, and maybe to learn from it. (Probably no one is much interested in it apart from me, but if you are, I'd love any input you want to give.)

This is that attempt. There will, naturally, be spoilers for both movies throughout the whole discussion.

my own context

When I first saw Casino Royale in the theatres, I enjoyed it. I liked it a hell of a lot more than any other Bond I’d ever seen (yes, even Connery), although at the time I put that down to the shift in tone and, more importantly, it not being Pierce Bloody Brosnan smirking and smarming his way through another ludicrous plot (which, to be fair, probably wasn’t really his fault; writing and direction have to be at least as much to blame). I think I did see Quantum of Solace in the theatres too, and found it enjoyable but forgettable, especially compared to the powerhouse that was Royale. I have since revised that assessment.

In doing this, I’m working on the assumption that everything we see onscreen is the result of a creator’s decision at some point. Storytelling is a process of problem-solving, and I’m looking at the ways they decided to solve the problems to serve the story, and what story they were actually trying to tell, from what occurs onscreen. I won’t be paying much attention to behind-the-scenes stuff, promotion material, interviews, or anything else not in the actual running time. (I am prepared to research to make sure I’m accurate about what that is, though; names of characters, or the lyrics of the opening song, for example, because I’m no good at transcribing those things.)

From what I could tell, almost everything that was included in the story had at minimum two functions in it, frequently much more, which is unusually elegant and tight construction. Again – in Bond movies! I mean, what the hell? This, I had to look closer at.

the overall big themes of both movies

Apart from the ubiquitous “What story do we want to tell, and why?” problem of any movie, the Bond franchise had a number of difficulties to deal with. Between Bourne and a decidedly new era of the spy thriller genre, and the current international political climate which makes us demand more sophistication and much less silliness when it comes to such intrigue, what do you do with Bond? How do you take the quintessential cold war spy and update him, translating his trademarks so that they are resonant but still recognizable? (Because, let’s face it, Jason Bourne may be a spy for our times, but he is also practically a polar opposite, temperamentally, of the iconic Bond.)

For a start, reboot the guy. (It’s worked for everyone else.) Just start again, and pretend the rest never happened.

(Or happened to someone else; a fan theory I’ve seen mentioned being that each actor represented a new 007, the designation and cover name being handed on each time the previous agent retired. Considering Fleming wrote them as all one character, and the way the characterization and relationships with M, Q, and Moneypenny, are treated throughout the series, I appreciate the proposal but don’t buy it. Which makes this a genuine blank-slate reboot.)

Making it an origin story was brilliant. It meshed beautifully with being able to use Bond’s actual origin story of Casino Royale as its source; more importantly, it freed Writers to be able to tweak and outright change whatever they needed to from the previous series. This was absolutely necessary, considering the mess it had descended into, having tried to force the characteristics – rather than the character – of Bond into a culture which no longer has any interest in them.

Going by the character arc theory espoused by John Rogers, I understand Bond’s arc in Royale to be a genuinely transformative one. The movie’s core theme is identity (which give us the lens to interpret it through). The goal is that he become James Bond – “half monk, half hitman”, as he rephrases M’s lecture in her apartment. The transformative arc is appropriate for an origin story; by the end, he is fully-formed and set in stone, as was emphasized by the perfect placement of his trademark, “Bond. James Bond” as the last line of the movie – the first time he’s earned the use of it – followed hard by the first full use of his trademark musical theme.

This also sets up Solace (same Writers, by the way) to be a genuinely revelatory arc – that is, it’s revealed that he’s now exactly the person needed to solve the problem in the story. Bond knows who he is at this point, but the rest of the cast – with a focus on M – doesn’t, yet. The arc of Solace is basically M (and his other allies) discovering who he became in Royale. It also has to tie up the many loose threads left over from it; they are in fact the two halves of one story. Solace’s core theme is trust. The goal is that Bond proves to M that he has become who she needs him to be.

Section Chief Dryden; Bond; contact Fisher.

Bond gets his second kill and 00 status. Shot in black and white.

Scary theatrics.

Right from the off, the makers are using every element they have to hand in demonstrating their intentions for this story. Set in Prague, filmed in classy black-and-white (even the MGM and Columbia titles), acknowledging the Cold War spy thrillers the Bond series started out as.

While showing respect for the spirit of the earlier stuff, the black-and-white is distinctly old-fashioned, indicating that Bond’s original context is outdated. The production is distancing itself, in favour of the contemporary terrorist context, as we soon learn. That the action of the scene is Bond executing a stock character of Cold War thrillers – the bent Eastern European section chief – underlines that emphatically.

Many of the story’s themes are being set up by the manner of Bond’s ascension to 00. Showing us that moment made it very clear that this is, indeed, an origin story/total reboot (as well as being straight-up fanservice). The “theatrics” which Dryden chides Bond for – his laying in wait, and the opening statement to the man – reveals a hint of nervousness in Bond. He’s not quite the cold, confident killer with the dry wit yet. He eases very quickly into that in the next verbal exchange, though; by the time he shoots, he has become that killer. It’s his final step in becoming 007; it’s his first step into the identity of Bond, James Bond.

However, the theatrics do provide a helpful place to state some of the themes of the ensuing narrative. “M really doesn’t mind you earning a little money on the side, Dryden. She’d just prefer it if it weren’t selling secrets,” says Bond. M turns a blind eye to the side-dealing, graft, and inevitable corruption that comes with the job of covert operations; she recognizes that it’s the nature of the beast. It crosses the line into unforgiveable – into deserving of death – when it becomes an actual traitorous act.

Even though it’s a long time to carry this sentiment – and although, when the time comes, it concerns Bond’s well-developed love interest who is young and beautiful and complicated and who we have somewhat come to know, rather than this stodgy, smug old geezer – this is exactly what is in play in Vesper’s suicide. Her decision doesn’t come out of nowhere; it comes out of this culture and set of ethics that the spy world runs on, at least in-story. It then turns out that this is what has been in play for her for basically the entire movie. We just didn’t notice, because to be fair, there was a lot else going on, and she fools us as much as she fools Bond and everyone else, up until that point. It’s only tracking her motives, once they’re known, that this becomes clear, and her suicide makes perfect sense.

Soon-to-be-dead Dryden asks about his contact, and Bond tells him he died “Not well.” Cue flashback. Bond shows just enough raggedness beneath his stoic answer for us, and Dryden, to see that it did cost him. Dryden almost shows sympathy as he asks, “Made you feel it, did he?”

Being Bond means stripping away much of his own humanity, a point that Vesper makes later on, and he agrees with.

Dryden goes on to almost comfort Bond. “Well, needn’t worry. The second is –”

At which point, Bond shoots him. He doesn’t extend the traitor any respect, not even letting him finish his sentence; nor does he require any comfort, or if he did, he will never accept it from such a person. He is completely uncompromising on this point; there is no latitude whatsoever for betrayal. Mathis doesn’t get any, later, either. It takes a great deal for even Vesper to complicate this ethic of his.

Stylistically, the frenetic flashback – with its overblown lighting and gritty texture, in contrast to the velvet shadows of the office – shows Bond’s brutal, dogged, brawling side in his first kill. His second shows us his cool, smart assassin side. Both sides will develop into a successfully integrated whole: half monk, half hitman.

The sudden revival of Fisher, in the flashback, is a nice transition into the down-the-barrel shot that traditionally attends all Bond movies – but he is not yet wearing Bond’s traditional tux. Moreover, doing it this way actually makes it have narrative sense, and sets it seamlessly in a black-and-white environment with a logically white background. Bravo! Another quietly-done indication that the creators are committed to staying true to the elements of the earlier stuff, while also grounding it in common sense and making them serve the story, rather than the other way around. (Interestingly, Solace uses the down-the-barrel shot as the very last one of the movie, reinforcing the idea that the two movies are one Bond story.)

Next bit.

full links for Casino Royale
broader context
royale, first scene (prague)
musical opening
uganda, freedom fighter camp
madagascar, chase scene

bahamas, le chiffre's yacht
england, m's apartment
bahamas, ocean club
usa, miami airport
bahamas, debriefing
montenegro, train
montenegro, car and hotel
montenegro, outdoor café
montenegro, hotel suite
montenegro, casino
montenegro, casino bar
montenegro, le chiffre's room, stairwell
montenegro, casino, hotel suite
montenegro, casino
montenegro, balcony, dining room
montenegro, casino, bathroom, the aston martin, mi6 hq
montenegro, casino
montenegro, dining room, countryside
montenegro, river docks
italy, lakeside sanatorium
italy, mediterranean beach
italy, yacht, venetian hotel
italy, venetian house, yacht
italy, lakeside villa


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January 2016
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