(Published on the Askesian Society blog, 2008)

A seaplane, a speedboat and a helicopter – all white – set against golden beaches and the cyan sea. Bond alights and stands for a moment, summer suit and shades, sizing up the surroundings and waiting for them to return the favour. The peacock has landed. This is 007 for the GQ era.

A car engine sounds just outside the frame and is held there teasingly. This is the first time Bond has driven in Casino Royale – what’s his choice of wheels this time?

It’s a Ford. A Ford. And the fact is flaunted. The camera is deliberately kept at badge-height for four of the next nine shots. The exposition is so long-winded it draws attention to itself. The car comes round a corner twenty metres ahead of us, and we pan right to follow it trundling on past. Bond gets out and ties his shoelaces right in front of the badge as the porter drives off. When we’re not looking at the front badge we’re looking at the back one. When we’re not looking at the outside we’re looking at the inside. Meanwhile, trumpets sound. It’s a strange combination of the car worship common to all Bond films and primitive advertising techniques. Product placement raised to a level of intensity made utterly bathetic by its object – the Mondeo.

Ellipsis’ isn’t only the code word for Le Chiffre’s bomb plot. It’s one of the defining characteristics of Casino Royale right from the intro-sequence:

Dryden: True. How did he die?
Bond: Your contact? Not well.
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry, the second is…
[Bond shoots Dryden]
Bond: Yes…considerably.

Much of the film’s appeal lies in what it leaves out. By the end, we still don’t know who Mr. White, Mathis and Vesper’s boyfriend are, not to mention where the $100 million came from in the first place. We don’t actually know what happened. But this isn’t bad writing – it’s ellipsis.

Against this background of ellipsis, the heavy-handed product placement sticks out. Not only the Ford. Sony products are the focus of several sequences, including one where Bond – not renowned for his orientation difficulties – uses the GPS on his mobile to find his hotel. The French broadcaster TF1 report on the Skyfleet drama. There’s personality placement too, as Richard Branson makes a none-too-subtle appearance at Miami security. We even get product displacement: the bomb-maker in Madagascar uses what looks like an old Nokia; and the arrogant trolls who order Bond to park their car for them drive a Range Rover. Placement is so rife it seems meaningful when you don’t get told what brand something is. Do M16 have their own bespoke computers?

It has to be self-consciously over the top. But why? Well, irony protects its user. The makers fulfil a contractual obligation without losing street-cred. They get to assert their independence from corporate kerb-crawling even in the act of submission to it. They go to their knees with one eyebrow raised. But Ford? Aston Martin DB5, BMW Z3…Ford Mondeo. Did Ford just pay the most money? Were they just first in line?

In fact, the Mondeo fits into Casino Royale’s strategy as a whole. The goal is to start the series anew; everything else is disciplined to that task. Two things to notice.

First, the film’s very structure thematizes beginnings. It’s a picaresque, a series of three relatively disconnected segments – the bomb; the casino; the betrayal – all of which could themselves conceivably have been the beginning or end of a film. The Miami sequence is a typical action film climax, yet by the end it seems so far back as to have been part of another film. This is intentional. We’re being asked to ask: where does Bond begin, and why?

Second, it’s a prequel. Only in the final scene do we get “The name’s Bond. James Bond” and then John Barry’s famous theme tune. Again, there’s a point to this. By the end, Bond has become Bond. At the beginning, he’s 007 but he isn’t Bond. In the intro-sequence, he’s not even 007 – so it’s a prequel to the prequel.

For Bond to become Bond is for him to become a callous bastard. Casino Royale sees him lurch between cold-heartedness and hot-headed romanticism. He has to learn how to eradicate the latter, and M is the teacher. In her London apartment, the way M scolds Bond for the Nambutu embassy debacle is curious: “I have to know I can trust you and that you know who to trust.” It had seemed that macho naivety was Bond’s problem, not trust. But the one leads to the other via gullibility. M16 can only trust an agent who is utterly callous. Like Jason Bourne, he has to be a machine – predictable to those who give him orders, but not to those who would prey on his weaknesses. There is a parallel in Mr. White’s line as he executes Le Chiffre: “Money isn’t as important to our organization as knowing who to trust.” Bond has the potential for coldness, as we see when he effectively turns down Solange’s implict offer of fellatio in order to continue questioning her. M hints her admiration of this attitude – “I would ask you if you could remain emotionally detached, but I don’t think that’s your problem, is it Bond?” – in order to make Bond proud of this characteristic, so that he will want to work towards perfecting it. The setback obviously comes with Vesper. On the hotel balcony, Mathis asks Bond: “Has our girl melted your cold heart yet?” Whoever Mathis really is – my guess is that he’s on Mr. White’s staff but working for M16 – he’s certainly testing Bond here, and Bond fails. Sailing away from Venice, Bond has iced over.

Bond: The job’s done and the bitch is dead.
M: You don’t trust anyone, do you?
Bond: No.
M: Then you’ve learned your lesson.

This strand in Casino Royale is important because it undergirds the film’s claim to be a prequel to the Bond series and not simply the start of some new series. We can now understand something of Bond’s misogyny in later films, for example. Think of Live and Let Die.

Rosie: “You can’t kill me, not after what we’ve just done.”
Bond: “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before.”

Whereas during Casino Royale Bond is either abstinent or attached, the later Bond has learned to combine sex with detachment through contempt.

By thematizing beginnings and then setting itself up as a prequel, Casino Royale implicitly claims to grasp the original Bond. This is a clever response to the post-Bourne mood of quasi-realism in spy films. It’s the ‘later’ versions which embellish and redefine, putting comedy and self-parody above plausibility and energy. The real Bond was like this from the beginning.

The whole film is a piece of advertising. It shows us a new brand and tries to persuade us of it. The role of image in today’s world is a motif throughout, from the CCTV images of Bond in Madagascar – which find their way to M through the Evening Standard and to Le Chiffre through an internet news site – to the latter’s plot itself, which involves disrupting Skyfleet’s big media event. As M says of the parliamentary committee overseeing M16, “they don’t care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing.” In this world, perception is everything. And argument is made by advertising.

Casino Royale is filmed like a Versace advert. The colours are dark but somehow luminescent; Bond’s blue eyes glow in the dark. Our hero himself is something of a waxed metrosexual. Where previous Bonds simply dressed suavely, this one really cares what others think of him. The film cares too, desperately trying to establish his attractiveness by having a couple of game fillies check him out at the Ocean Club.

The makers repeatedly advertise the film as a relaunch. They do this by disrupting our expectations. Part of this is necessary for the rebirth itself. Bond’s psychology needs to be dealt with realistically if we are to get a sense of where he came from, who the original Bond was. So in Casino Royale, he’s a different animal to the one we already know – and it’s not only the naivety. Where once he had the sort of effortless superiority prep-school boys and Balliol men fantasize about, now he’s just got an excess of testosterone. His way of getting what he wants is to insist with a firm stare. He’s built, he runs everywhere, he eats with his mouth open and he murders with his bare hands. You expect him to have a tattoo. When Le Chiffre busts his balls – in a strangely homoerotic scene – he’s getting to the heart of the matter. Ay, there’s the rub.

There are other parts where our expectations are disrupted for the hell of it. Bond is blond. He emerges from Caribbean waters in skimpy underwear as an older woman ogles him from the shore. “Do I look like I give a damn,” he responds to the barman’s “Shaken or stirred?” Earlier, he plumps for a “Large Mount Gay with soda”. This is heavy-handed. Bond’s torso comes out of the sea not once but twice, and he orders different drinks three times. Get the message?

The Mondeo moment mixes the two types. It hammers you over the head with Casino Royale’s novelty. Aston Martin DB5, BMW Z3…Ford Mondeo? Yes! That’s the point! But it’s also part of a serious attempt to redefine the Bond series as quasi-realistic from the beginning. There shouldn’t be anything strange about Bond occasionally driving a Ford. Killers are aggressive, agents are aloof, seducers are callous, models are vain – and spies keep a low profile.

All of which adds up to an aggressive vain blond man driving a rental Mondeo to his hotel, like some permatanned wideboy on the Costa del Sol. The kind of man who looks in the mirror and says to himself: “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”