James Bond is 50 years old. How does the world’s most beloved secret agent fare in his 23rd cinematic outing?…
Here’s an irrefutable scientific fact: every (straight) guy will at some point in his life fancy being James Bond.
After all, the concept of Bond represents the ultimate male fantasy. Saving the world as a secret agent while getting the most beautiful girls, the most exotic cars, and the coolest gadgets to play with. What’s not to love?
While I dig that sort of stuff too, I’ve never quite been able to say the same for the films themselves. To me, the Bond series — especially the early pre-millenium entries — work better as historical artifacts, quaint reminders of the era they each hail from, rather than anything consistently entertaining. Purists may sneer and cite the charm of Sir Ian Fleming’s books, but frankly I don’t care. If not for the sheer magnetism of its star, the Sean Connery years would’ve barely risen above flimsy production values and samey plots. The Roger Moore outings pandered too much to the sensibilities of their time, and have suffered for it. Rocket jetpacks and safari suits may have been awesome back then, but now they’re slightly embarrassing. Simply put, the Bond films are terribly dated.
But that concept. That concept is truly timeless.
In his latest cinematic adventure “Skyfall”, when Bond’s asked what his hobby is he replies “Resurrection.” How very apt. Being able to reinvent and move with the times is what’s allowed the character to survive 50 years on the big screen. Agent 007 made it through the Cold War, a studio bankruptcy, and most crucially, massive changes in the pop culture landscape. He was in serious danger of losing his relevance during Timothy Dalton’s tenure, and again in Pierce Brosnan’s last one (the cartoony “Die Another Day”). Yet every time critics are ready to write him off, he bounces back, stronger than ever. The line “James Bond will return” that appears at the end of every film is less a promise and more a mission statement. To stay relevant, while always staying true to who he is. The world’s greatest and most beloved super spy.
If the reboot “Casino Royale” was about becoming Bond, then “Skyfall” is very much an examination of what it means to BE Bond. It even attempts, albeit fleetingly, to get into what makes him tick. Bond displays an almost pathological sense of duty and loyalty to country. It’s no coincidence the film keeps making visual references to the English Bulldog, Britain’s unofficial mascot and Winston Churchill’s nickname. Bond is England’s most steadfast attack dog.
What I like about this iteration of Bond is that he is familiar yet fresh. “Quantum Of Solace” took the character too far into humourless terminator mode a la Jason Bourne, and in the process stripped him of almost all recognisable characteristics. Here, there are still surprising things about him, but at no point does it feel like it could be anyone other than Bond. Reinvention is fine as long as the essence remains. “Skyfall” manages the balance between giving us a Bond for our generation, and preserving the traditional elements that make him so appealing.
In fact, ‘new versus old’ is something of a central theme here. They’ve finally revived the much-missed Quartermaster branch, now headed by a bespectacled young geek in place of the stuffy old codgers of the past. The point is to show that espionage is now a digital affair, where with the mere push of a button economies can be manipulated and governments toppled. And Bond is shown at the beginning of the film all washed up, possibly even obsolete. It’s a curious thing to see such a cock-sure, high-calibre figure at such a far cry from his best. This is the most human Bond’s ever been. In spite of this fallibility, or perhaps because of it, this Bond makes a strong case for why sometimes nothing beats doing things the down & dirty, old-fashioned way. With bullets, brawn and pure force of will. By tearing the icon down then building him back up, “Skyfall” is probably more of a true reboot than “Casino Royale”.
This film goes deeper into Bond’s personal history than ever before, giving us clues as to why he is the man he is. It ties in thematically with his relationship with M, boss of the British government’s military intelligence division. If the parental aspect of the character was only hinted at in previous outings (as far back as Brosnan’s stint), it is finally brought to fruition here, in a poignant but unsentimental way. Judi Dench is easily the best M the Bond franchise has ever had, and one could argue, the best Bond girl too.
Other once-common Bondian traditions that “Skyfall” returns to the mix are the witty double entendres, the lethal pets, and the villain’s lair. The classic Bond tune even kicks in at exactly the right moments. I suspect their presence here is the filmmakers’ way of paying tribute to what makes a Bond picture complete. A bit of fan service, really. And the fans will enjoy the many inside jokes sprinkled throughout. Some at the expense of previous films, though (the new Q isn’t a fan of exploding pens).
For better or worse, the Bond franchise is prone to picking up on what resonates with audiences of the time. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, like the “Star Wars”-influenced sci-fi tackiness of “Moonraker”. Sometimes it does. Director Sam Mendes has openly admitted that for “Skyfall”, he took inspiration from another cultural phenomenon: Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”. It shows. There are quite a number of similarities with that film, right down to plot points and characterisation. Most noticeably, there’s a lot of the Joker in villain Raoul Silva. For the most part, this model pays off pretty well. Silva is a fantastic villain, at once equally amusing and menacing. Theatrical and playful, yet constantly on the verge of snapping. And as with Heath Ledger, this character is made instantly iconic by Javier Bardem. The man is an absolute delight to watch. Whenever he’s on screen (which isn’t often enough), the movie’s entertainment value ratchets up several notches. Bardem is that good.
However, there is one key story choice by Mendes, along with his writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan that I have a serious problem with. Because it creates a domino effect that weakens the rest of the story, as well as the characters. I won’t spoil it, except to say that towards the end of the 2nd act, there is a missed opportunity for the emotional stakes to go way up. Had things played according to the villain’s plan, the 3rd act would’ve seen a very powerful personal motivation for Bond, and set up real antagonism with Silva. Worst of all, that missed opportunity leads to a very poor decision by Bond that ends up making him look somewhat incompetent. It doesn’t necessarily come off that way on screen, but once the film is over, that implication might sink in for you. It hit me right away. Fortunately, it’s not enough to derail the entire film. Coupled with an abrupt and unsatisfying resolution for the villain — who surely deserved better — it very well could have.
So it speaks to the overall quality of “Skyfall” that I can still safely call this one of the best Bond movies and a solid film in its own right. While it does not reach the heights hit by “Casino Royale”, or deliver action as good as “Goldeneye”, it’s definitely a winner. Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. I particularly love this one scene in Shanghai where they use glass walls to reflect the city’s neon lights and LCD displays, creating a mesmerising combination of colours and patterns. It’s almost like abstract art.
The cast looks fabulous too, with Daniel Craig cutting a very dashing figure in his impeccable Tom Ford suits (man, I want one so bad!). Bérénice Lim Marlohe is all smouldering, slinky sexuality as bad girl Sévérine. It’s a pity we get so little of her. Naomie Harris as Bond’s helper Eve gets off to an awkward start with Bond, but something tells me she’ll grow into an integral part of the franchise. Lending small but significant support is Ralph Fiennes as a bureaucrat with more to him than meets the eye. I like who they’ve gotten him to play, and that’s all I’ll say.
My favourite of the new cast members has got to be Ben Whishaw as Q. His introduction to Bond is one of the film’s most engaging moments, and their verbal sparring highlights just how much the series needs this character even if it’s been completely retooled. More than just providing the gadgets, Q is a great comic foil for Bond.
At the end of the day, this show can only belong to one man. And Craig continues to demonstrate why he IS James Bond. He may not have pioneered the “gritty” 007 portrayal (that credit belongs to Dalton), but he sure has perfected it. If his Bond shows the most emotion, it’s because he has good reason to. Craig excels here, his performance always staying on the right side of stoic, allowing just a tinge of Connery’s cold edge and Moore’s merry twinkle to creep in. He is also unquestionably the best physical actor of the lot. Stunt doubles aside, Craig’s impressive athleticism is what really sells the action sequences.
Too bad we don’t get quite enough action in “Skyfall”, since what we do get is crisply choreographed and shot, and fairly exciting. The film’s standout sequence is the pre-credits chase in Istanbul. A couple more good ol’ fist fights, especially at the end, would’ve been nice.
Overlooking the film’s flaws, it’s quite obvious that this could only have been made by someone with a genuine love and understanding of the material. Mendes gets what makes Bond such a great and enduring cinematic property. And he’s put it all on screen. Well, mostly all. If producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson (the franchise’s creative stewards) can maintain this level of quality, then it’s conceivable that James Bond will keep returning for another 50 years.
For now, he couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate his golden anniversary. Here’s to many more years of guys wishing they could be you, old boy.