The longevity of the James Bond franchise is both remarkable but also inevitable. It’s somewhat surprising it’s lasted this long when its early entries aren’t necessary the most progressive when it comes to its treatment of women. The phrase, “Bond girl” now more than ever seems a little out dated. The series’ reliance on formula also leads to the feeling of “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” The countless parodies of the franchise have also made it hard to imagine a time when the Bond formula was just starting to emerge, and how exciting that was.
Still, there was something inevitable about the series’ long life, since from the moment Sean Connery purred the words “Bond, James Bond” in 1962’s “Dr. No,” there was something instantly iconic about the character, even though the character had existed for some time in author Ian Fleming’s novels. The series’ formula, which became completely formed with 1964’s “Goldfinger,” has also made the series in to a form of cinematic comfort food. Audiences always enjoy going back to a world with rules, unlike the real world. In short, the Bond franchise is what movie escapism is all about, especially in regards to its sexual nature. “Men want to be him, women want to be with him” probably best applies to James Bond.
The franchise, despite its formulaic nature, has also been able to reinvent itself, with new actors taking on the role and giving new generations of fans an entry point for the franchise. For me, it was Pierce Brosnan and his first Bond film, 1995’s “GoldenEye,” that made me in to a fan of the character. And with Daniel Craig, the series found new life in 2006’s “Casino Royale,” which went back to Bond’s literary roots, adapting Fleming’s first novel, and gave us an origin story for Bond that showed his vulnerability as well as the tragedy had to take place for him to become the man we know. The series hit a road bump with the follow up, 2008’s “Quantum of Solace,” a film that, while it has grown on me, was nevertheless plagued by a rushed script due to the 2008 writer’s strike, and didn’t end up being the sequel “Casino Royale” deserved.
With the 23rd Bond film, “Skyfall,” which also marks the franchise’s 50th anniversary, the franchise is back in solid form. While it’s a little hyperbolic to call this the best film in the series, or even the best Daniel Craig Bond film, it nevertheless shows how the franchise is continuing to grow and mature over time, while at the same time remaining fun and energetic. “Skyfall” is also the most Bondian of the Craig films to date, striking a nice balance between familiar elements while playing around with the structure and expectations of a Bond film.
The film begins with an action sequence that ranges from a van chase to a motorcycle chase, to a brawl on top of a train involving Bond and a French mercenary named Patrice (Ola Rapace), who has stolen a list containing the identities of NATO agents around the world. The whole sequence is pretty stupendous, outlandish in a quintessentially Bond way while having enough grit to root itself in the more realistic tone of the Craig era. From the film’s first shot, with Bond in silhouette walking in to frame and a note of the Bond them accompanying him, the film feels more like a Bond film than “Quantum of Solace,” which was criticized for being too much like the Bourne series. As Bond is fighting on the train, his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) receives an order from Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) to shoot Patrice. Eve takes the shot, accidentally shooting Bond, and sending him plummeting to the water. I assume this a reference to the beginning of 1966’s “You Only Live Twice,” which also featured Bond supposedly getting murdered.
This leads in to an amazing title sequence that may be the best the franchise has ever had. It’s accompanied by Adele’s marvelous theme song, which is elegant, melancholic yet forceful, reminiscent of the early Bond theme songs by Shirley Bassey. After the messy “Another Way to Die” by Alicia Keys and Jack White, which accompanied the messy “Quantum of Solace,” this theme song once again establishes the film’s solid footing as well as its more classical Bond film style.
Bond, of course, survives the fall, and decides to use his supposed death to stay undercover, that is until MI6 is blown up by a cyber terrorist, the same terrorist who now holds the list of the NATO agents. Bond is reassigned to find the list but since he’s been out of commission for a while, he’s not quite as sharp as he used to be. Even Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, asks Bond why he didn’t stay dead and tells him and that there’s no shame in “admitting you’ve lost a step.” This is also the first time the series has acknowledged the idea of Bond getting older. When Roger Moore was playing the character, the series never acknowledged that Bond was fast becoming a senior citizen, with Moore nearly 60 by the time he quit the role. But the question of Bond’s age maybe shouldn’t be taken literally. As Devindra Hardwar of the /Filmcast noted, it has more to do with the fact that the franchise has been around for 50 years. Bond isn’t the same kind of exciting and new hero he was back in the 60s, and it’s no longer certain what role Bond has in the modern world, both literally and on screen. Even “Casino Royale,” as fresh as that movie felt, didn’t quite delve in to the question. “Skyfall” doesn’t quite answer that question either so much as it’s a springboard for Bond to face the modern world and the changing and ever mysterious face terrorism in future films.
The question of what role Bond has in the modern world is paralleled by M also having to face that question about MI6 and the spy world in general as Mallory tells her she has to retire. Dench has been with the franchise for 17 years, since “GoldenEye.” This was the first time in the series that there was a female M, reflecting how the world had changed. We know live in a world where Bond has to answer to a woman. She and Mallory have a conversation about enemies being in the shadows, and later she has a speech about how hard it is to know who your enemies are because they no longer belong to any one country. I remember that funny throwaway line M had in “Casino Royale” about missing the Cold War. This film takes that joke infuses it with a sense of urgency and uncertainty about the future. When Dench became part of the franchise, it reflected the times. Now Dench’s M is behind the times and knows it, even as she wants to see the mission through. Dench, even seven films in, still makes M an effective no-nonsense figure, a woman with balls, so to speak.
Sam Mendes, who directed the film, has said that he was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” while making “Skyfall.” Funnily enough, Nolan has said he wants to make a Bond film and has referenced the franchise several times in his Batman trilogy as well as his sci-fi epic “Inception.” This is reminiscent of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa being influenced by American westerns in making his films, then witnessing his film “Yojimbo” remade as a western by Sergio Leone as “A Fistful of Dollars.” The hero having to get back in his groove is a plot point found in both “Skyfall” and “The Dark Knight Rises” but Bond doesn’t have to climb out of any prison in this film. Craig, similar to Timothy Dalton, who played the role twice in the late 80s, isn’t an obvious Bond, in that he’s rougher around the edges then what we’d expect from Bond. Craig’s Bond is a little more polished this time around than he was in the previous two films, more clear sighted, while still having a sense of brutality that authenticates him as an actual spy.
Something that both this film and “The Dark Knight” share is a concern with terrorism in the modern world. In “The Dark Knight,” Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman had to ask to what lengths he would go to stop Heath Ledger’s villainous Joker. Would he be willing to be unethical or break his one rule of no killing? In “Skyfall,” the question, as discussed earlier, is how you fight an enemy that’s always in the shadows, especially when the enemy is attacking those who are supposed to prevent terrorism, and can use technology in destructive ways. The goal of the film’s villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), is related to M’s past, complicating things by making the villain’s aim personal rather than political. When someone as smart and powerful as Silva makes things personal, there’s no easy escape.
I love Bardem’s entrance. It’s a single shot, with Bond tied to a chair, facing a door way at the end of a room. Silva comes out and he’s far away but comes closer as he recites a story about his past until he’s looming over Bond. I think Silva is the best villain of the Craig era so far, and like his Oscar winning performance in 2007’s “No Country For Old Men,” Bardem makes eccentricity in to something sinister and mysterious. Bardem also makes Silva a surprisingly sad and tragic figure as we learn more about his relationship with M, and we learn that the greatest threats come from those who were once our allies.
Ben Whishaw is fabulous as the new Q. He’s wonderful in making this younger Q a little more arrogant than Desmond Llewelyn’s interpretation yet still capturing Q’s concern over having his property returned in pristine order. He and Craig also do a wonderful job of establishing Bond and Q’s playfully antagonistic relationship, though with Q giving a little more push this time around.
Of course, a Bond film always needs Bond women and this one has two solid additions to the Bond woman legacy. Naomie Harris successfully shows Eve as both a professional as well as someone who is need of some soul searching in regards to her future in the espionage business. French actress Berenice Marlohe is quietly stunning in the role of Severine. The film shows her decked out in heavy make-up as well as showing her more natural beauty, giving us a sense of Severine as a woman of many masks. Unfortunately, Marlohe is pretty much wasted and Harris as well. I do wish both characters had more of an arc through the film, though Eve comes close. In fact, M can be seen as the real Bond woman of the film.
Roger Deakins, the cinematographer who has shot several films for the Coen Brothers including “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit,” as well as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” lends his services to this film. I think he and Mendes have created the most visually inspired and best looking Bond film in the franchise’s history. There’s a fight sequence in Shanghai with Bond and Patrice in silhouette, all captured in a single medium shot that’s astounding. The first shots of Bond in the film also have a great noirish vibe to them. The way the color pallet of the film changes as we travel with Bond from location to location, is probably the most immersive the world of Bond has ever been. Mendes, the first Oscar winning director to helm a Bond film, handles the action sequences quite well, going for a more classical and coherent sense of action direction than the so called chaos cinema of modern action films. Just looking at this cast and crew, “Skyfall” may be the closest the series has come to a prestige film.
The main problem of “Skyfall” may be that it feels like it’s leading up to something bigger than where it ends up. While the location of the climax is telegraphed earlier in the film, there should have been more emotional and thematic build up to getting to this location. Still, the location actually works for the film’s climax because Silva is a villain who uses technology to his advantage and this location features no technology. It’s a primal fighting ground more akin to the Craig Bond’s style. The climax of the film comes purely down to survival rather than saving the world, which makes it a more intimate way to conclude a big budget action film, while still being a pretty bombastic finish.
While the end of “Quantum of Solace” seemed to signify the completion of the Bond origin story, many have noted that “Skyfall” completes what can be seen as a thematic trilogy that forms Bond’s origin story. The superhero genre is the primary genre where the different elements of a particular character’s universe are established over multiple films, but from film to film things don’t always stay in place. Villains die off, supporting characters come and go. “Skyfall” seems to set things more firmly in stone as to the beginnings of the Bond mythos. Some may cynically call the last scene of the film too “fan servicey” but it seems to finally complete Bond’s journey to the man we know and love as well as suggesting exciting possibilities for the future. Coming back to the idea of the Bond franchise’s longevity, the film ends with a reminder of the 50 year anniversary of the franchise, as well as the reminder that “James Bond will return.” There’s always something reassuring about that tagline. Change as the world may, Bond will always keep up with it.