(Now that Skyfall is on home video, here’s an update to fit it into the Bond list. As with all of my Bond reviews, this is very, very heavy on spoilers. You’ve been warned.)
A very good, but very different take on Bond.
. . .AS IAN FLEMING’S JAMES BOND 007: Daniel Craig
SETUP: James Bond pursues an enemy agent through Turkey to recover a stolen hard drive containing the names of every NATO undercover agent in terrorist cells around the world. After a brutal, harrowing chase that sees Bond taking a bullet to the chest, he catches up with the thug on top of a speeding train. Unfortunately, Bond is shot by a friendly agent (acting on M’s orders to take out the thug), and our hero plunges to the river below, absolutely without-a-doubt dead.
BUT IN REALITY: Whoa, don’t throw away your popcorn. Dry your girlfriend’s tears. I know it seemed really convincing for a second, but Bond is not dead. Instead, he disappears to a tropical paradise to work through the pain of realizing how expendable he is, but he returns to MI6 when a mad former-spy named Silva (Javier Bardem) uses the list to reveal hidden agents and target M (Judi Dench). Bond tracks Silva to his island and captures the guy, but—stop me if you’ve heard this one before— that was what Silva wanted the entire time. After thwarting Silva’s attempt on M, Bond takes his boss to Skyfall, Bond’s childhood home, for a final, tragic, fatal confrontation with Silva.
VILLAINOUS DISFIGUREMENT: It’s a doozy. Silva once held a special place at MI6. Basically, he was Bond before Bond, the best agent of the 90s (oh, how fans would have shit if the part had been played by Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton), but M sold him to the Chinese when he started acting squirrelly. Silva tried to take his cyanide capsule but he somehow survived the poison, and was instead disfigured when the chemical dissolved his bones and teeth. He wears a prosthetic to shore up his hollow face.
THE MUSCLE: We’re three movies into the Daniel Craig era, and it appears the villain’s cartoonish muscle may be a thing of the past. Silva’s only notable henchman is Patrice (Ola Rapace), a thug who’s surprisingly adept at standing up to Bond but, alas, still only human. He takes a plummet from a building in China (and never actually shares the screen with his boss.)
BOND GIRL AND FEMME FATALE: The most noteworthy Bond Girl in the film is Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe), a woman in thrall to Silva. She’s more of a prisoner than a lover (shades of Maud Adams in The Man With the Golden Gun), and asks Bond to kill Silva for her. Unfortunately, Silva takes the upper hand and murders Severine before Bond can rescue her. This plot line is a bit uncomfortable, but more on that later.
The true Bond Girl of the film is M. Played for the 7th time by Judi Dench, M fills every role in the plot usually reserved for a Bond girl except the sexual. She’s supportive of Bond but acting on her own agenda. Her decisions nearly get Bond killed, but he comes back to support and protect her. And the film’s tragic conclusion promises to affect Bond in a manner similar to the fate of Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The shoe doesn’t totally fit, but at the very least, M is the most significant and memorable female presence in the film.
“PAY ATTENTION, 007”: For the first time in the Daniel Craig era, we have a Q. Ben Whishaw plays the role as a little pigeon-chested hipster, but he has that crisp dialogue delivery and prickly manner that both clashes with and complements Daniel Craig’s blunt-force bruiser. Q’s introduction—admiring art of a fading battleship being towed to wreckage—is one of the film’s highlights and he’ll no doubt become a fan favorite if he sticks around for further adventures. He’s not Desmond Llewellyn. He’s different. But he’s still Q, recognizable and welcome.
He delivers Bond a couple of minor trifles in a call back to the early days. He delivers a new Walther PPK and a radio transmitter for SOS calls. Both gadgets are among the first items ever given by Q to Connery’s Bond, although they have the requisite 21st century upgrades, like a gun grip coded to 007’s palm. Oddly enough, the radio he provides Bond is larger and clunkier than the one Q provided to Bond in Goldfinger almost 50 years ago.
Speaking of that movie, Skyfall also boasts the original Goldfinger-era Aston Martin, complete with original tricks like ejector seat and headlight machine guns, but the film implies Bond provided those upgrades himself without Q’s involvement. Seems a bit cute for the Daniel Craig version of Bond, but whatever.
MOST EMBARRASSING CULTURAL MOMENT: Skyfall is a weird movie from a social-justice perspective as it seems to take one step back for the ones it takes forward. Let’s tackle the major complaints in order.
1.) Moneypenny: This one bugged the hell out of me on the first viewing, but I’ve rethought my position. Basically, Bond’s unnamed field partner in the opening scene, the woman that shoots him played by Naomie Harris, is remanded to desk work after shooting Bond and later expresses a desire to get back into the field. Bond suggests that she’s not meant to be a field agent, and so she settles into a role as M’s secretary. And her name is Eve Moneypenny. Some people take that as a suggestion that women aren’t fit for field work. Here we are in the 21st century, and the kick-ass action hero female regresses to a copies-and-coffee job by the end of the film. Good. Gravy.
I get that complaint but, after watching the film again, yeah, Moneypenny pretty much sucks as a field agent. Not only does she shoot Bond, but she nearly loses Patrice in the car a couple of times. Bond literally has to steer for her at one point and, once Bond’s on the train, M has to scream at Moneypenny to remind her to get back into the car chase as she just kind of dumbly watches the train disappear. That’s in a high-pressure situation, but even in a low-pressure surveillance later in the film, Bond has to remind her of simple day-one espionage stuff, like not touching her ear while she’s talking on her secret transmitter.
Look, progress rules, but the film establishes a Moneypenny that is straight up going to get herself killed if she remains a field agent. And while, given the Bond films’ track record in gender equality, it’s extremely tempting to call this a big step backwards, it’s hard for me to believe that a film that idolizes M like Skyfall is saying that women can’t do this job. I’d rather have a Moneypenny who tried field work and failed than one who was hired from the typing pool in the first place, so there’s still an underlying suggestion that MI6 isn’t quite as backwards as it used to be. Besides, the film clearly suggests that Moneypenny’s job is more than clerical. It’s after she starts working in the office that she winds up watching Bond’s back in the casino, so I think this is less a step backward than a step to the side, one that positions Moneypenny in her familiar position, but generally mixes up her job description and makes her more of an active participant in the chaos. Verdict: I’m good with it.
2.) Gay Panic: Silva’s introduction scene is one of the all-time classics. He takes the stage across a long room, telling Bond a story about an island full of rats that’s dripping with meaning. He then tries to convince Bond to join his team and, when that doesn’t seem to fly, he moves into a seduction. The issue here is that homosexuality has been used before in Bond villains as a way to distinguish them as something less than manly or just as creepy-weird (the assassins from Diamonds are Forever, to name one obvious example.) It’s disappointing that a 21st century Bond movie would dip right back into the gay panic playbook to make Silva disgusting to the heteronormal crowd.
Except, is Silva really gay? He’s certainly flamboyant, but the film seems to suggest he’s more bisexual or, really, just into the power he can hold over a person. His sexuality never becomes an affectation, never gets mentioned again, and his vamping around seems motivated by his insanity. He reminds me more of Heath Ledger’s asexual Joker than a homosexual predator. But gay, straight, or in-between, is it OK anymore to paint a Bond villain as sexually ambiguous? To me, the scene is a way for Silva mess with Bond’s mind. He’s read the file, and he knows Bond is a womanizer, and so he makes a move designed to unsettle and maybe prick Bond’s steel trap and trigger a response. The way to really gauge the film’s perspective is to see how Bond reacts, and that’s a breath of fresh air. Trust me, a Sean Connery or a Roger Moore Bond movie would have had Bond reacting with rage and revulsion. Our new modern Bond takes what Silva offers and flips it right back to him. That’s progress of a sort. Verdict: Push
3.) Severine: And now we remember that for all of Bond’s slow progress, the Bond writers can make a dumbass move. Severine, our sultry Bond Girl from the Chinese casino, plays coy with Bond until he pins down her backstory with a couple of key observations. He deduces that she’s been a sex slave since she was a child and that she fell in with Silva as a way to get out of the trade. Now, of course, she’s back in bondage and at the will of powerful men. That’s a very heavy, tragic backstory for a Bond movie, which makes what happens next even more bizarre.
Severine invites Bond onto her yacht so that she can take him to find and kill Silva. Great. But you know what you shouldn’t do with a former sex slave, Bond? You probably shouldn’t get naked and sneak up on her in the shower, huh? The actress even goes into shivers and shakes because SHE seems to get how fucked this is, but Bond just does his thing and then does very little to save her life after they get to the island. Silva murders her, and all Bond can get out is a quip about scotch. Some things change, but some things something something Bond hates women. Verdict: Oh, come the fuck on, Bond.
WORTH MENTIONING: As of this writing, Skyfall is the highest-grossing Bond film of all time, even adjusted for inflation! That means that, dollar for dollar, Skyfall has made more money than even Thunderball or Goldfinger, the phenomenon films that had people lined up around the blocks in America. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the widening of the foreign markets, but that’s still incredible…. Thanks to MGM’s never-ending money problems, production on Skyfall was halted completely for almost a year, well after director Sam Mendes had gotten involved. Rather than abandon the project and move on, Mendes stuck with it and refined his plans, resulting in a very carefully designed and executed film…. In the lead-up to this film, Daniel Craig appeared as Bond in a skit with the actual Queen Elizabeth II to open the 2012 Olympics. That’s the equivalent of an American Olympics that began with President Obama being escorted to the stadium by Superman…. The main theme, sung by Adele, became one of the most successful Bond songs of all time, and the first Bond tune to win the Academy Award for Best Song.
OVERALL: I spent a lot of time deciding where to place Skyfall on my list of Bond movies, and the decision hinged on figuring out what kind of list this actually is. Is my list a countdown of the best Bond MOVIES or a countdown of the best BOND movies? Because there’s not much of an argument against Skyfall being the best Bond film of all time, from the writing, to the performances, to the incredible cinematography and direction. So Skyfall is great, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t much resemble James Bond.
Part of that stems from the state of the franchise, as Casino Royale and especially Quantum of Solace kept shucking Bond elements in an effort to make the spy more contemporary and relevant. The other factor is the script, which goes places in the Bond world that we’ve never been before. After traipsing around the globe in every kind of exotic location (even space!), it turns out that the final frontier is Bond’s mind. The Bond series is about big villains and grand plans, but Skyfall ends with low-fi home defense and constructs a villain who spends years of planning and millions of dollars checking off boxes on a global scheme with a summary that reads “kick open door, shoot old woman.”
But for all of its oddball uniqueness, Skyfall earns a lot of goodwill from Bond fans for finally, finally setting the stage. We now know the details of Bond’s tragic childhood and the cold old home he grew up in, and we can put those pieces together with the puzzle of his betrayal by Vesper Lynd in Royale, and finally say that we understand Bond’s character. We know why he distant and cold, and we know why he might find it necessary to find work as a killer. Now audiences can follow him into the next round of his adventures while knowing him as more than just an indestructible superspy, which is something that no filmmaker pulled off or even attempted in the previous 50 years. The last decade of genre cinema has been about tearing down our superhero icons and picking them apart to identify the interesting bits. Think about Nolan’s Batman trilogy and how astonishing it is that Bruce Wayne’s a more important character than Batman or any of his loony villains. The same can be said for Sam Raimi’s version of Peter Parker or, if trailers can be believed, Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman. James Bond has at last become the focus of James Bond films, not his gadgets or his girls, and it’s therefore both exciting and alarming to see the pieces fall into place at the end of Skyfall to bring Bond back to his status quo. Bond is either an anachronistic fossil or a sleek, modern warrior. Is it possible we can have both at the same time?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Casino Royale was a line on the map, a new beginning that abandoned all that came before. The original cycle of Bond films has Sean Connery as its model, and the next 20 Bond films could be looking back to Daniel Craig. If that’s the case, then Skyfall is Craig’s Goldfinger, the third film in his run where the pieces finally clicked after a bit of experimentation and discovery. For a film that ends with such a strong affirmation of Bond’s past, Skyfall has much more exciting things to say about his future.
11. Dr. No
14. Live and Let Die
15. Licence to Kill
22. A View to a Kill