Shaken, not stirred: Skyfall and the legacy and future of James Bond
Skyfall, the 23rd entry into the James Bond film franchise, had a rough development initially, due to MGM’s bankruptcy. More than that, though, it followed the comparatively poorly-received Quantum of Solace. Skepticism abounded after rumors of Bond forgoing a medium dry vodka martini for Heineken. What was Sam Mendes thinking? But thankfully (so, so thankfully), Skyfall is another entry into the core Bond canon, one that understands and respects the character and franchise’s lineage as it goes forward.
James Bond was created out of Ian Fleming’s military experience as a superman to fight the Russians on the stage of popular culture. He is the quintessential secret agent, defined as much by his tastes and his proclivities as his actions. The tuxedo, the martinis, the women and the quips; these are James Bond in the same way Connery or Moore or anyone else is. It’s the trappings of the story that capture our imagination. The sexy, smooth secret agent fighting the bad guys.
Or to be far less charitable, these are the lies Bond tells himself (and us) to justify killing strangers not too different from him. The nature of warfare has changed. The bad guys aren’t quite so black and white, if they ever were. What we know of how international espionage works isn’t the rosy picture Fleming painted for us. I’d offer the Bourne series as the modern successor to Bond. The enemies are increasingly ourselves, motivated out of fear and paranoia rather than any lofty ideals. While Bond uses style and high society to distract from the business of murder, Jason Bourne’s sins are so great he has to shed his identity entirely to live with himself. It’s a compelling viewpoint, but a pessimistic one. Is there no place for the escapism of Bond in the 21st century?
Not quite. Bond can still represent us, and the dream of the upright spy. Where Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace fell was in their overly gritty and thuggish portrayal of Bond. The act of evening the franchise’s keel after a string of overly fantastic/cartoonish films is normal (and necessary). But replace Baccarat with Texas Hold ‘Em and scoff at Bond’s taste in martinis and you throw out the character that audiences came to see. Bond can adapt to the world around him, but at his core, he has to be largely unchanging. Bond is the consummate gentleman, joking and winking as he swills drinks and kills foes. He keeps these affectations not because they keep him classy but because they keep him sane.
Prior to Skyfall, GoldenEye was my standard for how to do Bond in a modern setting, and it probably still is. Both movies share an understanding that though the world has changed, there are still threats that require the level of finesse and detachment that Bond brings. Judi Dench is powerful as M in the Craig films, but she’s even better here, as the new boss at odds with Bond and the old-fashioned boys’ club he represents. GoldenEye is a film that satirizes and deconstructs Bond even as it indulges us. It relishes in the excesses of the franchise while still engaging us. It’s a must-see. but no one’s here to read about GoldenEye.
I bring it up, though, because Skyfall is very much in the vein of GoldenEye. GoldenEye asked us what Bond as a symbol’s place is going forward, but Skyfall takes it one step further. Skyfall asks us what place James Bond, the man, has in the here and now. In a world of spy satellites and Seal Team Six, what is Bond but a dinosaur? Ben Whishaw’s Q tells him as much: “I could do more damage with my laptop in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you could do in a year in the field.” Bond’s lagging physically, but the game is changing as well, and like John McClane, he’s finding himself increasingly irrelevant. Why keep him in the field at all?
Because sometimes the game is being played against an enemy who knows how to play it, and a seasoned veteran is the only one who can keep up. Bond’s quest for the man who nearly killed him and the mysterious villain who uses agents’ lives as a sick joke takes him through the familiarly beautiful landscapes of spy fiction: a skyscraper in Shanghai, a casino in Macau, a headquarters in the ruins of an abandoned island. He romances women and battles men in lizard pits. It’s all perfectly Bond, and the expansive establishing shots and musical stings rival the best cinematography and editing of Connery’s golden years. Bond finally meets his nemesis, the dark mirror Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). GoldenEye had gone to the rogue agent well before, and executed it flawlessly, so it’s hard for some of this to avoid feeling like a retread. But Silva’s sexualized rage and pain, combined with an excellent performance by Bardem, make him a distinct, if possibly forgettable threat.
[MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE]
Silva’s capture and subsequent plan were the only parts of Skyfall which fell a bit flat for me, and not through much fault of their own. Storylines and elements go in and out of style, and we’re reaching the end of the life cycle for a couple of elements that were used here. Villains’ imprisonments as feints, complete with Hannibal Lecteresque scenes of dialogue with protagonists, have been used by everything from The Dark Knight to Sherlock to The Avengers. Hacking, an increasingly outdated MacGuffin, seems to be the first entry in the current edition of the evil mastermind handbook. A chase through subways and sewers systems might have impressed at the beginning of the summer, but after The Dark Knight Rises leaves me with a sense of deja vu. It’s too bad, because the sequences are all well-executed. But a few new tricks would have been nice.
The third act of the film changes focus almost entirely; it stops being a Bond movie and becomes a much more daring proposition: a movie about James Bond. It delves into the character and mind of Bond with an intensity not seen since License to Kill and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The danger here is obvious: Bond is a cipher, a fantasy, and ground him too much and you run the risk of destroying the mythology that audiences (or at least I) hold so dear. But while we see Bond’s childhood home and hear of the loss of his parents, those details are less important than what they represent at this point in the story. Bond is taking his mother home. M is the only woman he’s been able to rely on, albeit guardedly, since the loss of his parents. While he doesn’t have the unhinged fixation and complexes of Silva, he’s been given a chance to protect the closest thing he has to a family now, and he’ll die before waste it. The Home Alone-style booby-trapping and defense of Skyfall are as gritty and bleak as the Shanghai and Macau sequences were grand because the gloves have come off. Death is all that matters here, and Bond is going to make sure it comes. And when he loses M, and the stubborn stability she represents, his loss is palpable. This is the end of an era for Bond.
So where does he (and the franchise) go from here? To pull out an old cliche, everything old becomes new again. The “reveal” of the ending shows us that the film has been recasting and recontextualizing the classic status quo all along. Although the Moneypenny reveal is a bit cheesy, we know that Bond is going to be fine going forward. We’ve seen it ourselves. The filmmakers know that the true strength of James Bond isn’t simply in colorful action sequences. It’s in a style, a level of composure and competence we can take comfort in. I don’t know exactly what James Bond will look like in another fifty years, but the prospects have me excited.
A couple of stray observations:
- The opening sequence was phenomenal. James Bond movies have featured all kinds of theme songs, but the most memorable have always featured bold, brassy vocals from the likes of Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, and Adele’s “Skyfall” did not disappoint. The visuals harkened back to classic opens while laying out core iconography.
- “What makes you think it would be the first time?” While I doubt we’ll be seeing any “Bond Boys” in the future, it was refreshing to see a more egalitarian take on 007’s sexuality. To give the consummate seducer a possible history of liaisons with men is to challenge our cultural perception of masculinity, and I say good for him.
- While Silva wasn’t always the most impressive villain, the sequence with M at MI6 headquarters is chilling. Silva’s disfigurement recalls a number of classic Bond nemeses (Ernst Stavro Blofeld not the least among them) and serves as a tragic inversion of rather goofy henchman Jaws.
- Any comments would be greatly appreciated. I went more literary on this one than I usually do, let me know how effective it was.