The Dark Bond Rises: ‘Skyfall’ Lifts 007 To New Heights

Fifty years of James Bond. Can you believe it? Of course you can. In a way, it’s surprising that we’ve only had fifty years of James Bond, because he’s such a relic. The more everything changes, the more he stays the same.

Sure, the franchise has made a few minor efforts to update him for the 21st century, in the current Daniel Craig incarnation. He feels a little more deeply now, and doesn’t slap women. A few formidable females (Halle Berry, Michelle Yeoh) have popped up as if to prove that the series isn’t entirely misogynistic. But these updates still feel about 20 years behind where other movies are these days. That is, in part, what makes James Bond so alluring as an action hero. He’s a martini-guzzling womanizing prick and always has been, and because he hasn’t changed in so long, he can get away with it forever. It allows the audience to indulge in behavior we likely wouldn’t accept from a new action hero — we can write it off as, “Oh, he’s just being James Bond.”

Skyfall is, in many ways, one of the most notable 007 movies yet. It’s more concerned with both the past and future of the character than other Bond films, which seem to exist in a hermetic universe unaffected by anything that came before. That hasn’t been true of the Craig-starring films, which continue where the previous ones left off, more or less. This one isn’t so directly a sequel to Casino Royale the way Quantum Of Solace was, but the emotional continuity is still there. Bond is wearier than ever, and not just because a fellow agent shoots him in the opening sequence. This time around, he seems pretty fed up with the spy game, and only compulsively interested in the many women he beds. It’s James Bond by way of Shame — he just can’t help himself.The film plunges us right into the action, as Bond movies tend to do, with a rousing car/motorcycle/foot chase through Turkey. Bond gets shot and seemingly dies, though this would be one major letdown of a movie if he stayed that way. From there, we get some bravura opening titles accompanied by Adele’s theme song (one of Bond’s best), which proves that Skyfall is aiming for something rare — it’s both a valentine to the fifty years of Bond that came before and an attempt to put him squarely in the 21st century, alongside Jason Bourne and Bruce Wayne. Though this film’s villain is not inspired by any real-life baddies, there’s a certain level of subtext that suggests MI6 is fighting the “War On Terror,” as it were, just as Batman’s rogues gallery has gotten a little more grounded in the Christopher Nolan films. The villains may still be larger than life, but the stakes are a little higher, the subtext a bit more severe.

Yes, Skyfall has quite obviously been influenced by other blockbuster franchises — notably, The Dark Knight. Javier Bardem plays Silva, a villain menacing enough that he’s about half as scary as Heath Ledger’s Joker (and I mean that as a compliment). There’s more going on with him than the typical Bond villain, psychologically. He’s definitely got a screw loose. The Bourne movies have clearly made an impact too, particularly in the rugged hand-to-hand combat we see. The focus on Bond being an orphan, along with the stately manor he left behind (complete with his very own Alfred type) is particularly Batman-like, which does make Skyfall feel somewhat derivative despite its innovation with the typical Bond formula. But it’s also a better story than most 007s turn out to be, a solid movie in its own right beyond just another entry in a stalwart canon. Even Casino Royale, as good as it was, didn’t really get by on its own merits; it was a good movie because it was unexpected, in the Bond universe. Had it been released with no ties to 007, though, as just some story about a secret agent, I doubt it’d be remembered so fondly.

Skyfall, on the other hand, has plenty of story, and for perhaps the first time, a real emotional journey at the center. Despite the presence of an MI6 ally named Eve (Naomie Harris) and a vixen named Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), this film’s Bond girl is M, played as usual these days by Judi Dench. (Or shall we call her a Bond Dame?) Here, even moreso than usual, M is portrayed as a tough old bitch who will sacrifice even her beloved Bond when duty calls. That isn’t to say she’s totally ruthless about it. The maternal bond (ha) between the two is a focus of the film, both in her interaction with James and with the Silva character, who feels betrayed by his “Mommy.” Then, oddly, late in the film, a father figure is produced, portrayed by Albert Finney in a role that was clearly meant for a Sean Connery cameo. The fact that it doesn’t happen makes this character feel shoehorned in, but okay, fine.

Skyfall takes an unusual turn for its climactic showdown, bringing us to a location we didn’t expect to see in this or any Bond film. (It’s what gives it the title.) It feels like this should have been set up a bit earlier in the film, because thematically, it doesn’t really tie to the Bond story that was told before. It’s a strange twist but not an unpleasant one, because of the way it’s done. This 23rd Bond film was directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty, who brings an extra level of art to the proceedings (aided by Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography). In fact, everyone involved brings their A-game, from Daniel Craig (playing an even broodier Bond than before) to Dench and particularly Bardem, whose villain lingers in the memory the way all the best ones do. He may not quite be The Joker or Hannibal Lecter, but he’s not far off.There’s also plenty of room for a supporting cast this time around, including a charming new Q (Ben Whishaw) and a higher-up played by Ralph Fiennes. There’s a bit of a crack-team-assembly vibe a la Mission: Impossible (and even The Avengers) that’s fun and light-hearted, even while much of the rest of the movie is dark, by Bond standards. There are a lot of gags for longtime Bond fans, from the pointed shaking of a martini (without the signature line) to some jokes about exploding pens and such. No, Mendes isn’t taking Bond too seriously. Overall, it’s just seriously entertaining.

As the box office has made clear, there is plenty of steam left in the Bond franchise, and Skyfall both propels it forward while also taking a page from the past and setting things back at square one. The next 007 film may be a shade lighter in tone, something along the lines of the last two Mission: Impossible movies, perhaps. I’m not sure if the films will ever be kinder to women — or if we really want them to be — but this one does contain a nice 21st century nod to homosexuality, as Bardem’s Silva is almost unquestionably gay.

Like I said, it’s dangerous to think of a Bond movie as at all progressive. But given what we had to work with, Skyfall comes as close as can be, without totally abandoning its central character’s charms/vices. It satisfies on every level the old Bond movies do, and yet also manages to do a little more with its characters.

Let’s have another, shall we?

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