I don’t know if Bond has ever been quite this good. Even in the glory days of Connery, were the visuals this sumptuous, the performances this solid or the scripts this assured? With his first (and hopefully not last) ride at the helm of the relentless franchise, director Sam Mendes manages to find something new to say about the spy who’s been shooting and sleeping his way across cinema screens for 50 years.
Mendes and his team offer up a great Bond film that also succeeds simply as a film. Skyfall is more than just a jumping off point for a series of impressive action sequences and pithy one liners. It boast all the beats of a classic Bond film – stunts, beautiful women, eccentric villains, martinis – including some that had been lost in the Daniel Craig-era reboot. And yet it feels resolutely apart form what has come before. The screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan embraces the hard questions of the spy trade that the series has resolutely shied away from since the early days of From Russia With Love. The moral murkiness that comes with sending men out to kill and die for Queen and Country gives the story its spine and makes for an unromantic, and yet emotionally ripe, review of Bond’s world.
Spoilers are a-coming.
A basic tension underlies Skyfall – the balancing act between its deconstruction of the Bond mythology and celebration of the character’s 50-year-old history. Mendes simultaneously revels in the character’s past – how could a Bond fan avoid grinning from ear to ear at the classic theme firing up on the reveal of the Aston Martin DB5? – while making conscious breaks from it. The grand old car goes up in flames along with the titular manor of Bond’s childhood.
Skyfall‘s resounding success is to re-establish 007 in the modern world, and make an argument for his continuing relevance. Just as Casino Royale brought James Bond back and rebuilt him (Quantum of Solace barely rates a a feeble epilogue), Skyfall rebuilds his world and his purpose. The notion that Bond is a relic isn’t just paid lip-service (as in Goldeneye‘s oft-quoted ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ take-down), but is wedded to the script. Throughout the film we watch Bond and MI6 consistently remain one step behind – outmatched in a new world, culminating in an assault in the heart of London. Time and technology have made the original superspy the underdog. And he isn’t the only one.
Britain looms larger in Skyfall than in any previous film in the series, drawing an undeniable line between the character and his country. Just as the film celebrates the franchise’s history, it draws on Britain’s own glory days, down to MI6’s retreat to Churchill’s WW2 Bunkers in a time of crisis. When Ian Flemming wrote the original Bond novels over fifty years ago, Britain was still a major player, even as its Empire crumbled. Today, it must settle for being a middle power with a ritzy capital.
The film’s villain was born in the transition into this post-imperial world – the product of M’s utilitarian commitment to a peaceful handover in Hong Kong. Silva is a fascinating monster, imbued with such wounded, maniacal energy by Javier Bardem that it’s a shame that he isn’t given more minutes to rampage on screen (or justify his rather convoluted revenge plot). This isn’t the first film in the series to pit Bond against a dark mirror image of himself – 006 and Red Grant spring to mind – but Silva’s history, rooted in the moral failure of the spy community and its avatar, M, makes for a genuine challenge to Bond’s already-shaken faith in his job and his superior.
In between sexual advances, Silva promises Bond the chance to be a “free agent”. While his sincerity is certainly in doubt – does Silva exist for anything but vengeance against M? – it is a tantalising possibility, even as it is decisively rejected. Action and espionage films over the last decade have become dominated by “free agents” with similar origin stories to Silva. Think of Jason Bourne – fighting not to save the world, but to be free from M’s kind of Machiavellian double-dealing.
Yet in the film’s intimate final act, Bond stands by M. It’s a stunning piece of restraint for a series that often explodes in scale at the climax (laser battles anyone?), but a reminder that, for all the budget bumps, Craig’s Bond’s stories have been resolutely personal. Despite all our inbuilt affection for Judi Dench’s spymaster, the script leaves enough space to read her as a monster to the end – a woman hard enough to have no qualms about taking a young man with nothing to live for and putting a gun in his hand. While this is the first time Bond’s past has been evinced on-screen, Mendes refuses the temptation to sentimentalise. There are no tears to be shed – when M asks Bond how old he was when they died, he responds “You already know that.” M nods and adds, by explanation but far short of an apology, “orphans always make the best recruits.”
She falters only once – to lament “I fucked this up, didn’t I?” It’s in Bond’s answer that we can see the culmination of the arc that began with Daniel Craig as a new recruit in Casino Royale – “No. You did your job.” He has come to accept the job itself and, for all its ugliness, his violent part in it. After all, who else is going to take on the sideshow of maniacs and madmen? He may lose M, but the indelible shot of Bond standing out over London, as evocative as Batman perched on a Gotham City gargoyle, leaves no doubt as to what he has left to fight for now.
Earlier in the film, before the Security Committee, M quotes Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. It’s a slightly jarring moment for a Bond film, and I’m still not convinced that it works. But the sentiment stands –
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Today’s Britain is weaker than it once was, yes, but Bond remains the champion of his homeland. Instead of running from the charge that Bond is anachronistic – a shooter and a brawler in the digital age – Skyfall ultimately embraces it. He’s a spy who stands for something, and who will fight on down to the last shotgun round and hunting knife.
Despite spending much of the film toying with real-world issues of moral compromise and culpability, the conclusion reminds us that we’re not quite in the real world. In the battle between deconstruction and celebration, celebration wins out. It may be the easy answer, but I defy anyone to resist the thrill of seeing Bond once again stride past Moneypenny into M’s leather-doored office to accept a new assignment. He may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t mean he can’t save the world now and then.