Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem
While it hasn’t benefited from decades of rose-colored glasses and nostalgia like others, Goldfinger and From Russia with Love, for example, Skyfall nevertheless is by far the best James Bond film. The most competently made, the most reverential in tone, it is a high-quality film and the most compelling installment of the canon to date.
Directed by Sam Mendes, Skyfall is exciting, fun, and reverent. It treats its source material with a respectful eye, nodding to such staples as Bond’s car of choice, his iconic weapon, and his women. It excels in deftly blending nostalgic homage with modern sensibility. Here, Bond is broken, beaten, and lost. And that’s where it went wrong for some people.
But I disagree. In fact it needed to happen. When Casino Royale opened in 2006, it was a revelation. Fast, high-octane; Daniel Craig was dynamic and believable as a rough-around-the-edges, post-911 version of the Cold-War horse. His Bond wasn’t suave. He wore his wounds openly and spoke without flourish. He projected a muscular, powerful presence; his hair was not quaffed but short and utilitarian. He was calculating, lethal, and his reckless resolve resulted in mounting collateral damage. It was fresh and incredible.
Compare that to Bond’s previous outing, Die Another Day. In it, 007 literally base jump-surfs down a frozen waterfall and drives an invisible car into a fortress made of ice, later microwaved from space. It was silly, and audiences today simply don’t buy such fantastic, illogical set-pieces anymore. Plus the decade’s old continuity of the franchise was becoming something of a punchline. Bond’s getting older, yet is being played by successively younger actors.
Casino Royale was a necessary restart. Daniel Craig’s Bond is not going to make a quick escape on a jet pack or slide a boat over a wedding. He’ll parkour all over a construction site and dodge sabotaged subway trains spilling through caverns like liquid, but his adventures are rooted in some semblance of logical reality.
But the new continuity came dangerously close to jumping the shark with Casino Royale‘s sequel, Quantum of Solace. It was bad. Of course, the film comes with an asterisk, being a victim of the Writer’s Strike. But it was weak in a number of ways in spite of that. (I like to think of it as a coda of sorts to Casino Royale, not a complete movie. It helps.) For starters, it was edited together at a bewilderingly rapid clip. The quick cuts confused my sense of geography within the scene. They were also incongruous; without explanation Bond is suddenly jumping his motorcycle onto a field of small boats. A chase sequence is for no reason inter cut with a race.
The direction was illogical, as well. Bond waits outside a locked gate, clearly far enough away to be out of earshot. The audience is treated to a boring, lengthy bit of expository dialogue, to which Bond then responds to as if he had heard the whole thing. It isn’t even original. It borrowed its personal redemption ending from The Bourne Ultimatum, a superior film.
So here’s where Skyfall‘s stylistic choices begin to make sense. The story needed a reboot, ironically enough. The rote action movie that was Quantum of Solace came from a creator who didn’t get it, didn’t get the magic of what made Daniel Craig’s Bond so much fun. In order to get back to that realistic setup, Skyfall‘s filmmakers understood that it required deconstructing the character and building him back up within the construct of the real world.
Skyfall is about the end of the classic spy era, or at least the romantic expression of it. It’s fitting that Daniel Craig is growing weary of the role. He’s looking older, more used up. The physicality of the job is becoming more of a challenge. That’s exactly how Bond should be feeling. He’s slowly being outmoded by technology and enemies that operate hidden in plain site, not abstractly from elaborate lairs. Today’s villains aren’t plotting world domination, they’re after money and inciting regional conflicts. Bond’s skills as a shoot-first arbiter and high-society butterfly are no longer useful to an infinitely more complex and grey world. It’s no longer strategically sound to storm into a heavily guarded fortress. He’s learning that falling back to familiar ground to make a stand can be more effective. Even Agent Q’s job doesn’t exist anymore. Covert operations don’t really need a plucky old man tinkering with fantastic do-dads in a basement. They need brilliant twenty-somethings, programmers, no-nonsense.
It’s the execution of the past-meets-present premise that elevates this film above all the others. The tone more closely matches the stakes the character faces everyday.
The classic James Bond is a protagonist steeped in Cold War-era mythology, West vs. East, capitalism vs. communism. However we live in a radically different world today where simplistic good vs. evil themes don’t resonate with audiences like they once did. Villains today are often victims themselves; heroes are flawed and irrational. Bond as the man’s man about town, a caricature, doesn’t jive with the realistic setting. He, like other protagonists, must deal with struggles and shortcomings that inform his actions and philosophies.
It breaks down like this: Daniel Craig’s Bond is a man who’s trained his entire life to become a highly skilled specialist only to be beaten by the changing times. As Skyfall progresses, the plot ratchets down the action intentionally. The biggest action scene is the opener whereas the finale is low-key and personal. He’s his action-hero self before he gets shot, reckless and unfaltering. But by the end of the film, Bond’s had to readjust his expectations of success and deal with the inevitability of his inadequacy. He’s reluctantly come to the realization that brute force and blunt thuggery are the tools of a younger man, a man he no longer is.
I’d like to see the sequel take this into consideration, Bond’s age handicapping his acrobatic abilities to the point of doing damage, of blowback. A protagonist who previously relied on physical strength and power to achieve his ends, now having to cope with that lost ability, would make for a compelling Bond film. A film like From Russia with Love, for example, low key to a fault and linear in story.
What I most like about Skyfall is its maturity. It’s the best Bond film because it features all the classic 007 elements, but seats them firmly in the present and makes that conflict central to the story. Bond is dealing with obsolescence and age while MI6 itself is proving incompetent in the face of universal accountability and instant technology. It’s story is grounded in human emotion; it’s action is logical and in service of the story. And it’s finally gotten the Bond Girl right. And it’s not Moneypenny or Severine. It’s M. Intelligent and well-written, M in Skyfall is at last a worthy companion to the modern James Bond. She’s cold but trusting. She’s encouraging, authoritative, a mentor, and a surrogate mother all at once. She’s a female character with complex motivations, wants, and wit to match the male protagonist’s. You know, how woman actually are.
It’s about time, too. Maybe audiences don’t buy straight-laced heroes like Superman any more, but we definitely don’t abide subservient damsels in distress anymore. And that’s progress.