“She sent you after me, knowing you’re not ready, knowing you would likely die. Mommy was very bad.” James Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) attempt to repair their friendship while on the run from the madman out to get revenge on M as 007 returns to Ian Flemingesque form by way of John le Carre in the newest and maybe the best Bond movie, Skyfall.
Skyfall is the only Bond film I can think of that presents us with a character besides Bond who isn’t a villain or a love interest that we’re meant to care about as a character.
Skyfall is Judi Dench’s movie almost as much as it’s Daniel Craig’s. In fact, their relationship, M and Bond’s, is what Skyfall is about. The spectacular opening chase, Javier Bardem’s beautifully weird turn as the villain, the sneaky build-up of in-jokes towards the best in-joke of all, the re-introduction of Q in the form of Ben Wishlaw auditioning to be the next Doctor Who, the stunts, crashes, chases, fights, and Peckinpagh-esque gun battle at the end, and the delicious Naomie Harris as Eve (last name withheld, but it’s not a double-entendre), the most all-around competent Bond Girl since Honor Blackman---Not quite as good as Bond but better than the average 00- at whatever she puts her hand to, Eve is an expert stunt driver, field agent, bureaucrat and office politician, barber, and wearer of gold-lame dresses as in-joke. She’s not the crack shot she needs to be at one point, but in her defense, she’s being rushed.---all that’s for fun and show, giftwrapping on a story about a pair of good friends whose unusual occupation is destroying their friendship.
Fans of the Craig Bonds who like Craig’s more realistic 007 will take note that what’s real about his Bond in Skyfall is that he has things on his mind besides sex, violence, his mission, and how to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B alive. It’s more than that he hurts and suffers and emotes. He feels. And he thinks. And he thinks about what he feels and feels things in reaction to what he thinks. He has an inner life.
He has a life.
But what grounds Craig’s Bond in reality is Bond’s relationship with M (and Craig’s work with Dench. They make a good team.). M is real. And she makes Bond real. Dench’s performance is realistic enough that she could take it as it is, walk it into a very different sort of spy movie, and it would fit right in Her M would get along well with George Smiley.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Dame.
In Bond’s relationship with M, when can see glimmers of what it would have been like between Control and “scalp-hunter” Jim Prideaux or Smiley and Ricky Tarr, the original jumped-up thug Craig’s Bond appears to be at the beginning of Casino Royale, if John le Carre had gone in for conventional spy stories, just as before Skyfall we could see glimmers in those relationships of a more realistic Bond.
Skyfall, more than any other Bond, is about how spies are people before and while they are busy being spies. And not particularly interesting people, at that. At least not any more interesting than lawyers or chartered accountants and therefore they are subject to the same kind of novelistic treatment. In other words, Skyfall is the first Bond to acknowledge the alternative universe of espionage created by le Carre, whose writing career began as a critique of Ian Fleming’s, and concede he may have a point.
Director Sam Mendes doesn’t take us into the world of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. M’s people aren’t Smiley’s people. But he’s scouted the territory and is reporting back that things there are similar to how they are here. The spy game is grubby, soul-deadening work when it’s not boring and routine. Espionage is on the whole a bureaucratic and political endeavor. And spies have feelings about what they do and about each other that aren’t always high-minded or noble but aren’t necessarily the opposites. Spies (with one exception, and he’s less an exception than he’s been previously shown to be) are basically ordinary men and women, and like other ordinary men and women their professional relationships are often, sadly and messily, personal, as well.
At the beginning of Skyfall, M is losing on the political and bureaucratic side and is failing right before our eyes on the professional and personal levels. She’s in trouble with the Prime Minister for overseeing a bungled mission that got several agents killed, including (apparently) MI6’s very best agent, without achieving its intended result. And that best agent is angry at her for making the decision that would have gotten him killed if he wasn’t James Bond and not blessed with a supernatural amount of luck. He’s punishing her by pretending to be as dead as he should be, leaving her hurt, guilty, and afraid, with no one to turn to for help.
And she needs help.
Not just to save her career.
To save her life.
She’s been targeted. A former agent (Bardem) from her field days as head of the Hong Kong bureau, one who in his time may have been as good as Bond is in his, and like Bond something of a personal favorite of M’s, has returned from his apparent death, which, like Bond’s, was caused by her decision to sacrifice him for the sake of a mission. The agent, who now goes by the name of Silva, intends to get revenge on M for leaving him to die in despair in a Chinese prison.
M can be ruthless.
We’ve seen this side of her before, when she burned Bond in the guise of Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day, doing to him when he was captured by the North Koreans what she did to Silva when he was captured by the Chinese, leaving him in prison to rot. That was in a different universe and in that universe M’s ruthlessness was official. Bond had to be sacrificed for Queen and Country. Her coldness was her strength. In this universe, it’s a sign of weakness. Under intense pressure with the clock ticking down, she’s prone to flinching at the last second. She opts for the ruthless decision as the easier decision, knowing she can rationalize it to herself and to her superiors and her agents later. She does it right at the top of Skyfall to Bond and another agent.
This is a good place to stop for a reminder that the move to reboot the Bond franchise in a more serious vein began with the Timothy Dalton Bonds, The Living Daylights and License to Kill, and it was meant to accelerate in the Pierce Brosnan years. It got untracked because the producers kept losing their nerve and retreating into Roger Moore territory and because, until Halle Berry showed up in Die Another Day, Brosnan was never given a real actress to work with as a leading lady and, after Sean Bean in GoldenEye, all his villains were just cackling madmen so obsessed with their schemes for world domination they hardly seemed to notice Bond even while monologuing at him. Even the good actors, Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies and Robert Carlyle in The World is Not Enough, were too wrapped up in their characters’ megalomania to give Brosnan anything to work with. So he was usually left standing in his own bubble of reality alone, except when he was joined in there by Judi Dench.
Carrying Dench over into the Craig films was one of the best decisions the producers made and she, as much as Craig, has been responsible for what’s real in these realistic Bonds.
But Casino Royale didn’t succeed at making a more serious Bond just by changing the tone. It succeeded by taking itself seriously as a movie as opposed to the entertainments, spectacles, and amusement park rides so many past Bond films had been.
Quantum of Solace almost threw all this good work away. It wasn’t a good movie. It wasn’t even a good Bond movie. It was a routine revenge thriller not as compelling as either of the first two Bourne movies or half as much fun as Taken with tired and uninspired stunts and routine special effects that made me nostalgic for the days when John Glen was directing the Bonds.
Skyfall will wipe away any lingering memories you may have of Quantum of Solace. It’s a better Bond and a better movie than Casino Royale. Mendes even stakes his claim that it’s as good a movie as or at least deserves to be judged alongside highly regarded films of very different sorts by alluding to or quoting directly from: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (of course), The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, The Thomas Crown Affair (Pierce Brosnan Edition), Silence of the Lambs, No Country for Old Men, Rear Window, Blade Runner, Straw Dogs (I think), and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The reference to Harry Potter I thought I caught might just have been my fevered imagination at work.
But there are probably others I’ll pick up on when I see it again.
Mendes has also included tributes to the other Bonds, mainly Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, but Sean Connery above all.
I’m pretty sure Mendes was being deliberately cheeky risking self-parody with nods to Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English movies.
Think I’m stretching?
Ask yourself what’s with Bardem’s ridiculous hair and fey, bordering on camp performance?
Here’s Bardem as Silva in Skyfall.
And here’s John Malkovich as the villain in Johnny English.
Ok. Skyfall’s screenplay is by John Logan and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.
Johnny English was written by William Davies and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.
I even think Purvis and Wade, with Mendes’ help, were getting some of their own back from Atkinson. If you haven’t seen Johnny English Reborn you should if only for Atkinson’s send up of the literally over the top (and under and around and through everything else) parkour chase at the beginning of Casino Royale. The chase that opens Skyfall is a challenge to Atkinson if he makes a third Johnny English, Mendes, Purvis, and Wade saying: “Ok, wiseguy. Let’s see how you handle this one.”
By the way, both Johnny English and Johnny English Reborn are very good Bond movies the way Galaxy Quest is a very good Star Trek movie. Which figures. Purvis and Wade know their Bond, having written or had a hand in all the Bonds going back to the Pierce Brosnan days and The World is not Enough.
There are also borrowings from some TV shows, like Leverage and Sherlock, and it appears Purvis and Wade familiar with Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
So…is it a good movie? Yes. How good? Pretty darn good. Is it a good Bond? Definitely. One of the best. Is it the best? That depends.
It depends on when and how you got to know Bond and became a fan.
Anyone answering the question What’s the best Bond? is probably actually answering two other questions: Who’s your favorite Bond and Which is your favorite of his movies?
Seems most people prefer Sean Connery’s Bond. But I have a soft spot for Roger Moore because he was the first Bond I got to know and Live and Let Die was the first Bond movie I saw on a big screen. I saw the Connery Bonds after that, cut up for TV. It’s hard to take Moore seriously anymore because we look back at his Bond through his later outings, the execrable View to a Kill and the ridiculous Octopussy and the wacky Moonraker, all three made when Moore was too for Bond, too boot. (For Your Eyes Only isn’t so bad, but it actually shows Moore’s age more than the others.) But his first three are good, and The Spy Who Loved Me still has the best opening gambit of all time, and if Moore had started with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, which almost happened, and quit while he was ahead after The Spy Who Loved Me, then I think, although he may not have been the best Bond, he’d have made the best series of Bond movies to date.
Timothy Dalton didn’t make enough Bonds to establish himself in my mind, but if he had started when he might have, with Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die, and continued through GoldenEye, he might have rivaled Connery.
I’m a Pierce Brosnan fan and enjoyed his Bond, but except for GoldenEye and the first third of Die Another Day, his series of movies were kind of dull. And he always seemed to be Pierce Brosnan doing Bond. His best Bondian turns were actually in The Tailor of Panama and The Thomas Crown Affair. But suppose he had started where he almost did with The Living Daylights and License to Kill.
I like Craig’s Bond, but he’s not yet my favorite. My sense is that he’s the favorite Bond of fans who really wish Sean Connery was still young and toupeed and of people who never cared much for Bond in any incarnation before Casino Royale. If either’s the case with you, then the fun or the joke is on you in Skyfall. One of the themes of Skyfall is that in the years since we last saw him at the end of Quantum of Solace (or at the end of Casino Royale, if you prefer to pretend Quantum Solace never happened), this Bond has grown more like the Bond we know of old and he’s only going to grow more so over the coming movies. He’s more suave now, more relaxed in a tux, more amused by himself and by what’s going on around him, and more cold. More callous towards women too, more likely to treat the death of a bad girl Bond Girl as he treats the death of anyone out to kill him or get him killed, as the occasion for a cruel joke.
And he’s more of a company man. More of a patriot. More the kind of Doing It For Queen and Country hero who would have a Union Jack for a parachute.
The point is driven home by something appearing at the end that’s conspicuously missing at the beginning. Leading up to it are those in-jokes and some surprises that you’ll probably see coming if you call yourself a true fan. But taken together they add up to this. The reboot is over. Now, Bond, James Bond, is back in business.
As usual, a title card appears in the closing credits announcing that James Bond Will Return. But it doesn’t say what the name of the next movie will be. The producers haven’t decided yet. There are only three authentic Ian Fleming titles left and all resound with a thud. But I know what the title should be.
I won’t say it here because it’s something of a spoiler. But I proud of the joke and can’t resist, so I’m putting it in the comments.
Reminder: Although I hope people will be considerate, the comment section is not a spoiler-free zone.
From the files, For Your Eyes Only: Dame Judi Dench as the the ultimate Bond Girl.
And, from January, here’s my review of the movie (not the novel or the TV series) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The Blonde’s Bond Blurb: “Very English, and I don’t mean Johnny.”
Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, screenplay by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kincaid, Helen McCory, and Albert Finney. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
This week’s feature for Mannion Family Movie Night is the Mannion Guys’ introduction to Sean Connery’s Bond, You Only Live Twice, which Tony Dayoub says, “is instructive in explaining why Connery was getting fed up with the series and how the Bond movies would eventually stray quite far from their source material before its triumphant reboot decades later.” In other words, it’s the movie in which things began to go a little nutty. But, hey, it’s got the volcano hide-out and ninjas!
The deserted island city where Silva has his lair isn’t a set or the work of elaborate cgi. It’s a real place, abandoned forty years ago for economic reasons.
Hat tip to Kathryn Schulz.
The painting Q and Bond discuss at their first meeting is also real. The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up by J.M.W. Turner.
If you’ve got time: The parkour chase from Casino Royale:
And the parody from Johnny English Reborn: