There’s two kind of Bond movies. The first kind is the “Bond versus the Super-Villain Aimed at World Domination/Destruction.” Whether that’s Goldfinger, Thunderball, Moonraker, Tomorrow Never Dies or The Spy Who Loved Me, there’s plenty of options there. The second kind is the “Bond versus Vengeful Villain/More Personal Danger.” Licence to Kill, Goldeneye, For Your Eyes Only, Quantum of Solace and The Man with the Golden Gun are entries into this side. Skyfall, the newest Bond movie, is a solid entry in this latter category and, arguably, the best of the modern Bond movies.
The movie’s plot is deceptively simple. After losing one of those ubiquitous secret agent identity lists that apparently every intelligence agency has lying around, MI6 is the victim of a terrorist attack. The result of the attack and the revelation and murder of undercover agents leads to increased pressure on MI6 and on M, its leader. In the midst of all this, a presumed-dead Bond finds his way back to England after months of absence on a tropical island. Bond is put through his paces before being sent out onto the field to uncover who and why is after MI6. Violence and mayhem ensue.
Much of what colors Skyfall lies in the interplay between 007 and his boss. This is the seventh movie to feature Dame Judi Dench as the head of MI6. She’s gone from being the new boss that Bond had to adapt to in Goldeneye as a sign of the changing times to the boss who promotes Bond to 00-status in Casino Royale after he’s proven his capabilities. I’m struggling to remember a movie where M was such a key figure in the plot. She not only takes part in the action, but it’s the legacy of her actions and decisions that propels the plot. Having an actress of her caliber really helps and I’m struggling to remember if the role of M has ever had someone of her skills. Whoever has to follow her will have big shoes to fill.
It is M’s history with the film’s villain, Silva, that acts as the catalyst for the story. Without getting too spoiler-y, let’s just say they share a backstory that is drenched in secrets and in blood. Landing Javier Bardem to play the role of Raoul Silva was another great stroke as it allows someone who can go toe-to-toe with Craig and who can feel natural at doing it. The first time they share a scene together, the screen crackles like it hasn’t since that memorable scene between Bond and Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. People seem to think that Silva is hitting on Bond while he’s got him tied up, but to me, it’s all calling back to Bond’s torture at the hands of Le Chifre. These are two master operators who are looking to gain the upper-hand on one another, by any means necessary.
Supporting Bond are a new Q played by Ben Whishaw, a new government overseer played by Ralph Fiennes and a new partner played by Naomi Harris. They all acquit themselves quite well. Harris has a solid rapport with Craig – in spite of the fact that she did put a bullet in his heart. Fiennes is less of a foil and more of a senior partner. He’s someone who’s been where Bond’s been and done what he’s done. As for Whishaw’s Q, it will take a while for him to replace the memories of the late Desmond Llewellyn, but at least he’s not trying to be that. His 21st-century techno super-geek is one of the marks of how the world has changed in the 50 years since Dr. No premiered.
The mark of Craig’s run as Bond lies in how he inhabits 007 and allows us a chance to analyze the famous spy. His Bond is a man who lives for the moment in every aspect of his life. At any moment, he could die and this attitude permeates his life. His relationships are short. His past is a burden to be forgotten. All of this is displayed when he is considered dead and he gets the chance to retire to a South Pacific island. Instead of setting up roots and building a family, he spends his days and nights drinking and screwing; a lonely figure at the bar who continues to risk life and limb in foolish escapades. When the need arises that demands he forego his sabbatical and return, he does so.
Throughout the movie, the point of Bond’s age is continually brought up. His injuries – most recently the ones he gets in the opening – slow him down. His aim is not quite back. He struggles to hold onto elevator railings and is clearly carrying psychological wounds. The cost of constantly battling assassins and terrorists is one borne by both his body and his spirit. In spite of this, M is willing to trust him and sends him back out. Silva says it’s because she views him as expendable. Fact is that Bond is the only one she trusts to get it done.
Bond’s place is also challenged in the new world. What good is a spy in the modern world of cyber terrorism? When Silva can reprogram train schedules to make them crash or expose deep cover agents imbedded so that they turn up dead on the Internet, is Bond really that valuable? As Q quips “every now and again, someone needs to pull a trigger.” But Bond’s value goes beyond being a simple government assassin. The further he digs into Silva’s conspiracy, the clearer it becomes that his kind cannot just be stopped by super-geeks in computer labs. Bond needs to rise to his challenge to prove he still belongs on the playing field of modern day espionage.
In many ways, Skyfall shows us that, without MI6, Bond would be lost. He needs the opportunity to sacrifice himself to give his life meaning. He needs the connections to M and to Q and to Eve – that esprit de corps – to create a sense of normalcy about his life. Without all that, Bond would turn into Silva, a man who is so lost and angry that he can only channel his talents into ways to hurt and destroy others. Bond may occasionally rankle against the bureaucracy that governs MI6 but he would never seek to topple it.
To me, the modern Bond movies begin with the Timothy Dalton run in the late 80s and went through Pierce Brosnan’s run before this current reboot with Daniel Craig in the lead role. That’s 9 movies in total. Of those, the 3 I consider the best are Goldeneye, Casino Royale and now, Skyfall. The reason for that is because these movies manage to interplay the qualities of classic Bond with the modern world expectations of a spy and spy thrillers. Not surprisingly, they focus primarily on threats to the structure of spy agencies like MI6, with the threat often coming from former agents (like Trevelyan and Silva) or from elements that spy agencies haven’t traditionally been thought to focus on – like manipulations of the stock market.
Skyfall though goes further than that because it brings all those elements into one whole. Director Sam Mendes manages to craft a story about Bond’s past, his present and his future that gives enough nods to the character’s history and trajectory without it appearing cliché or hokey. It touches on the value of the character in the 21st Century and how, even though the Cold War is but a distant memory, the work of intelligence agencies never ends. When M asks Bond at the end “Are you ready to begin?” it’s not so much a question of intent but a declaration of purpose. Where the character goes here, it’s up for the next director to craft. I hope they get someone equal to the task – maybe bring back some of Quantum? – but we have all the elements in place for Bond to reclaim his place atop the action-hero landscape.
I wonder if the next movie will bring us a new Blofeld.