Oh my word. Oh. My. WORD. People, I'm not even sure I know where to start talking about why I think Skyfall is basically the best thing ever, Bond at his most brilliant. Fifty years ago James Bond first appeared on movie screens in Dr. No, all Technicolor gloss, 1960's sophistication, and Sean Connery, all hard edges and devil-may-care attitude. Some incarnations of Bond have arguably been more successful than others, but always there are certain elements in place -- beautiful women, exotic locales, thrilling fight scenes, and unimaginable peril. In 2006 the franchise took the opportunity of reinventing itself once again with the introduction of Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to play Bond (in the officially licensed Eon Productions film series) -- and with a new actor, all hard angles, rough edges, and piercing blue eyes, the chance to re-align the film series with the gritty tenor of its source material. And in a post-Cold War world, where danger lurks in the shadows of cross-border ideological factions and cyberspace, it was a move that was not only smart but necessary for the series to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.
If Casino Royale (and Quantum of Solace -- that movie seems to get a lot of flack for failing to live up to Casino, but from my standpoint anything with Craig is ten times better than a Craig-less Bond alternative) reintroduced Bond, establishing him as the dedicated agent, but one who is damaged and fallible, Skyfall returns the character to his roots -- both in respect to Fleming's text and the early years of the film series. This is Bond deconstructed, cut down, beaten but not bowed -- and reborn. A Bond who acknowledges his history with a wink and a cheeky hint of a smile while walking into a second fifty years of filmic possibilities.
Because I can't help myself, and like have NO filter when it comes to gushing about things like Bond films, this post is going to be VERY spoiler-y. This is also quite possibly going to be the longest movie post of all time, with a ridiculous number of pictures. You've been warned. I can't help myself. *wink*
And here's another one:
Skyfall opens with Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) in Istanbul on a mission to retrieve a stolen hard drive -- a drive that contains the identities of every NATO agent embedded in deep cover operations with terrorist organizations around the world. The mercenary in possession of the drive, Patrice (Ola Rapace), left a room full of dead or critically injured agents in his wake. But to Bond's chagrin, M (Judi Dench) has no time for sentiment when the bodies are discovered -- the aim of the mission, the retrieval of the list, must be achieved no matter the cost. The ensuing chase through the crowded streets surrounding the Grand Bazaar is absolutely thrilling, one of my favorite moments being Bond's pursuit of Patrice via motorcycle across the roof of the Bazaar. In a suit. All spying shenanigans should involve men in such suits.
Eve and Bond have a deliciously cheeky rapport -- she is the best kind of "Bond girl" -- intelligent, smart, sassy, and more than capable of holding her own in a firefight. When Patrice and Bond take their fight to the top of a train, she stays in close pursuit. Bond's use of the back hoe ON the freight car was positively inspired, and the moment he connects the two cars, walking down the arm and into the passenger car -- and STRAIGHTENS HIS SHIRT CUFFS!! -- is BRILLIANT. Even this Bond, no matter how damaged, how emotionally eviscerated we've seen him, this is a man who is still used to winning. Who thrives on his unflappable, collected, capable image. This veneer comes crashing down when Eve sees the train -- and the fight -- about to disappear from sight through a tunnel, and from the London offices M orders her to take a shot at Patrice. But Bond and Patrice are still viciously engaged, and the shot isn't a clean opportunity. Eve takes the shot and hits Bond -- and in seconds one of M's most valuable agents is plummeting to almost certain death, and the precious list is in the wind. And that is all before the opening credits and Adele's gorgeous theme song.
I just adore Adele's theme, and against a seductive underwater backdrop, where Bond's shed blood mimics branches of coral the filmmakers give us perhaps one of the most introspective opening sequences in the franchise's history. Yes, there's the requisite silhouettes of beautiful women, but sprinkled throughout are startling images of death -- graves, falling daggers mimicking headstones, Bond shooting blindly at shadows, bleeding out all the while. Of course Bond survives the fall, but the result is perhaps a bit unexpected when taken in relative to the franchise's history. This near-death experience has left Bond in the throes of a mid-life crisis -- the once impeccably dressed, unflappable agent has traded in his designer suits for wrinkled shirts and stubble, and heavy (well heavy for him) drinking while dancing, quite literally, with scorpions.
Back in London, M is being called to account for the lost list, the endangered agents, and the death of 007. The new Intelligence and Security Committee Chair, Gareth Malloy (a very dapper Ralph Fiennes) urges M to take the opportunity to "retire with dignity" -- but M, ever the spitfire, refuses to leave until the job is finished, the list made safe. When returning to the office with her Chief of Staff Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear -- and since I've read two of Fleming's novels, can I just say that he is perfectly cast? Also of interest, you can purchase his reading of the unabridged Live and Let Die, which is SUPERB), they receive word that their computer network has been hacked. The signal is traced to M's own machine, and when the arrive at headquarters they are stopped by a police barricade and are shocked to witness M's office blown sky-high. It's a surgical strike -- a personal attack on M and her power and influence, one that leaves MI6 and its already hard-hit leader reeling.
When news breaks of the attack, Bond returns to London and unceremoniously shows himself into M's home. It is a stroke of genius, making the attack so personal. Of course there are wider ramifications (i.e., the endangered agents), but at fifty if a series is looking to prove its relevance, what better way to do so than to tear down the two most recognizable figures at its center -- M and her favorite "blunt instrument," the ever-faithful, always capable, James Bond. So Bond, broken and bruised, rehabilitates himself for field work. And this is where the script is just genius -- every ache is acknowledged. Craig pushes himself to the brink but keeps going, all with a wink and a groan and a long-suffering sigh. It's perhaps as "real" as this film is going to get -- but given Bond's historic oft-times seeming invincibility, it's a nice touch.
So that's the set-up -- and the balance of the film sees M and Bond proving their relevance and testing their mettle, seeking the mastermind behind the theft of the list and the bombing of MI6 headquarters. Taking a bit of a break from the play-by-play to look at what that does for the characters and storyline -- a veritable treasure trove for long-time Bond fans. MI6's temporary headquarters are in the old tunnels beneath London utilized by Churchill during the Blitz -- very literally taking the service back in time, back in history. Along with the "new digs" comes a new Q (Ben Whishaw), the Quartermaster in charge of equipping Bond for field work. Their first meeting was PRICELESS -- the wary Bond, representing the MI6 "old guard" and the floppy haired, thin as a rail Q who, much like his predecessor, refuses to be over-awed by Bond's brusque manner.
Q was played by Desmond Llewelyn for nineteen of Bond's twenty-three films, first appearing in From Russia with Love. When the film series is at its craziest, Q is responsible for equipping Bond with the most outlandish of gadgetry and weaponry. The rapport between Q and Bond, the former always exasperated by Bond's inability to return equipment unbroken is a long-standing story beat within the film series. Thanks to smart scripting, Whishaw and Craig have some fun with Q's history -- when he's given "only" a pistol (a Walther PPK/S -- I nearly squealed seeing Bond's sidearm of choice restored to him, with the added bonus of a grip coded to recognized only Bond's palm print) and a radio, Bond half-heartedly bemoans the lack of "bells and whistles." But by bringing the Walther PPK back into the spotlight as Bond's firearm, the film acknowledges it's history while maintaining a certain welcome level of street cred. *wink* And I nearly DIED when Q tells Bond to bring everything back in good working order -- of course that goes up in flames when a casino thug in Macau is dragged into an alligator's lair with Bond's pistol. When Bond hops on the alligator's back to escape their pit -- well I'll just say I wasn't expecting a nod to Roger Moore's escape from Mr. Big's alligators in Live and Let Die.
When Bond's would-be assassin and thief behind the stolen agent list is identified, Bond follows Patrice to Shanghai with orders from M to discover the identity of his employer and then to eliminate him. Their fight, against the neon-lit backdrop of Shanghai's skyline, is just spectacular -- all struggling shadows, punctuated by gunfire and the glitter of broken glass. A gambling chip found among Patrice's belongings lead Bond to a casino in Macau, which of course got me to thinking about The Man with the Golden Gun. The casino is a classic Bond set piece, all rich reds and brilliant gold tones -- and it is there that Bond meets Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), the beautiful companion of Silva, the man behind the plot to discredit M and reveal the identities of the undercover agents. Sévérine fits perfectly within the canon of classic "Bond girls" -- as I'm learning from reading the novels, Fleming had a penchant for penning women as damaged -- or worse -- than his master spy. A study in that subject alone could prove very illuminating, to say the least.
With Bond's promise of help, Sévérine arranges to take him to Silva's location, a nearby island that Silva appropriated for his own purposes through fear-mongering and carefully-placed intel. Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is in many respects the other side of the coin when it comes to Bond -- the once-favored, capable agent, gone completely off the rails and turned cyber-terrorist. Silva, it turns out, blames M for his capture and torture at the hands of the Chinese years earlier. He's a curious, creepy mix of careful, precise manners masking a completely unhinged interior. Bardem makes Silva a megalomaniacal villain of the first order, in the best tradition of Bond villains -- only better (and by that I mean more disturbing) in that his focus is SO personal vis-a-vis M and Bond and the Service in general. He really reminded me of Christopher Lee's Scaramanga in Golden Gun -- not only the Macau setting, but the precision with which he approaches his work -- even their "duel" over a glass of 1962 Scotch (the year of Dr. No's release) placed atop the bound Sévérine's head for target practice (ending in her death, of course, because it is inevitable that at least one Bond girl dies per film). (Arguably among the most effeminate of Bond villains, some reviewers have pointed out similarities between Silva and other Bond bads such as Louis Jourdan in Octopussy or Wint and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever, comparisons that likewise have much merit.)
With Silva's capture, all seems well -- and M heads to a public hearing on her leadership in office with the supposed win in her back pocket. But people, that would be all too easy -- for it was Silva's plan all along to be captured and brought within the confines of M's protected domain. With Q's backup (which was a brilliant balance of humor and tension), scenes of Bond chasing Silva through the London Underground and intercut with scenes of M in many respects on trial for her life, her very legacy at stake (interrogated by an Member of Parliament played by Helen McCrory, a.k.a. Mrs. Damian Lewis, the lucky woman). This is how much I get into this film series -- when she quoted the following lines from Tennyson's "Ulysses," I nearly cried:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
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.
I loved seeing Mallory win Bond's respect during the ensuing firefight when he proves his mettle as a former field agent and takes a bullet in his should saving M's life. That wink of Craig's, oh that killed me. :) They win a temporary reprieve, and Bond takes M on the run, leaving Q and Tanner to spread a virtual trail of breadcrumbs for Silva to follow, culminating in a do-or-die face-off. (Mallory also wins their respect when he gives his stamp of approval to their unsanctioned, unorthodox scheme.) In a surprising and poignant move, Bond takes M to Scotland and Skyfall, which turns out to be the name of his old family home -- in the original Aston Martin DB5, first seen in Goldfinger. I knew that car was coming and STILL when it was revealed I could barely contain myself.
I cannot begin to articulate how much I LOVED THIS TWIST. The novels hint at James's backstory and life as an orphan following his parents' deaths, but never, ever have we seen the childhood home, met the crotchety caretaker who new James as a child (Kincade, played with aplomb by Albert Finney). This was a storytelling stroke of genius. Not only has this film made multiple nods to Bond's antecedents, forced himself to re-evaluate his life and worth as an agent, but it takes us quite literally to where it all began -- the desolate moors and a home worthy of playing a setting in a Bronte novel.
The final fight is a spectacular affair, seeing Bond, M, and Kincade face-off against Silva and his thugs, resulting in Bond's childhood home getting torn to PIECES. That hurt. But seeing no other recourse, when Bond chooses to set the fuse that literally blows his past sky-high -- that was a fantastic, layered moment. For while this entire film is in many respects a homage to Bond's past, by his willingness to burn his final tie to his childhood bond becomes a literal phoenix, rising reborn from the ashes, refined by fire. I loved the dichotomy between Silva and Bond's relationships with M here. The wounded M barely has the strength to withstand Silva, who reveals in full his complex emotions toward M, his "mother" -- issues that eerily reminded me of Norman Bates in Psycho. But it is Bond who proves true -- and on the land containing his parents' graves Bond saves M, only to have her die in his arms -- losing another parental figure (though neither would admit to it, I'm sure) on land positively saturated with painful memories. That scene just about killed me -- though Bond was soaked from his previous battle in the lake with one of Silva's henchmen, I have to choose to think those drops hitting M's face were a few hard-won tears. At his childhood home, Bond proves to be M's greatest legacy, the one thing she got right. (The water imagery from the aforementioned lake fight -- the idea of rebirth and renewal through this fight is really powerfully done, especially in light of the scenes immediately following with M.)
The final ten minutes or so of this film is a brilliant, BRILLIANT set-up for the movies to come. Having come through the fire and been reborn multiple times (three in this film alone by my count) Bond and MI6 are renewed and ready for duty. These last ten minutes -- oh it was like CHRISTMAS to my James Bond-loving heart. From the moment atop HQ where Eve gives Bond his bequest from M (a Royal Doulton Bulldog figurine painted with the Union Jack -- a possible nod to Bulldog Drummond as a proto-Bond figure), with the sun shining and the flag in the background -- which would be lovely enough, but IT GETS BETTER. Then Bond follows her below into her new office, where she's agreed to serve as Mallory's executive assistant -- and the moment I saw the coat rack I nearly fell out of my chair, and could barely contain myself from screaming oh no they didn't!! For Eve's last name, you see, is Moneypenny. Best character reveal EVER -- their rapport, their banter is going to be priceless in the coming sequels. And then to have Tanner open that familiar leather-covered door with a "he's ready to see you, sir" and Bond to enter to find Mallory behind the desk and say "reporting for duty, M" -- I am smiling SO HARD typing this as I relive that moment it is ridiculous. But I can't help it. In an uncanny fashion Bond has come full circle, always the same yet entirely made new.
Skyfall is slick, spy-caper storytelling at its finest -- this, can this ever get old? I think not. *wink* If I missed any nods to the Bond canon, please chime in with a comment -- obviously, I can talk about this subject endlessly. :)