Monday, October 28, 2013

His Word is Bond

Film: Skyfall
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When you play around with a legend, you always run the risk of losing a big part of your audience. Look at what happened with the Star Wars prequels. Look at what happened with the fourth Indiana Jones film. With Skyfall, the umpteenth James Bond film, the final product takes the entire franchise in a new direction. Risky, that. And yet, if it’s done well, the results are fantastic, as is the case here.

Skyfall is the 23rd official James Bond film, not counting the television and spoof versions of Casino Royale and the unofficial Never Say Never Again. As a film this far in the franchise would be, there are plenty of expectations from the viewers. Skyfall plays with many of these, and does so perfectly. In doing so, the film modernizes the franchise in substantial ways, opting less for traditional James Bond gimcrackery and gadgetry and more for modern reality and geopolitics.

For instance, one of the old hallmarks of James Bond films was the super spy gadgets. Bond could always be counted on to get an explosive device disguised as a pen or a car with secret weapons mounted front and rear. Here, when Bond (Daniel Craig) meets up with Q (Ben Whishaw), his gadgets consist of a plane ticket and passport, a pistol keyed to Bond’s palm print, and a small radio device. That’s it. No bullet-firing fountain pen, no suitcase jet pack. Just a gun and a transmitter. So when a classic Bond gadget from the past does show up, it plays not only as a bit of nostalgia, but also as homage to the earlier films in the series. The fact that Q is substantially younger than any such version of the character in the past is just as noteworthy.

For a long time, Bond films have traded on their opening, and Skyfall is no different here. Bond and an unnamed fellow agent (Naomie Harris) are in pursuit of a man who has stolen a hard drive filled with the names and locations of NATO agents currently infiltrating terrorist groups. This leads to a long chase sequence that culminates with a fight on top of a rushing train. Bond’s co-agent is instructed to take a shot to end the battle. She does, hitting Bond and presumably sending him to his death as he falls off the train and into a river far below.

But of course Bond isn’t dead. He simply takes this opportunity to retire quietly, at least until the knowledge of the stolen hard drive becomes public and the British government begins an inquiry into the inner workings of MI6, and specifically of MI6 chief M (Judi Dench). Out of a sense of loyalty, Bond returns to help track down the hard drive and put an end to the chaos. This is another place where Bond canon is played with. I’m no Bond expert, having seen just over half of the films in the series, but I don’t recall any time in the past when MI6 was specifically called out to defend its actions to the British people. Ralph Fiennes shows up here as someone who is both sympathetic to M’s plight and wanting to see her retire.

The biggest change, though, is Bond himself. In the past, James Bond was always seen as something indestructible, a force of nature unto himself and all but unstoppable. Here, the cracks are starting to show. He’s drug- and alcohol dependent and looks as if all of the missions he’s done are showing. In fact, he fails all of the tests necessary for him to reclaim field agent status, a fact that M hides from him when she clears him to go back into the field. It’s shocking to see Bond as merely human, to see him bloodshot and missing targets when he fires at them.

Just as modern is our villain here. Rather than a bizarre scheme to melt the polar ice caps or irradiate all of the gold in Fort Knox, Silva (Javier Bardem) only wants revenge on M for what he sees as her betrayal of him in the past. To enact this revenge, he doesn’t need voodoo or a space station or a giant submarine. Instead, he uses guns and high-level hacking to play with MI6’s computer systems.

This has been a trend with James Bond films since Daniel Craig took over the role. I didn’t see Quantum of Solace, but Casino Royale certainly plays with the real world far more than did earlier films in the franchise, particularly the cheesier films in Roger Moore’s catalog. Especially with Skyfall, it is very much as if the franchise is moving into the same realm of realism as the Bourne films while maintaining the same high level of excitement and action.

I see that I haven’t really talked much about the film itself here, and I’m okay with that. Honestly, it’s not a film that specifically turns on its plot, and any sort of plot would be roughly the same here. This is much more about the character of James Bond and his dealing with his own personal demons and breakdowns and seeing him in action.

A last excellent break with the previous films in the series? Our unnamed agent at the start of the film proves to be Eve Moneypenny, who has been M’s secretary throughout the James Bond golden age.

Bottom line: Skyfall is less a return to form for the James Bond franchise and more a well-designed and coherent redirection of a franchise that needed a shift to stay both relevant and interesting.

Why to watch Skyfall: James Bond made legitimately modern.
Why not to watch: It might be too long, but only maybe.


  1. I've actually only ever seen 2... *maybe* 3 Bond movies. Casino Royale and Skyfall for sure. And I think one of the Brosnan ones, maybe. Skyfall is awesome and made me interested in going back and seeing the older ones, even though I know they're different in tone and style.

    And Silva is an amazing villain. His introduction one-take about the mouse is fantastic, as well.

    1. The early Bond films are pretty good. They're a little campy at times, but the Connery Bonds are generally worth seeing. There are a couple of decent Roger Moore Bond films, but they get very camp in the middle and end of his run to the point where you wonder why you're still watching them.

      I've seen one of the Dalton films--my one-word review is "bland." I think I've seen one of the Brosnan films, too.

      I guess if you only see one more, see Goldfinger, because it's the quintessential Bond in a lot of ways. It's the best and most classic of the classic Bond films. I really like where they're taking the series and the character. It's darker and far more real, and Craig is damn good at it.

  2. I've seen every Bond film made, including the "unofficial" ones (which ARE official to everyone except the Broccolis because those films also licensed the use of the character from Ian Fleming). Skyfall is my favorite of the Daniel Craig ones, but the character ceased being James Bond with Casino Royale. They made him "relevant" by aping the Jason Bourne movies that were popular at the time of the reboot. It completely went against what made the Bond character great. Bond doesn't outslug his opponents; he outsmarts them.

    As I was reading this I was thinking that you must not have seen the prior two Craig films, but then you mentioned you had seen one. Skyfall doesn't go away from the old Bond films; it actually returns more of the trappings of the Bond legacy missing from the first two Craig films, which is one of the reasons I liked it the best. The director is quoted on the BD as saying that he doesn't believe in gagdets because, get this, the ultimate gadget already exists in real life - the cell phone - and that fantasy can't compete anymore and that Bond fans will just have to get used to not seeing what they want to see. Of course, later in the same interview he gushes about how he loved the traditional Aston Martin car when he was a kid and guess what shows up in the film, complete with gadgets? It makes a difference if it's a gadget HE wants to see apparently.

    And as for Dalton being bland, I disagree. The very same things that Craig gets praised for - seriousness, more reality, a sense of purpose, etc. - are the very same things that Dalton brought to the character, but Dalton was criticized for making Bond too serious after the goofiness that was the later Roger Moore films. If anyone, it's Brosnan who is the one who brought blandness to the character. After Goldeneye I have trouble even keeping the following three Brosnan films from all blending together in my head. Nothing really stands out from them - except Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist (!?)

    So, I liked Skyfall and it was entertaining, but it's Jason Bourne, not James Bond.

    1. So I should clear this up first--I don't think Timothy Dalton was bland; I think the movie I saw with him in it was bland. I see that that wasn't clear from context, but that is what I meant. I rather like Timothy Dalton in general.

      I reference Bourne in the review. For me, this is where Bond needs to go to avoid becoming complete ridiculous camp. I almost referenced Burn Notice, since the third act feels very much like an episode of that show with the cobbled booby traps.

      I do think it would be a massive mistake to go back to that. People who want to take over the world or destroy the planet so that everyone dies except for their own people on board a submarine are silly in today's world. Bringing Bond into something relevant keeps the character relevant. And there's plenty of room in this style of character for him to out-muscle, out-gun, and out-smart his opponents.

    2. You're right: I did misunderstand you on Dalton. Thanks for the clarification.

      And I don't have a problem with more realistic motivations for the villains (although the one in Skyfall still had a ridiculously complicated plan that relied on numerous coincidences to work and whose ultimate goal was simply to walk into a building - something he could have done without almost all of his machinations.)

      Hey, I'm an old grump about the Star Trek reboot, too. Entertaining movies? Yes. Star Trek? Not remotely.

    3. I'm simply pleased to know that someone out there is more of a curmudgeon than I am.

  3. Good review SJ. Though I did feel like it was a bit overrated during its initial release, the movie still kicked plenty of ass that you'd expect a James Bond movie to do. Also, there was a certain level of emotion thrown into this one that made it stand out among the rest of the past decade or so, making it an altogether more compelling movie. However, that last-act was a bit too much like Home Alone, with more Brits.

    1. British Home Alone? You're not a Burn Notice fan. Seriously, rigging the chandeliers and the floorboards is some Michael and Fiona shit. In fact, if memory serves, in one episode, two characters rig Christmas lights with shotgun shells. I completely expected a voice over at one point to say, "My name is James Bond. I used to be a spy."

  4. I really enjoyed Skyfall and think it does a nice job in balancing some of the elements (the cars, the international locale, etc.) that make the series great but pulls it into the modern landscape. This trend was started most recently with Casino Royale like you mention (and springs back to the underrated Dalton films), but the balance really works here. I'm still partial to Casino Royale since it gives him a great origin story, but Skyfall is right behind it for Craig. I'm looking forward to checking it out again at some point.

    1. I'm trying to get my daughter to watch this. I think she'd dig the Bourne movies, too. I'd like to revisit Casino Royale one of these days as well. I remember really liking it, but I'm honestly not sure I remember exactly why.

      I contend Bond needed to be modernized and "gritty rebooted." The classic Bond is far too camp to make it in the modern world.

  5. Last night I saw Skyfall on television by coincidence and remembered having just read your review. You are exactly spot on on all points. Particularly about Craig making Bond a grittier and far more real character. So what if it borrows from the Bourne francise, this is what made the Bourne stories good.
    But what I found most remarkable was the update in relevance. Bringing the MI6 itself into question, discussing leaks of information, secrecy versus openess and the vulnerability of massive intelligence structures against mavericks. With the recent NSA case it is almost as if reality imitates fiction.
    I also found that making the story focus on M as a personal battle with Bond championing his mentor was a clever plot. Seen before, but rarely this well. And a lot more realistic than some world domination plot.

    1. You have summed up in fewer than 150 words exactly what I wanted to say. Damn, I wish I could be that concise!

      Yeah, the update in relevance is precisely what made this work for me. Perhaps it's the influence of the Bourne movies and perhaps it's the negative influence of Austin Powers, but in either case I'd have a really difficult time buying into a "let's take over the world from our underground lair" scenario today.

  6. Good observation about Bond's vices, alcohol dependency, etc.
    I loved the in-jokes, and also the funny one-liners in Skyfall, my favorite was the tube station "he's keen to get home" remark. Almost like going back to the 70s and 80s Bond movies again with Roger Moore(I realize I'm in the minority in the blogosphere favoring the Moore era)

    Of the recent Bond titles, Skyfall is one of my favorites, along with Golden Eye, and Casino Royale.

    1. I like the quips. They sometimes come across as pure cheese, but they're fun.

      I'm really interested to see where the series goes. I do wonder how many more Bond films Daniel Craig has in him--he's only a few months younger than I am.