James Bond is the most anachronistic character in modern cinema: He’s a womanizer who treats human beings as objects, he glorifies alcohol abuse, and he’s a blind ideologue. He’s less a spy than a sociopathic killer. And he lays waste to foreign lands such that the CIA’s drone attacks look like an outreach program by comparison.
And therein lies the theme of Skyfall, the latest Bond adventure, which has been racking up huge ticket sales and earning rave reviews worldwide, and which debuted in U.S. theaters this weekend to the tune of 87 million dollars.
In Skyfall, MI6, the British spy agency and Bond’s employer, is under fire from government overseers for leaving an increasingly bloody pile of dead bodies whenever they stick their noses in world affairs. The agency’s director, M (Judy Dench), has become the chief target of the bureaucrats’ ire for losing a list containing the identities of MI6’s double agents around the world – and for issuing an order to inexperienced agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), that results in the accidental death of one 007, a veteran MI6 operative.
The list falls into the hands of a former MI6 agent-turned evil mastermind, Silva (Javier Bardem), who is too darned flamboyant to need a last name. Silva, long thought dead, holds a grudge against his old employer somethin’ fierce and begins using his extensive knowledge of computers, bombs, and abandoned subway maps to give those stuff-shirt bureaucrats something to really bitch about.
Of course, Bond isn’t really dead, just banging Turkish chicks, and he has to show the politicians he can still rock it, Connery-style (but with less chest hair).
You know what? Skyfall ain’t bad. Calling it the “Best Bond Ever,” as many critics have, might be a bit of hyperbole, but it’s certainly the best Bond since Goldeneye. Unlike later Pierce Brosnan entries and the previous Daniel Craig stories, this plot can actually be followed and has some logical consistency. On that note, if anyone can tell me what Die Another Day was about, I’ll give you five dollars. It came out in 2002 and I still don’t get it.
I’ve never been sold on Daniel Craig– he looks more like a boxer than a spy, and he sounds an awful lot like Bill Nighy when he talks – but at least the screenwriters have tailored this Bond incarnation to Craig’s blue-collar demeanor. Here, 007 is depicted as a regular Joe of sorts, disinterested in politics and posh country clubs. He even gets to run around with a shotgun later in the movie, which is decidedly more Wyatt Earp than debonair secret agent.
Everybody knows Javier Bardem is one of those rare actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis or Chuck Norris, who couldn’t turn in a bad performance if he tried. Some people are even calling for Bardem to get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his over-the-top, bisexual baddie.
Well, I’m calling for an end to the hyperbole, peeps. Of course Bardem is awesome, but it’s a James Bond villain for cryin’ out loud. For whatever reason, the bad guys in these films are usually effeminate, and Bardem is simply having fun with the stereotype. He took this role because he probably needed a break from playing intense, complex, exhausting characters and just wanted some playtime. Well done, but no award necessary.
Regarding Bardem’s Silva, this is the first Bond film in which the person trying to seduce our hero is another man. The new normal indeed!
But the primary reason this movie works so well is Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road to Perdition fame. I’m a fan of studios going outside the box when hiring directors for action movies. I’m sure someone like Joe Johnston would have turned in a technically excellent product, but Mendes brings his gift for quiet tension and compositional dynamism to a series that too often relies on crashes and explosions in place of real suspense.
The cinematography is beautiful throughout, but one scene that stands out the most is very likely one that read the weakest on paper: Bond goes into an empty skyscraper to capture an assassin in the midst of a job. He sneaks up on the guy. They fight. The bad guy falls out the window.
Mendes choose to set this sequence in an all-glass structure full of highly reflective surfaces, against a backdrop of digital billboards. The result is visually stunning, with the two principles battling in silhouette as blinding bursts of color surge, fade, reflect, and sweep all around them.
Also amusing are the self-referential moments when the filmmakers bring attention to the series’ anachronistic nature, such as when Q (Ben Whishaw) issues Bond a handgun and a radio. In response to 007’s clear disappointment at the lack of gadgetry, Q says with condescension, “What. You were expecting an exploding pen?”
Skyfall is not without its flaws. The character of Eve, for once a Bond Girl who is sweet and likeable and – in keeping with efforts at modernization – not overtly sexy, disappears halfway through the movie. When she makes a brief return later, her minimal participation in the story has no impact on the climactic events whatsoever. Naomie Harris is appealing in the role, but I would like to have seen her in a bit of peril, or perhaps rescue Bond from the same.
Fans of big stunts may be disappointed with the lack thereof. Outside the obligatory opening spectacle, the rest of the action involves fist fights and shootouts, though those are served well by Mendes’ sure-handed direction and the artful lighting.
And for all the lectures M receives from bureaucrats about her reckless decision making – and about how MI6 belongs to a different era – the film still overlooks an unavoidable truth about the character of James Bond, going back to the very first film: He is a British colonialist at heart.
In an early scene that takes place in Turkey, Bond undertakes a pursuit that shows his usual utter disregard for the value of life when the people standing between him and his quarry have brown or yellow skin. I shan’t spoil the spectacle for you, but I’ll simply say that if this event had taken place for real, dozens of innocent people would have been at least critically injured if not killed. As far as I know, the British secret service does not have a treaty with Turkey that allows its operatives to wantonly destroy property and inflict collateral damage on Turkish soil. I wonder if Bond would be so blindly reckless in Piccadilly Circus.
You’re most likely thinking, “Oh come on, Baker. It’s a friggin’ 007 movie, for Christ’s sake.” Like many, I’ve enjoyed these films for ages, and I’m not trying to be self-righteous. But artists, including commercial filmmakers, can’t help but reflect their biases in their art, and colonial-era Europeans inarguably treated the locals cruelly over the centuries. Since the producers of this series are clearly trying to keep James Bond relevant and on the side of good in a 21st Century world, they might consider not having him act like he owns it.
Eric rates this film: