With Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the character of James Bond had successfully been humanized. He was no longer a suave, romanticized superspy with ridiculous gadgets hidden in his cufflinks. Instead, he was a little rough around the edges, both physically and psychologically – a flawed man who could do his job but couldn’t always come to terms with it. This onscreen transformation was helped greatly by the casting of Daniel Craig, whose handsome features were slightly tinged with an especially dark shade of world weariness. He assumes the 007 role for the third time in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. Watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the character was slipping away from Craig. It was as if Bond’s repressed patterns and behaviors were resurfacing, despite their being tonally and narratively inconsistent with this new film series.
In other words, it’s a struggle between the Bond that was and the Bond that currently is. To an extent, this is appropriate; the film’s overarching theme is the mental, physical, personal, and political clash of old and new. If this is present in the plot, I guess it’s only natural that it would also be present in the atmosphere and structure. More contemporary elements such as character development and subtext vie for space alongside more classic components such as action, sex, and spycraft. There are several cinematic throwbacks to earlier Bond films, not the least of which is the Aston Martin DB5 with machineguns built into the front bumper. There’s also the return of gadget specialist Q, now much younger (Ben Whishaw). In a quietly amusing moment, he responds to Bond’s complaint about receiving only a gun and a radio transmitter: “What were you expecting? An exploding pen? We don’t really go for that anymore.”
While in Turkey pursuing a stolen computer hard drive, which contains information on undercover NATO agents in terrorist organizations, Bond gets into a fistfight atop a moving freight train, is accidentally shot in the shoulder by his field partner, Eve (Naomie Harris), and is subsequently presumed dead after plummeting into a far-below river. He miraculously survives, although rather than return to London, he opts to “retire” to a seedy beachfront village and indulge in women and drinking games. He’s drawn back, however, when he learns that a hacker caused a deadly explosion at his old headquarters, MI6. The head of the agency, M (Judi Dench), wasn’t in the building when it happened, although she was returning from a meeting with an intelligence authority named Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who has putting pressure on M to step down.
During his mission to Shanghai, a series of events leads Bond to the film’s primary antagonist, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a personal vendetta against M. Although he has an evil scheme, he’s not the cartoonish madman typical of most Bond films. Rather, he’s a psychological study, so soft spoken and yet so aggressive, capable of the most destructive and hurtful actions. His introductory scene is quite intentionally infused with homoerotic statements and gestures; after tying Bond to a chair, he toys with Bond’s shirt collar and gently brushes up against his leg. I suspect this will be misinterpreted as sensationalistic. I personally see it as an effective way to make the villain, traditionally the most interesting character of any film or story, that much more memorable.
All leads to a fiery climax at Bond’s childhood home, a brick and mortar countryside estate so isolated and gloomy that it could conceivably double as the setting for a Victorian ghost story. Its Scottish location is in all likelihood a nod to Sean Connery, the first actor to assume the James Bond role. I’m personally wary of insider references this blatant, although I did appreciate the fact that the estate, dubbed Skyfall, held at least some of the answers regarding Bond’s background. You’d think we’d get additional help from Kincade, the groundskeeper (Albert Finney), although he’s mostly reduced to an incidental character, included only as a way for the writers to work in a few witty lines of dialogue. There’s no real harm in this, but then again, there’s no real benefit, either.
Skyfall is certainly a recommendable film; it has a fine cast, the performances are all convincing, it has more character development than most other non-Craig 007 films, and the action sequences are appropriately spaced apart and really quite spectacular. My favorite is when Silva sets off an explosion in a London Underground station, causing a subway train to zoom through the wall and dramatically crash onto the floor below. Still, I have some serious concerns about the future of the franchise. Does this film mark the start of a regression to older, campier Bond films, where the emphasis was style rather than substance? Out with the new, in with the old? I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally prefer the newer, more introspective approach to the main character. I don’t merely want a superspy. I want an actual character, a human being I can analyze and perhaps even relate to.