Skyfall (2012) Director: Sam Mendes
“Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way.”
Since the dawn of the 21st century James Bond has been viewed with suspicion under a microscope –Is he too violent? Too sexist? Perhaps a misogynist? Too cliche? Has he become a parody of himself? What will he do now that the Cold War has ended? Who are his true enemies? Is James Bond still relevant? In a jaded world where few seem to celebrate the West for its accomplishments, many find James Bond to be a silly, archetypal hero for their parents and grandparents. “James Bond is a relic,” they say. “He’s the mere phantasm of a bygone era.” And against this growing torrent of accusations lobbed at history’s greatest gentleman spy, enter Sam Mendes, a director with a triumphant, visionary, celebrated portrayal of James Bond in Skyfall –the best in the whole Bond saga in my view– with a qualified defense of the “old ways of doing things” or a “resurrection” of an “old warship.” According to Skyfall there is still room for high stakes espionage, skilled assassins, and a patriotic dedication to justice, even in a morally gray world that is constantly asking us to burn down our history (best exemplified in Bond burning down his old “Skyfall” family home). The film Skyfall is at once a defense of the old ways, in the days before our vast technological apparatus was constructed which has led to so many intelligence failures, but the film is also a passing of the torch to a new generation. It resurrects the classic ethos of James Bond while also embracing a brave new world.
Skyfall is simply the summit of the James Bond experience in my view. In it we see an outdated spy agency filled with shadowy yet valuable secret agents fighting an unknown enemy -an enemy of our own making (Javier Bardem’s blond, sexually deviant, computer-hacking character Raoul Silva) and it is a worthy theme worth exploring in an age of advanced technology and newfangled criticisms of the James Bond heroic ethos. While every scene in the film is beautifully shot and meticulously organized, one scene that stands out to me in particular is a public hearing wherein M (Dame Judi Dench) presents a defense of MI6 before a cold, democratic committee in a room of skeptical bureaucrats. She quotes Tennyson and asks “How safe do you feel?” moments before Silva, masquerading as a police officer, bursts into the room and opens fire.
At the outset, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are in Istanbul (not Constantinople) Turkey, where they are pursuing a thief who stole a hard drive of classified M16 information. After a rapid chase-scene on motorcycles and onto the top of a moving train, M directs Moneypenny to take a risky shot but she accidentally shoots Bond who falls down into a river to his apparent death. M publishes an obituary of Bond while we find him living off the grid, but suddenly there is an explosive attack on the MI6 headquarters. Next we see James Bond come out of his self-imposed exile and resurface in M’s London flat. M brings Bond up o speed and reinstates his “00” status, despite the fact that he failed a string of physical examinations. Meanwhile a firestorm brews in Parliament about whether or not classified spy programs are still relevant in an advanced world of technology -if they couldn’t prevent an attack on their own HQ, what good are they?
In spite of his shaky health, Bond tracks down the escaped thief from the beginning of the film to Shanghai, but the thief accidentally dies when Bond drops him off a building (this is not the invincible James Bond we have seen in past installments). Nevertheless Bond steals a casino token sitting in the man’s backpack leading to a casino in Macau. Here he meets Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) a woman who was sold into sex slavery as a child but was “saved” by her current employer. Bond pledges to help her, despite how fearful she seems. He sneaks aboard her yacht The Chimera but the boat overtaken by henchmen and led to a remote island off the coast of Macao -the compound of Raoul Silva (brilliantly played by Javier Bardem). Silva is a former M16 agent who was captured, tortured, and left for dead in captivity when his cyanide pill failed to work and left his face horribly disfigured. He was abandoned and forgotten by M, and now he seeks revenge (throughout the film there is an interesting dual maternal role that M plays between two agents Bond, who was mistakenly shot at M’s direction, and Silva, who was left for dead). While Bond is imprisoned, Silva murders Sévérine in a cruel game of William Tell, but moments later the cavalry arrives and Silva is captured. He confronts M through his high security cell before orchestrating a complex escape and an attack on parliament, only for Bond to triumphantly emerge defending the “old ways” of doing things. Bond takes M and hides out at his parent’s old Scottish country home where the house-keeper Kincade still lives (played by Albert Finney -imagine if they got Sean Connery for this role?) It is the only place that is safe from digital tracking (or the “new” ways of doing things), and here they break out a collection of old weapons and booby trap the house while lying in wait for the inevitable. It feels like a last stand for Bond as he takes refuge in his family home. The attack from Silva and his crew is a tense and satisfying shootout, even the old Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger makes an appearance, and eventually the “Skyfall” family home is burned down (Bond sacrifices his family legacy for the sake of country) and the fight leads on foot to an old chapel on the grounds where M is wounded. Silva catches her and tries to place his gun beside both of their heads in a joint suicide attempt, but Bond appears and kills Silva by throwing a knife into his back. Tragically, M succumbs to her wounds and so ends Judi Dench’s magnificent performance in the role. In the end back at MI6, Moneypenny formally introduces herself to Bond and a new “M” is hired (Mallory played by the Ralph Fiennes).
This is simply the Daniel Craig era as James Bond as his zenith. In tracing the Bond franchise arc, the films began with an explosion launch in the ’60s and with it came a wave of optimistic new spy movies (in contrast to older jaded Noir tropes), but by the ’70s James Bond decided to merely follow the trends of Hollywood film-making, from blaxploitation and kung-fu to Star Wars, and this trend held true into modern era right up until the Jason Bourne plagiarism in Quantum of Solace. In contrast, Skyfall offers a new way forward by going back in time. Indeed, some critics have noted that Skyfall takes us on a reverse adventure through the key moments in the Bond franchise: from the predictability of the Brosnan Bond films in the ’90s, to the goofy slapstick portrayal of Bond in the Moore films, all the way back to Sean Connery as we end in Scotland with a throwback to Goldfinger and a “resurrection” of James Bond (as the anti-Bond is slain in an old church). Against a backdrop of financial troubles and near-bankruptcy for MGM, Skyfall was also a resurrection of sorts for the viable of classic action movies.