Quick note: this contains spoilers for Skyfall. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be told of the shocking end and surprises throughout it, save this for later.
You may not know this about me, but I’m a huge James Bond fan. Shortly after my mom died, dad and I would spend our otherwise dull weekends watching Bond on ABC, one film at a time, each Saturday night. We’d order a pizza, as single guys with no mother figure are prone to do, and then immerse ourselves into the fantasy world that is Bond.
I’ve watched all the films so many times I can recite lines from memory. I can spout off stats, figures, and a director’s cut style commentary on every film. I’m just now starting to read the books, but I’m familiar with their differences from the films. I, like lots of people, would love to live in the fantasy world that Bond lives in.
Except, Bond has never lived in that far-fetched of a reality. Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, Captain America, those guys live in a fantasy world driven by their unlikely medical conditions and mutations.
James Bond lives in a world where things are just one notch above the extraordinary, where everything is a little brighter and a little more colorful and vivid. The women are prettier, the villains are badder, the scenery is richer, but it’s all largely plausible.
James Bond doesn’t have any qualities that any human couldn’t possess. Plenty of people are British, suave, sophisticated, or athletic. The villains, while sometimes ludicrous in their plans, are just men. Even Jaws just had metal teeth, which a person could theoretically afford themselves. Bond is the most real of any superhero on the big screen now and ever, if you can place him in the category of “super hero”.
So it was with anxious anticipation that I awaited Skyfall, which had a lot to prove to me and the world.
In the beginning, Sean Connery provided us with the basis that is Bond in film. Ian Fleming, the novelist and creator or the series, never intended for Bond to be how Connery portrayed him, though he liked the idea after the fact. Bond was to be gritty, intense, something of a blunt instrument in the wars that the British Secret Service fought. In the film series’ fifty year history, only Timothy Daulton got us close to that style of Bond, and it failed miserably at the box office. Until Daniel Craig, when the world seemingly lined up with the stars where Bond rests.
For Bond fans who can watch all the movies and resist the urge to fall into the trap of favoriting “their” Bond as the one they grew up with, Connery is Bond. A world where the formula for success involved a few gadgets, some sexual romps with women along the way to freeing the world from a villain with a ludicrous, egotistical, and far-fetched plan for money, nuclear weapons, destruction, or domination of the globe or humans, in various ways.
Connery exuded the 60’s, but it’s still in style today. Anyone need only watch Goldfinger, a film about a gold smuggler intent on destroying the gold supply of the US at Ft. Knox by radiation, thus increasing the value of his stock. It’s a bank robbery, and while the US is no longer on a gold standard, that still works today, unlike the many times Roger Moore went on a mission against the Chinese, Russians, or some other enemy state.
By the time Timothy Daulton came around, the formula was weighted differently. No longer did the films have intense moments of dialogue, like Goldfinger’s epic golf scene, which lasted almost as long as the final battle at the end of the movie. It was the 80’s, it was all about the boom. Nevertheless, Daulton wanted to add “depth and emotion” to Bond. To me, Bond’s whole character is one dimensional, and any attempt to alter that just doesn’t work. Daulton’s films, in retrospect, seem better than they were at the time. But in the 80’s, people weren’t having it, and the films failed.
Pierce Brosnan took over in the 90’s, with 1995’s Goldeneye, my personal second favorite film of the franchise. Buoyed by the principle of showing Bond could compete in a world no longer afraid of the Soviet Union, it was about getting Bond refreshed for the time, but following the formula of Bond films. If you ever wanted to show someone what Bond is about, watch the first 20 minutes of Goldeneye. He orders the vodka martini (a drink that was very cutting edge in Connery’s time, not so much anymore), says his name, “Bond…James Bond”, drives a fast car (an Aston Martin DB5, no less. Connery’s epic car, and the one used in Goldeneye is Brosnan’s personal car.), and they get him into a tux, in a casino, and making out with two women complete with puns, double entendre, and wit. It also features the last of the doubly-sexual and sexist women names, “Xenia Onnatopp”.
To Bond fans, that’s the winning formula. One we can never tire of. But evidently, general audiences today do not feel the same. At the start, Bond was ahead of his time, then he was behind the times, and then he was just barely ahead, and then they overreached at the end of Brosnan’s tenure, going with silly vanishing cars chasing around an ice palace. Stung by that, enter Daniel Craig.
In Casino Royale, audiences loved the film’s gritty, modern, tale. I, however, did not. I saw a film that was a return to Daulton’s Licence to Kill. A film where Bond isn’t suave, slick, and unflappable, but instead where Bond is classy, but fallible; blunt and aggressive. Craig is too busy kicking and punching shit to remember to straighten his tie.
Casino Royale was made as a reboot for the modern audience. I worried it wouldn’t hold up in time, that it would be seen as the opposite of Moonraker, a film that was so far behind, it didn’t make much sense. Moonraker, by the way, was so far ahead in the future it seemed silly.
Casino Royale was a good film. It was not a good Bond film, and neither was Quantum of Solace, the continuation of the former. Without Q, gadgets, modified cars, or other key Bond elements, it felt like a Bourne film. Swap in anyone else, and it still feels the same.
After seeing Skyfall, they have proven “This is just how we’re doing things now.” Daniel Craig has reverted back to the days of puns and witty one liners, and the women are there, but strong as always, and are portrayed around the rightful ways as they should, not just as sex objects or bimbos of years prior. Which is why we’re never going to have names as Bondsian as “Pussy Galore”, “Chew Mee”, or “Plenty O’Toole” ever again, and I’m certainly okay with that much.
Skyfall brings us back into the world where Q branch exists, albeit much different. To say nothing of Desmond Llewelyn, Skyfall does an excellent job of playing him homage, complete with the modified Aston Martin that has machine guns and an ejector seat. The symbolism of seeing it destroyed, and the subsequent angering of Bond as the triumphant bun-bum-ba-BUM theme plays as he lays witness to its demise, is key in Skyfall. It says, “The old days were great, we loved them, but it’s time to move on. Q branch did Bond well, and saved him one last time, almost from beyond the grave.”
Skyfall’s portrayal of a young, cocky, Q sees an interesting reversal from days of yore, and I approve. Rather than trying to replace Llewelyn with John Cleese, as they tried, they recognized Llewelyn’s shoes, having walked practically every film until his death, are almost as big as Bond’s. The switch from old to young, angered by Bond to respectful of Bond, work well. Though I feel sad by the line, “We don’t go in for exploding pens much anymore, 007.”
I think, still reeling from the overreach of vanishing cars in Tomorrow Never Dies, they have decided the world is now so modern, anything slightly futuristic at this point will be lasers and space ships, and we’ve been there, done that. The new Q branch is what you hope your government can actually do in 2012, but probably can’t.
For all they’ve done well transitioning us to a new Q, M stands out as unusual. We’ve only known a few M’s, and Bernard Lee set the tone from the start in Dr. No until his death, which they dodged by saying he was “on holiday”, and then M really regains a foothold as a character in Goldeneye, after Dame Judi Dench takes over.
But once they rebooted in Casino Royale, they still cast Dench. To most, myself included, I saw this as the carryover, the consistency of the legacy being brought into this new era. After Skyfall, where, spoiler alert, she dies, I see now that what they really wanted to say in Casino Royale was, “We still have an M, it’s the same actress as the last ten years, but never mind that. Pretend you’ve never seen this woman as M before. She’s totally not the same.” Dench is a fantastic choice for M, and rights a lot of wrongs when it comes to the portrayal of women in the series, and they cast her in Casino Royale as M because she was the best imaginable for the role.
In Skyfall, the theater silences itself quickly as she dies, and it makes me angry they didn’t recast M in Casino Royale. Like the Aston Martin, the death of Judi Dench’s M is another death in the legacy: “M will always be here, but Dench, who bridged us from the pre-modern era of Bond, has served her part and served us well. It’s time to move on here, too.”
Skyfall gives us more drama than any other Bond film as a result. We learn about his past, his parents, his love affair with Agent Eve Moneypenny, and it brings us to a point where we can say, “Reboot is complete. Next time you see us, we’re going back to Bond saving the world on missions as we used to know, but this is different, new, modern, and with a twist. We know more about James Bond now, so you’re welcome.” We’re left with a better understanding of Bond, and unlike with Daulton, this makes sense, so long as you can get over his kicking and punching shit to hell, complete with blood and grunts.
Skyfall has a level of symbolism that’s bar none the best of any Bond film. They addressed the did hards like me, saying, “We hear you, we know, we love this old stuff, too, but it’s old, join us over here and we think you’ll like it.” It makes Skyfall not only a great film, but a great Bond film. There’s a difference, and it means we can’t just swap in a Bourne or Joe Somebody here as Bond.
Skyfall even gives a nod to the intricacies of modern politics (at least in America), by suggesting Bond has had sex with a man. As Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, a slightly feminine and diabolically genius, intense, physically altered and perfectly egotistical and psychotic villain strokes Bond’s legs while he’s tied to a chair, 007 responds, “What makes you think this is my first time?” It’s so perfect it made me blush, and made the audience woo in unison. I’m convinced Bardem plays the best Bond Baddy in the film’s long history. Better than Auric Goldfinger, Jaws, or Dr. No. Add that Bond has had sex with men, no doubt out of love for Queen and Country, this isn’t your dad’s Bond. It’s unfashionable to think Connery’s Bond might go near a man except to crush him, but Craig makes that work and work well.
Skyfall gives us the boom of fancy explosions, they give us the signature “final showdown”, where an epic set is built and constructed with the sole intent of blowing it up. Though, unlike other films where Bond destroys the evil lair of his foe, here Bond’s home is destroyed, and subsequently, some bits of his past. Bond is forced to leave things behind, and so are we.
Skyfall takes us into the world of Bond where everything is still more intense than ours, where the villains are insanely evil, but where the stakes are also higher, the sex is just great, and the technology just slightly above where most of us know it. It interweaves the old and the new, the present and the future, and the story of lore with where Bond would be if Ian Fleming were where he wanted him to be.
As a die hard Bond fan, we have to say to ourselves, “The old stuff is great, it’s classic, and it’s earned it’s place. We’re not going to outdo it, or outlive it, so lets build our second legacy with just a little help from the past. James Bond is dead, but James Bond is alive and well.”