Skyfall, the latest James Bond film,is an apologia for the whole Bond series. It rather pointedly keeps reminding us of the value of the “old ways,” old-style weapons and gadgets, and the worth of old-timers—all the while re-populating the franchise with new possible regulars and offering reasons for the need for spying in the age of modern terrorism. This isn’t your father’s James Bond movie, and it essentially kills the series and resurrects it at the same time, (slight spoiler alert) much as it does to its central character in the opening scenes.
Oscar-winning director (for American Beauty) Sam Mendes doesn’t seem the obvious choice for a Bond film. But much as Daniel Craig reinvented 007 upon his casting, Mendes reboots the series with a visual style and intelligence that almost completely removes memories of the cheese and groans that were such a part of the Bond films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. His action scenes may not be Jason Bourne-intense, but they are smarter, sharper and less unbelievable than in earlier Bond films, keeping us drawn into the film instead of disconnecting us with either respect or disbelief. His treatment of the eye-rolling double-entendres and painful one-liners renders them nearly invisible. They’re there, but they are handled in character, as part of the game that everyone knows is being played, and often coated in an irony that works for the scene. Plus this is likely the most beautiful and dazzling photographed film in the series. All this works to bring the Bond film to a new level of intelligence and visual creativity, even as it struggles to validate its existence in the age of electronic espionage and drones.
The look is simply stunning. We expect a high level of graphic design in the opening credits of a Bond film. We get that here, but it turns out to be a preview of the visual template that Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit, No Country for Old Men) use in the rest of the film, most obviously in the murder-in-the-skyscraper scene, which is almost distractingly designed and beautiful. There are reflections and silhouettes everywhere, reminiscent of the director’s underrated Road to Perdition, including a repeat of that film’s gripping scene of a reflection in a window that might function as see-through glass or a mirror. The colors, the designs, the surfaces are all so gorgeous that one can be forgiven for not noticing that the ending scenes are a veritable master class on how to photograph action scenes in darkness. (His work has already been voted the best of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.)
The acting might be on the highest level of any Bond film. A late scene in an old church has Craig (a solid actor) and three Oscar winners: Judi Dench, Javier Bardem and Albert Finney in a throw-away role. One of the strengths of the film is how much film time that Dench’s character is given. Her presence elevates any film she’s in, and her authority and skill gives the film a gravitas other Bond films haven’t even aimed for; the fact that her character supplies a great deal of the narrative only enriches the entire enterprise. Bardem’s performance simultaneously provides the Bond oeuvre with one of its greatest villains and also raises the near-heretical thought that a Bond villain performance might draw an Oscar nomination. Bardem’s lines are often cheesier than the ones Craig has to deal with, but Bardem generally makes them work in character. His Silva is a multi-layered bad guy with understandable issues who draws sympathy as well as antipathy from the viewer. His role adds the “this time it’s personal” element of the plot, which sets the villainy apart from mad men or crazed terrorists. Since the vengeance is aimed at M rather than Bond, it provides an opportunity for Silva to relate to Bond in an unprecedented manner. Aside from a homoerotic exchange that will be studied far beyond its worth to the film, the connection between Silva and Bond—and their stories of work with M16—deepens both their characters and adds a frisson of recognition to them both that under slightly different circumstances, one could have become the other.
A significant departure from the Bond norm is in the treatment of women. As with the one-liners that have become embedded or are lightly tossed away, Bond’s relationships with women have undergone a transformation. This is a Bond light-years away from the womanizing Connery, where women were interchangeable and disposable. This is the post-Casino Royale Bond that was once in love, and who can see women as individuals with brains and cunning as well as looks. There is some sexual activity, to be sure, but it is mostly perfunctory, both in terms of plot (a bored Bond trying to find himself again on a desert island) and presentation (a shower seat with as much heat as a snowman and with essentially no significance to the plot). Bérénice Marlohe is lovely and has a few touching moments as the damsel in distress, but it’s Naomie Harris as Bond’s partner agent who adds the freshest note. She’s beautiful, of course, but she’s also funny, great with a gun and a line, and is Bond’s equal without her strong individuality being compromised by becoming a romantic possibility (and hence a second banana) to Bond. Dench’s M (spoiler alert) clearly won’t be making any more appearances in a Bond film, and (another spoiler alert) her replacement won’t have the age, depth or acting ability that Dench provided. Sexual tension might be re-introduced, but the jury is still out on what the series will do with Bond’s escapades or romantic interests. After all, he’s known real love and now realizes that verbal flirtations are better off being ironic or used a vehicle for exchanging real information.
For the film nerds among us, Mendes has references to his own Road to Perdition, as well as to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, the latter often called “the first James Bond film” for its themes, opening sequence, and style. I’m sure subsequent viewings will produce more awareness of Mendez’ homages.
Skyfall brings resurrection, not just renewal, to the series, as it does to Bond himself in the plot. The promise is of better direction, stronger acting, deeper themes, and something of a less adolescent approach to sex and relationships. If that is the case, this is a good start. If not, it will be an unhappy missed opportunity.