SKYFALL: So Much For My Promising Career in Espionage

Skyfall (2012) – The 23rd James Bond Film; the 3rd Daniel Craig Film – Directed by Sam Mendes – Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, and Albert Finney.

If you’re new here, be aware that SPOILERS are coming. Lots of them. I am not bound by your inability to have seen the movie before me. I’ve seen it and I want to talk about it, so if you don’t want anything ruined, go away, see the movie, and then come back and tell me why I’m an idiot. If you’re looking for the answer to the question, “Should I see it?”, the answer is Yes. If you really want to read about Bond, though, I’ve reviewed the other Bond movies, which you can find right here at the James Bond Review Index.

Whenever a new story in a long-running series comes out, there’s this immediate, infantile urge to locate the story’s place in the greater scheme: Best Bond film ever! Worse than Quantum of Snoozefest! Not as good as Octopussy but better than Die Another Day/!

These kinds of comments and lists are ridiculously tiresome. It’s like people are out there waiting for an opportunity to update a list rather than watch a movie. I think they are generally created by people who can’t prove their better than you by buying a Ferrari so they try to shame you with knowledge, or who have perhaps mistaken their fandom for identity and fear new fans enjoying what they’ve been enjoying and thus, the argument goes, somehow ruining it. (I thought this way, too, once. Of course, I was fifteen.) If people have fun with them, that’s fine, but if they’re using it to make you feel dumb, then I hope they sit next to the loudest, dumbest fourteen year old the next time they go to the theater. Why? Because it will be like they’re sitting next to themselves, that’s why.

What irks me the most about them, however, is that the idea of accurately comparing the immediate experience of watching a film in the theater with films that have been around for decades.

No, I take that back. What irks me the most is the person who doesn’t have fun with their lists, who uses the creation of a list or the comparison of one film to another in the series simply as an opportunity to toss some predictable, tired snark around.

I bring all of this up, in part, as a way to call myself out. (What? You thought that I thought I was perfect? You really are new here.) While watching SKYFALL this afternoon in a very crowded theater on the 23rd Bond film’s third day of release, I found myself occasionally thinking of where I’d place SKYFALL in the Bond pantheon. Instead of, you know, simply enjoying and analyzing the movie on its own merits. If you’ve kicked around the Anxiety, at all, you know I hate lists. I think once you get past a few movies, trying to argue that, say, the 14th best Bond movie is better than the 15th best Bond movie is a little specious. I prefer to do my rankings using the tier system; it’s more general, but for me, at least, it’s more accurate. I can make a very convincing argument that CASINO ROYALE (2006) is the best Bond movie ever, but I can also make a convincing argument that GOLDFINGER is the best Bond movie ever, too.

The truth is that sometimes I think ROYALE is the best and at other times I think GOLDFINGER is the best, so I’m content to call them “Tier One” movies and leave it at that.

Is SKYFALL a Tier One Bond movie?

Yes. Probably. Talk to me after the Blu-ray comes out and I’ve seen it a few more times. That snarky comment that kept rattling around my brain during the film was, “This is good, but it’s not CASINO ROYALE good.” For now, I’m confident in saying that it’s not nearly as good as CASINO ROYALE, but then, I consider CASINO ROYALE the single best action movie since Die Hard. I am happy to say that it was worth every penny of the $9 I would have paid if I had paid for my ticket this afternoon. It’s a mature, serious espionage film, dotted with brief moments of wry humor. It’s well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, although on this last point it must be noted that Sam Mendes’ action scenes succeed because of their narrative strength and not because of their visual flair.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and it shows how smart a director Mendes is to play to his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It also gives SKYFALL a uniqueness to it; there’s a very real sense throughout the movie that SKYFALL is raising the bar and making a real attempt to push action movies in a different direction.

Which is to say, it’s not a Jason Bourne movie. In fact, SKYFALL owes more (visually and narratively) to Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire than any of the Bourne movies, or even many of the Bond movies.

Sure, there’s the tired, seen-too-many-times “Bond is getting old” trope trotted out one more time, and when SKYFALL is at its worst it’s indulging in this nonsense. (Which is really silly considering that ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE were the start of Bond’s career and they happened one immediately after the other.) James Bond is such the epitome of cool that giving him physical frailty is the easiest way to put a dent in his armor, but I feel about this plot the way I feel about superheroes who don’t want to be superheroes: this isn’t why you’re getting my money. It’s harder, but much more satisfying, when Bond films find other ways to give our supercool British spy a hurdle to overcome. Give them a love interest. Give them a personal vendetta. Give them Christopher Lee.

Thankfully, SKYFALL offers a bit of this, too. While it opens with Bond getting accidentally shot off a moving train by another British agent (Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny, though the film doesn’t tell us her name until the end), only to come back a few months later looking haunted and beaten down, SKYFALL eventually moves us to Bond’s family home (named Skyfall) in Scotland. SKYFALL starts in the present with the damaged Bond, but then once he returns to active field duty, the rest of the film is a balance between who he (and the franchise) used to be and who he (and the franchise) is going to be.

That’s not unintentional, of course. This is the 50th year anniversary of the James Bond cinematic franchise, which makes it a fitting time to reflect and redefine.

On that note, it’s both satisfying and a bit disappointing that the answer to where Bond is going is back to tradition. By the end of the film, M (Judi Dench) is dead, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) is the new M, and we’ve been introduced to a new Q (Ben Whishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). The film tries to hold off on the new M and Moneypenny until the end, but given that we don’t hear Moneypenny’s name at the start and all of her dialogue with Bond centers around her maybe not being best suited for field duty, it’s pretty obvious where that plot is going. Similarly, the film introduces the idea that M is going to be forced to step aside and it’s pretty obvious that if she is going to be replaced, Ralph Fiennes is going to be her replacement.

It’s not just the reinstatement of Q and Moneypenny to the franchise, but the whole office set-up that played such a huge role in the pre-Craig era. As SKYFALL is closing, there’s Bond coming through a door, Miss Moneypenny taking her seat at a desk, and Bond entering a small but rich office where he takes a mission from M. Mendes makes these moments work, and it’s a confident shot at other movie franchises. Any franchise that survives for 50 years is going to have a certain amount of malleability to it, and that’s clearly in evidence over the course of Bond’s run. Sean Connery exchanged confidence for parody. Roger Moore went to space. Timothy Dalton made a Schwarzenegger film. Pierce Brosnan oversaw the rise of female equality. And Daniel Craig wasn’t allowed to smile.

None of that is, in and of itself, automatically a bad thing. Malleability is a good thing, in the long run, because it gets the franchise through the years where it has fallen a bit out of favor, and then every so often we’re rewarded with a SPY WHO LOVED ME or GOLDENEYE or SKYFALL that reasserts the franchise’s preeminence.

And that’s really SKYFALL’s biggest strength – this is a movie that does what it does without concern for the latest cinematic trends. SKYFALL is a movie that charts its own course, that’s respective of the past and cognizant of the future. When Bond exchanges M’s Jaguar for his original Aston Martin DB5, it’s not just symbolically cool to see Connery’s car back, but an assertion of the confident style that Bond represents. Far too often over the years the Bond franchise has been the Ford Mustang; no, not the pre-1970s Mustang which was as cool as any car ever, but all of those post-First Generation Mustangs where Ford ripped the guts out of their Pony Car and continually morphed it into whatever the populace was buying at the moment. The Mustang should always be THE MUSTANG. Other car manufacturers should change to rip it off but instead we’ve gotten nearly forty years of the Mustang trying to be the Toyota Celica or Mazda Rx-Whatever or Dodge Charger.

I like QUANTUM OF SOLACE more than just about anyone, but it’s not a traditional Bond movie. It’s a great action movie, but it’s far more Bourne than Bond. It took the grim Craig Bond one step too far into the darkness, and while that isn’t ideal, the reaction has been to bring Bond back into the light with SKYFALL. The care and attention here to not only make a great movie, but to make the reset to a Bond tied to an M, a Q, and a Moneypenny happen organically. In the long history of the Bond franchise, SKYFALL represents a high point in terms of seeing a long-term plan. That’s what I thought was going to happen with ROYALE, but then QUANTUM took a awkward step and financial troubles befell MGM, and so SKYFALL feels like another new beginning. Because of what ROYALE didn’t do (no Q, no Moneypenny, very little sense of humor), SKYFALL took the opportunity to re-establish some old friends and it does it beautifully.

There’s no doubting I left the theater with a smile on my face, but it’s not simply because SKYFALL takes what is old and makes it new, again. No, what makes all of this work is that the mission in SKYFALL brings Bond, old M, new M, Q, and Moneypenny together through the test of battle. Because of the personal attack on M and MI6 by Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) and British politicians, we see our new unit coming together organically. Yes, we get the r-establishment of the lovably contentious Bond/Q relationship, but it’s in the process of Q having to prove himself to Bond when 007 steals M away in order to hide her that his inclusion wins me over.

People have been raving about Javier Bardem’s Silva, and it’s a good performance, but it’s yet another former ally turned enemy plot, and there’s really not a lot here that’s better than Sean Bean’s role as 006. The opening confrontation between Silva and Bond is very strong, but Silva quickly becomes just another thug with a gun and an axe to grind.

Daniel Craig is once again very good as James Bond and SKYFALL is a very good movie. Mendes manages to make an excellent spy film that brings back some of the old James Bond elements that had grown stale and rightly been abandoned. He infuses a grown-up espionage film with plenty of nods to Bond’s past and as the curtain falls on Bond’s 23rd movie and 50th year, Mendes puts all the toys back on the board, setting up the movie franchise for it’s next stage. When M is sitting in front of the government inquisition and a politician is telling her how MI6 is outdated and she’s outdated and blah blah blah, it’s not just a story point but a subtle shot at the changing trends. M’s response, Bond’s response, even Mallory, Q, and Moneypenny’s response is a come back to Jesus moment, welcoming old fans back to a more traditional Bond at the same time it lets us know what the new ground rules are going to be.

___________________________

Check out my latest work of fiction, with a time-traveling British secret agent: GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC VOLUME 0: BLOOD OF THE UNIVERSE. Here’s the blurb: It’s 1866 and Jill (a white, merchant’s daughter) and Hanna (a Korean-American servant in the merchant’s house) have fled to the American West to start a new life on their own terms.
They boarded a train in Kansas City, and before the morning was over, they had fought werewolves and vampires, partnered with Bellingham, a time-traveling British secret agent, and made an enemy of Mrs. Lincoln.

And then the train jumped its tracks, crashing violently, and killing Jill.

Hanna is despondent until Bellingham reveals his real reason for being in 1866: the Universe Cutter, a knife with the power to resurrect the dead. All they have to do is find it.

To bring Jill back, Hanna will partner with two time travelers and President Grant’s right-hand man, and battle Confederates, werewolves, lizard men, sun worshipping cultists, and a man from the end of time. All for a chance to bring back the woman she loves … a woman who will never love her back.

GUNFIGHTER GOTHIC VOL. 0: BLOOD OF THE UNIVERSE also features the back-up tale, “Appetite for Appeasement,” starring Bellingham.

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3 thoughts on “SKYFALL: So Much For My Promising Career in Espionage

  1. Thank you for summing up my feelings about this movie so well! After seeing SKYFALL on Friday, I was really surprised at the praise being heaped on this movie. (I saw an article today speculating as to whether or not it is Oscar worthy. It’s not.) CASINO ROYALE was much better.

    I was severely disappointed in the bad guy. Such an overused plot, and this movie did nothing to make it fresh.

    My biggest gripe, though, is the last third of the film, which is not an espionage movie at all, and felt completely un-Bond-like. I don’t want to know about Bond’s parents or his childhood. Bond is one of those characters that doesn’t need an origin story.

    Like

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