“Skyfall”, the new Bond, certainly takes more than one viewing to have all the nuances of its plot and references sink in. That’s my excuse anyway so that I can gleefully justify looking forward to seeing this, best of all Bonds, again.
The theme of the movie (to which I’ll return) is about the need to balance the old with the new. “Skyfall’s” homage to fifty years of Bond does this with great panache. Let’s start with the action. Sam Mendes, this director who cut his teeth directing Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare company, gleefully let’s his inner bad boy loose here, right from the beginning:
The opening car chase at the start of “Quantum of Solace” was OK, nowhere near the high mark set by that opening foot chase that heralded Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale”. But in “Skyfall” the pre-credits excitement immediately gets the blood thumping with a frenzied motorcycle chase in Istanbul that leads us swirling down its twisting alleys, up ancient curving stone stairwells and then vertiginously along the rooftops of the city, crashing through into the heaving crowds of the Grand Bazaar. It’s a start that sets the tone for the things to come, whether in set-piece explosions – a glorious shot seen from street level of the inner sanctum of MI6 blowing up – or just mano a mano fights: Bond and one of a seemingly endless army of thugs slug it out on top of a moving train (apparently Daniel Craig did most of his stunts himself) as Bond tries to rescue stolen MI6 secrets.
Beyond the action, what helps set “Skyfall” apart from the other Bonds (thanks in no small part to Craig who can actually act) is the intensely personal story at the heart of the adventure. This is really a story centered on M. She, more than any of the passing beauties in the movie, is at its center. (Mendes must have realized that we had to see some of Bond’s love life in action to remind us of his virility, but it sure can slow a story down; so he simply gives the briefest of nods to a few cursory dalliances, and then its back to the plot). Judy Dench’s M is really the Bond girl of “Skyfall”. It’s her story – of her necessary hard-heartedness and the hard decisions she has to take, one of which leads to the loss of all the names of the NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations, and which prompts a review of her capabilities (“Is she just too old any more?” the Whitehall mandarins, lead by an imperious Ralph Fiennes, question.)
It’s her hard-heartedness that is at the center of a brooding hatred that drives the story.
For, unlike all of the previous Bond’s, where 007 has been pit against megalomaniacs intent of wrecking global havoc, this is a very intimate story. It’s a story of an orphaned son lashing out against the rejection of his substitute mother and seeking catharsis in revenge. Silva, like Bond is an orphan; like Bond he has been the apple of mother M’s eye; and like Bond, he has been sacrificed for a higher good (Bond is ‘killed’ at the beginning in M’s wrong-headed decision to try to secure the stolen files). But unlike Bond, Silva is out for revenge… against MI6 and against M. And what a grand baddie Javier Badem as Silva, makes.
Javier channels the twin demons of Heath Ledger’s Joker and his own killer in “No Country for Old Men” to introduce some real old fashioned evil to the franchise. With hair dyed blond (a nicely symbolic dark side to Craig’s blondness) and with a sort of demented grin, Badem’s Silva summons the forces of darkness with soft spoken menace. You really don’t want to meet him on a dark night. He’s the uber existentialist threat – the danger from within. He is the inside operator gone bad, turned into a killer for hire and using an insider’s knowledge to rip the organization apart.
And “Skyfall” poses the question – what sort of policing skills do you need to feel safe in today’s world? For the idea of the movie presents us with this dichotomy of the values of tradition and the old v modernity and the strengths of the new. Bond, M, and the way MI6 works are being attacked in Whitehall for representing an old fashioned, traditional past world, one that isn’t built to take on the new terrors – the dark world of dangerous digerati. Indeed, Bond himself is constantly referred to as old (the producers must be well aware that Daniel Craig – this particular gold egg laying goose – isn’t himself getting any younger). But as M points out to one of those interminable politically motivated investigative committees, there’s a world of (old fashioned) shadows out there; and those are the ones that the likes of Mr. Bond must live in and conquer.
So we’re offered the world of the new (Bond’s new Walther PPK is coded to his palm print that that only he can use it… “Less of a random killing machine,” Q says, “more of a personal statement”) and the old (in the end it’s a simple knife that makes, as it were the final cut). We see the newest of the world’s glittering cities (Shanghai) contrasted with Silva’s lair – a decrepit, decaying wreck of an abandoned city on an island somewhere on the South China Sea. And what helps propel the story along so marvelously is Sam Mendes’ reintroduction (so curiously underplayed in the first two of this new Bond reboot) of the traditional Monty Norman/ John Barry signature music, those stirring muscular full throated martial notes that complement the mayhem on screen. (Indeed, Adele’s hauntingly sad song is an overt reminder to the ever memorable Shirley Bassy melodies of “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds are Forever”. Does anyone remember the tune for “Casino Royale”?).
More than just the old music, Mendes balances his new fashioned take on a more personal story, with a liberal does of those icons and images of the past that have made Bond, Bond. Right from the get-go in the familiar montage of images that accompany all Bond beginning credits, we get a nod to the “Man With The Golden Gun” as we see Bond in a hall of reflecting mirrors. He of course dies at the beginning, and as he did in “From Russia With Love” (it was a fake with a mask) and “You Only Live Twice” (when he was shot out to RIP underwater). We all know that Bond will live to “Die another Day”. He leaps over a komodo dragon as he did (with alligators in “Live and Let Die”) and, we’re reintroduced with the famous DB5, which we first saw in “Goldfinger”. Its gadgets still work – Bond jokingly threatens to eject M from the seat and he uses its machine guns nicely to cut down a throng of anonymous killers (did you know that DB refers to David Brown who ran the Aston Martin company from 1947-1972?). We’re also (re)introduced to Q – Ben Whishaw (representing “the new”) and Ms Moneypenny.
And, fittingly, as all those old Connery Bond movies did, it ends with the thrilling words, “… Bond will return…”