It was all going so well. Building on the grittier, grounded Bond of the Timothy Dalton years and the relatively modernized sensibilities of the subsequent Pierce Brosnan era, Casino Royale and it’s awkwardly-named sequel, Quantum of Solace, were poised to deliver not only a Bond for our times, but perhaps the definitive cinematic Bond. Gone, at last, were the zany gadgets, scenery-chewing villains, outré plots of world subjugation, and sexual innuendo that, more often than not, suggested masculinity still waiting to grow into adulthood. In their place: sensible but no less formidable foes plucked from today’s terrorist and corporate threats, and a Bond whose cunning, brawn, and burgeoning charm are the tools of choice above gizmos. And, of course, Daniel Craig with his inevitable comparisons to Steve McQueen.
When Sam Mendes & Co – which includes veteran Bond screenwriters Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, along with John Logan – announced their intention to return Bond to the “classic” era, at least by way of astral projection, I admit, in hindsight, to indulging expectations derived from the so-far excellent re-imagining of a cultural icon. Casino Royale offered a winning start with a surprisingly personal Bond story – delivered in a context of international crime, terrorism, and espionage that made the topic of finances seem awfully exciting. Quantum of Solace may have soured some fans and divided critics, but I was gripped by the frighteningly credible threat of an organization exploiting the geopolitics of water scarcity for the purposes of amassing money and power. The story successfully evoked the paranoia that comes from an organization with its own intelligence capabilities, network of operatives, mysterious power brokers at undisclosed levels of the group’s hierarchy, and necessary aversion to flash and theatricality – precisely the sort of threat intelligence agencies such as MI6 are intended to detect and defeat.
I fully anticipated that the handsomely filmed Skyfall would complete Bond’s evolution from blunt instrument to vengeful machine until, at last, he could relax into the persona of playboy agent; ever deadly, but always receptive to the finer pleasures of the high-life. Bond could re-assume his place as the World’s Most Interesting Man, a title currently held by John Goldsmith on behalf of Dos Equis, with a turbulent psyche and conflicted morals smoothed over by carefully manicured hedonism. And wetted with a shaken martini. But while Mendes & Co make the film an homage to Bond’s golden age, stuffing the film with enough amusing references for a Bond museum, they also revive the franchise’s chauvinism, this time amplified into forthright misogyny.
I can understand Bond’s aversion to anything more than fleeting romantic liaisons on account of his tragic affair with Vesper Lynd – but does he have to be an asshole? It’s depressing enough that, in a scene tinged with colonialist condescension, Bond fucks and forgets a pretty (read: exotic)woman without even politely dispensing sweet nothings or common post-coital courtesy. When another beautiful woman – a victim of sexual trafficking and slavery whom Bond also beds in a creepy sequence –is mercilessly executed by the film’s villain in a sadistic version of William Tell’s apple trick, the best Bond can do is coldly quip about spilled scotch. Sean Connery would never be so crass or mean. Therein lies the difference between the Bonds of yore and Skyfall’s Bond; past 007s may have only rarely loved women on a spiritual level, but they certainly loved women on the level of aesthetic, sensual and, to be fair, consensual gratification. We could understand why women longingly sighed for Bond; he offered not only sex, but good-humoured romance with no strings attached. Craig’s Bond, however, doesn’t even possess the aesthete’s appreciation of pleasure, let alone the effortless charm that lends itself to seduction, rendering his post-Vesper liaisions little more than outbreaks of redirected aggression.
The past chauvinism of the franchise, tempered by the fact that Bond’s affairs were between consenting adults, is here manifested as disturbing hostility and dismissiveness. Consider the introduction of a female agent named Eve, a kick-ass sort played with moxie and humour by Naomie Harris. When a job goes wrong, resulting in Bond’s apparent death, she is sent scurrying back to headquarters to have her fitness for field-work reevaluated. Bond’s advice when they reunite? Not all people are fit for field work – an opinion confirmed when Mendes & Co have her choose to take an administrative position instead of returning to field duty. And there, in quick, is Miss Moneypenny’s origin story within the reimagined Bond universe; a promising field agent who ends up a secretary…but since the decision is contrived as voluntary, the patriarchy’s wish for willingly submissive women is fulfilled and excused.
It’s demeaning enough to have the women stay home while the men fight the war, but even worse when Judy Dench’s M – a formidable force in the Bond universe and quite possibility the franchises’ most brilliant casting decision – is reduced to a damsel in distress and surrogate mother. I get it: she’s an old lady, though Judi Dench can never be old to me. As the head of MI6, however, with enough personality to power a metropolitan city for a year, M’s feebleness comes across as a jarring, unlikely contradiction. The film half-heartedly tries to give her some spunk and ingenuity in the climactic confrontation, only to reward her with a cheap, unworthy death saddled with the villain’s mother issues and a tarnished career legacy.
There’s no denying the film’s kinetic energy, however, or the few delightful bon-bons plucked from the franchise’s most iconic elements. Like a roller coaster, the film succeeds in leaving thinking brains far beyond bodies exhilarated by the rush of adrenaline. There are a few genuinely human moments, such as the welcome reintroduction of Q branch via an improbable museum encounter between Bond and the fresh quartermaster played by Ben Whishaw. The scene is one of the film’s best, as two generations meet, size each other up via witty repartee, and come out sparkling with the promise of a beautiful new friendship. But scenes with any hint of humanity, including promising glimpses into Bond’s sad childhood, are marginalized between extended action scenes that have only the thinnest application of plot to glue them together. Divorced from any semblance of narrative context, most of the action and fight scenes are thrilling in and of themselves, marking a return to the classical stunt choreography and practical special effects that, these days, have been replaced by CGI. The opening sequence, involving a chase that culminates with a train and construction equipment, is tense and exhilarating. Just don’t give in to the taboo of asking about collateral damage; thinking about the innocent lives put at risk, not to mention the property damage, is bad form for an action movie. Other scenes of destruction, ranging from large-scale to larger-scale, fare worse by unintentional evoking disbelief. One in particular, involving a train crash reminiscent of the Universal City studio tour, is partly brazen. Why is that train empty during rush hour? And if Mendes & Co had populated the train, wouldn’t the death toll and number of injuries be horrific? Given the superficial plot that is neatly, and entirely, summed up as a rogue agent’s revenge on M for a past wrong, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the details are muddled too. Also, note this: screenwriters Neil Purvis and Robert Wade are the same folk who gave us the invisible car in Die Another Day. Perhaps they missed the critical influence of their partner for the previous films, Paul Haggis.
Most action movies exhibit cracks in their plausibility but have enough momentum to race forward. This is partly true of Skyfall. Until the perversely hilarious end, that is, when it becomes clear that all that effort, what one could rightly refer to as storm and fury, serviced a con. Just as The Dark Knight Rises pranked viewers into believing the franchise celebrated Batman when, subversively, it took apart his mythology, Skyfall ends up signifying nothing. James Bond, once the hero’s hero, is here punctured by one the grandest Pyrrhic victories on screen in some time. After an entire film whose events are almost entirely and single-handedly orchestrated by Javier Bardem’s vengeful hacker villain, Bond takes charge and delivers a killing blow of his own only to simultaneously fail in preventing the end-game; M’s death. The prank in all of this? MI6 is blown up and hacked (repeatedly), a humiliation capped by the death of its head, and Bond, after spending most of the movie’s duration sulking, is restored to full Bond-hood in a celebration of failing upwards. And audiences are rewarded with a franchise reset to an earlier era that no longer has to consider the complex realities of the 21st century, let alone the nuances of the human spirit.
Between the irony and the misogyny, however, I have so far failed to mention the film’s villain, a blond-haired fop who, as conceived by Mendes & Co, amounts to Hannibal Lecter homoeroticized for the unfortunate sake of a joke. Bardem is too good an actor to deliver a bad performance, and in this capacity he doesn’t disappoint; his Raoul Silva oozes every bit of quirky malice a cartoon supervillain requires. The sheer preposterousness of his brilliance – his computer skills defy MI6’s supposedly best-of-the-best Q branch – and ability to manipulate even the smallest events as part of his grand design is matched only by the sheer banality of his motive for revenge. Resolving his evil into psychological instability with suicidal tendencies and mommy issues doesn’t add layers to the characters. It highlights the malleability Mendes & Co exploit to suit an agenda that is devoted to style and aversive to substance. In any case, we’ve seen Silva before in the Bond franchise, only done with greater conviction and acuity, and less camp: he was called Alec Trevalyan and played by Sean Bean in GoldenEye. In Skyfall, Bardem’s Silva merely merely proves that the only threat worthy for
The good news is that, like Doctor Who, the Bond universe is not burdened with an excessive interest in continuity. Like the good doctor, the menu of different Bond actors and approaches to Ian Fleming’s creation means there can be a Bond for everyone. The bad news is that, also in keeping with the BBC’s revival of Doctor Who, the Bond revival with Craig does involve an undeniable connection between films. Just as Quantum of Solace’s injection of moral awareness into Daniel Craig’s Bond elevated Casino Royale in retrospect – by providing a psychological trajectory for the character to follow – Skyfall has the inverse effect of degrading the entire series. It is, to some extent, the same depreciation I experienced with Nolan’s Batman trilogy after watching The Dark Knight Rises. Where the latter, however, amounted to the disappointment of missed opportunities, Skyfall amounts to the outright repudiation of the past films. The significant franchise achievements of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace seem much less worthy of praise knowing that they culminate in a profoundly dislikeable asshole Bond and in a franchise return to cartooning .