This article contains major spoilers for the latest James Bond movie Skyfall. Once you've seen the movie, come back here and dive in!
The James Bond franchise has always been reactionary. Not necessarily to the trends of Hollywood blockbusters, but rather, to the state of the world. The films act as a mirror to culture — Bond is a character with a lifespan, so in turn, his missions are malleable, influenced by anything happening in the moment.
In our interview with franchise mastermind Barbara Broccoli, the producer made it clear that 2006's Casino Royale, a gritty, stripped down interpretation of the 007 mythology, wasn't a random 180 degree turn. After 9/11, the days of fantastical Bond were (at least temporarily) over. With the world in crisis, the adventures of the globetrotting super spy had to drop the invisible cars, space lasers, and ice castles and become a tad more serious.
Six years later we have Skyfall, a film that continues the hot streak with Casino Royale's 007, Daniel Craig, but manages to feel even more specific in its thematic timelines. Continuing the path laid out by Casino Royale would have been easy and worked for fans of the franchise. Instead, director Sam Mendes, working with longtime series writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, took a stab at internally rebooting the franchise, daring to weave back in all the material that made a "James Bond movie" a "James Bond movie" while keeping the story uniquely modern.
The approach works wonders. It also raises questions for the series future.
Amazingly, both Casino Royale and Skyfall work as origin stories. Royale chronicles the beginnings of Bond, the events that transformed him into a distant MI-6 agent capable of carrying out any mission, however bloody. Skyfall is the origin of Bond as the product of family, a story of a group of people past, present, and future who define 007 as he grows into his own. Bond's work family was a staple of the series until 2002's Die Another Day, but Royale avoided the known characters (save Judi Dench's M) in an effort to drop Bond's cartoonish appearance and make him a human character. But archaic thinking is key to Skyfall's ideas of technological terrorism and war — you need an old school Bond to get the job done. That means the film needed the old school ensemble back too.
Mendes wears his love for early Bond on his sleeve, the days when Connery would spar with enemies using savvy wit, occasionally launching into a fist fight or ending the encounter with one well-placed bullet. But that's not the world established by Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, nor is it one that is easily accessible to today's younger audiences (read this recent horror story of a group of young people encountering From Russia with Love for evidence to that unfortunate truth). Those films go big and drop any semblance of swagger. It's all about the rough, tough thrills. Skyfall lives up to the action of previous films — the motorcycle-chase-turned-train-battle is one of the most impressive stunts of 2012 — but after the thrilling opening, the movie becomes noticeably smaller scale.
It's a talky movie, perfect for Mendes' theatrical roots. It's also fitting for the film's villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Words and silent, Internet-based attacks are Silva's two greatest weapons, giving him plenty of time for maniacal laughing. Silva is up there in the pantheon of Bond baddies, a flamboyant, unrestrained terrorist who wipes out the population of a South Pacific nation just so he can have an island lair. He has Blofeld (of heck, Dr. Evil) goals and the wild physical flair to match. The scene where Silva removes his fake jaw to expose a drooping face is demented — and fitting for Mendes' early-Bond vision.
Mendes peppers the familiar construction with great characters: Naomie Harris' Eve is sharp, ambitious, and a great partner for Bond (what I as a Bond nut wished Halle Berry's Jinx to be back in Die Another Day). Ralph Fiennes' Gareth Mallory is sophisticated and murky — he's just involved enough in the plot of Skyfall to know he matters, but the film never gives away the big picture of his character. Ben Whishaw's Q is the hipster revisionist version of the character 2012 demands, a computer whiz that fits in at MI-6 but could easily be a trasplant resident of Dumbo, Brooklyn. Mendes even reinvigorates Dench's M with a new sense of character. She gets out of the office. She has a fear for Silva. She's finally part of the Bond franchise!
Mendes establishes a colorful cast of players in Skyfall, and it makes the movie click. But in the film's final moments, he decides to go the extra step by taking us back in time to 1962.
Chalk this up to years watching 24 and Mission: Impossible, but throughout Skyfall, I pegged Fiennes' Mallory as a mole. With Silva's past involvement with MI-6, I thought there had to be an inside man assisting him — why else hire such a big name actor to play the part of the government overseer placing hurdles for Dench's M to jump? It became clear when Bond chases Silva into the M/MI-6 hearing and a big shoot out erupts. Mallory didn't miss a shot when assisting Bond and Eve. He was a good guy. By the time Skyfall's rousing conclusions rolled around, M biting the bullet (literally) in the stone church of Bond's parents estate, his purpose was clear. We had a new M, a man, like the day's of Connery's Bond.
Replacing Dench with Fiennes paved the way for one of the franchise's most emotional moments, the maternal government figure dying in the arms of her favorite employee. It forced Bond to acknowledge his investment in M and seek shelter in new friends like Mallory. He came to terms with his family. The move was also fulfilling for fans who may have underestimated their own love for Dench's M. What we can't tell until Fiennes returns to the roll in upcoming Bond films is know if Mendes' clever play on our hearts (and our nostalgia — there's nothing quite like seeing Craigs' Bond walk through M's office like Connery, Moore, and others did in the past) will feel like a step forward or backward. Dench was an unexpected choice for M back in 1995. Fiennes (a former Bond contender himself) fits the world to a T.
My bigger worry as a fan is the reveal of Eve as Moneypenny, the face of MI-6's secretarial department. After kicking so much butt throughout Skyfall, proving she could handle situations where her life was on the line, Eve decides by the end of Skyfall to take an office job. Mallory taking on the mantle of M was logical in the wake of Dench's M's death. Eve becoming Moneypenny is on par with The Dark Knight Rises' John Blake's reveal as "Robin." Total fan service. Satisfying in the moment, but with lingering consequences. I for one want to see more of Harris' Eve, and in the gun-toting, bad guy stomping capacity. Not getting a rise from 007 whenever he stops by for a chat with M.
Mendes found a balance in Skyfall that seems unimaginable, at once a noir-like thriller and a blockbuster that can live up to today's onslaught of superhero movies. The film wrestles with an internal conflict for Bond, a guy who finds his sole purpose in life questioned by authorities and challenged by the way villains do business. With all of Skyfall's challenging material, Mendes also has his cake and eats it too, nodding to classic Bond staples — fans even see a DB5 Aston Martin blown to bits! The producers of Skyfall embraced the approach, dropping their developing storyline established in Royale and Quantum — a secret crime organization known as Quantum stepping up to be Bond's biggest headache — in favor of following Mendes one-off idea. So where will Bond go from there?
The hope is it continues to reflect the times with as small a microscope as Skyfall. The movie isn't just a film for the naughts, it's a film for 2012 specifically. Rehiring John Logan for future installments is a step in the right direction to follow Mendes' thinking, but the final act of reverting back to the old format of Bond is a gamble. Right now, all we can do is enjoy the heck out of Skyfall, but as the film ends with the series tradition of declaring "Bond will return," it's hard not to wonder if 007 will continue to straddle the classic and modern as he did this year.
What did you think of Skyfall? Go crazy in the comments — we're only talking spoilers here!
[Photo Credit: Sony Pictures]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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