Fifty years have passed since James Bond first graced the silver screen in Dr No (1962), and director Sam Mendes must have found it impossible not to treat his contribution to the series, Skyfall, as a celebration of this legacy. This raises the question, though, what exactly constitutes agent 007’s heritage? Sean Connery set the rules, of course, and Roger Moore demonstrated how to break them. Since then, their successors have oscillated between the ponderous and the campy, with Timothy Dalton playing the sensitive, post-feminist Bond in a modern world and Pierce Brosnan, the tongue-in-cheek, old-fashioned Bond in a post-feminist world.
In keeping with the current deconstructionist aesthetic, Daniel Craig’s take on our favourite British spy seems to draw from both interpretations, evoking a deeply wounded and sentimental man hiding in a veneer of irreverent, macho posturing. This constitutes the most intimate version of Bond we’ve ever had, and I like the way Craig emphasises the character’s dichotomy with every quip, as if glib one-liners served as his only respite from the injustices inherent to the life of a secret agent. In short, we’re a far cry from the days our hero would shoot down baddies with his thirty-calibre sky poles.
Intriguingly, the plot of Skyfall reflects the same trajectory, starting off broad with a ploy to expose undercover NATO agents à la WikiLeaks and funneling down to an almost intimate showdown on our hero’s childhood estate. The result feels anticlimactic to say the least, especially if you value escalation in action thrillers. Imagine my disappointment when the villainous Raoul Silva, whom Javier Bardem plays brilliantly as a sexually ambiguous nihilist, reveals his master plan: re-enact whole subplots from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and then shoot his former employer in the noggin. Bond’s faced a turncoat MI6 agent before in Goldeneye (1995), but at least that guy had the good grace to use a giant satellite weapon to exact his revenge.
In fact, I feel most of the supporting cast is wasted in Skyfall, including M (Judi Dench), who scores more screen time than in previous instalments but fails to reveal anything about her relationship with Bond that we didn’t already surmise from a single line in Quantum of Solace (2008). I’m referring of course to our hero’s reply when asked whether M is his mother: “She likes to think so.” Rather than build on this fascinating dynamic, screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade opt to rehash the same beats in a direr context, confusing insight with ponderous melodrama.
Mind you, I understand the desire to shake things up after reaching the twenty-third entry in a series. However, Skyfall does best when it sticks to the formula and develops its more pensive Bond through subtle details like his tearing open a rolling passenger train with a crane in order to resume pursuit of a better-armed mercenary. I dig the way Mendes repositions Bond’s trademarked recklessness as a defense mechanism of sorts, the idea being that, as with his witty repartee, our hero tends to overcompensate when feeling overwhelmed or outmatched. There’s also a gorgeous set piece in Shanghai that plays off his newfound sense of limitation by having him sneak toward a baddy in an office made out of glass.
Unfortunately, the climactic battle, in which Bond guards an old Scottish mansion against Silva’s cannon-fodder henchmen, drops all of that creativity in favour of McGuyver-style improvisation and shaky cam explosions, the sort we’ve come to expect from the Bourne sequels, not this franchise. Moreover, the setting proves morbidly boring, failing to elicit a reaction from even the protagonists. It’s not enough to tell us our hero has a personal connection to the place. One actually has to show it. Also, who the hell is Kincade (Albert Finney), and why was his character not introduced earlier in the narrative?
Yes, I realise a lot of these elements hint at the novels by Ian Fleming. The new James Bond stems from an era in which producers and audiences reward reverence to the source material. However, the question remains, what does that entail after fifty years of cinematic adaptations? Skyfall seems particularly preoccupied with setting up the missing entities in agent 007’s entourage, yet shows a complete disdain for established lore like Q’s (Ben Whishaw) gadgets: “What, did you expect an exploding pen?” How about the franchise’s grandiose scale and sense of humour? In another self-referential diatribe, M explains to the public why our hero and MI6 still matter, but what’s the point of continuing the Bond series if one’s going to abandon its spirit?