Old Dog, New Tricks: Skyfall (Sam Mendes – 2012)

There are few films that I await with as much anticipation, and at times trepidation, as ‘the new Bond’. I say trepidation because the last decade has seen both Die Another Day (2002) and Quantum of Solace (2008). The former is arguably the worst Bond in the entire franchise due to its utter ridiculousness from start to finish and the latter a hugely disappointing follow-up to the triumph of Casino Royale (2006). Much like the tsunami that Pierce Brosnan rides in the climax to his last installment as 007, there have been a number of highs and lows for Bond fans over the past ten years and it was about time that we returned to the crest of the wave.

Bond kite surfing
Surely one of the worst scenes in cinema history. Brosnan riding an arctic tsunami wave on a door – how did they let this happen?

It was therefore with great expectation that I heard the news, in November 2011, that Sam Mendes was to direct Skyfall – the 23rd film in the Bond series. Bond being directed by an Englishman. The way it should be. If only Roy Hodgson could have done such a good job with Stevie G et al as Mendes has with Messieurs Craig, Bardem, Fiennes and of course, Ms. Dench.

Painfully, there was a year’s wait to endure but I had hope that Mr. Mendes would put Bond back on top; if you know what I mean…

He certainly did not disappoint. One thing that is abundantly clear from Skyfall is that Mendes loves Bond; the place it holds in cinematic history and British culture as well as where it is headed next. Back to the future, if you will. The interplay and conflict between tradition and innovation is central to the film in both its plot and also its context within the ongoing success and popularity of the franchise as a whole.

As a Londoner, Mendes wanted to show the capital as it really is and he demonstrates a genuine reverence for the Big Smoke. Indeed, this is where a large portion of the film takes place. There is a real sense of pride in this being a very British production – M’s British bulldog ornament is the only survivor from the attack on her office, the consequent occupation of Churchill’s wartime bunker when they enter a “war footing”, the Union Jacks on the coffins of those lost – there is certainly no mistaking where Skyfall is primarily focused. Never has a Bond put such importance on home soil and this reinforces the idea of the series coming back to its roots and the essentials of what make it so loved. You have to know where you’ve been in order to know to where you’re going.

M and Bulldog
Dame Judi Dench – a true British bulldog.

Not-so-subtle hints throughout reference Bonds of the past:

  • The opening chase sequence (to rival that of Casino Royale) – Craig adjusts his cuff-links after somersaulting onto the back of a speeding train carriage he has just chopped in half with a JCB – very Brosnan, indeed.
  • The Bond song – although grossly overplayed, it appears that Adele can do no wrong musically and she delivers again for Skyfall. The song is well matched to the traditionally psychedelic, kaleidoscope of hints and clues in the credit sequence.
  • The casino setting in Macau – As per Connery in Dr. No, Craig ogles and is ogled in equal measure and it is at this point that we hear the immortal “Bond, James Bond” line for the first time in the film.
  • Bond’s meeting with ‘Q’ – who returns as a fresh-faced, anorak-wearing but extremely quick-witted Ben Whishaw. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” – gone are the days of invisible cars, thank goodness.
  • The reveal of the beautiful silver DB5 as M. and Bond go “back in time” to Skyfall and 007’s childhood home. M quips that “It’s not very comfortable, is it”, clearly now accustomed to her chauffeur-driven wheels.
The DB5’s lack of sat nav leaves James in trouble in the highlands. 
Have you ever seen a man so casual before a life-threatening game of golf? What a boss.

These are but a few examples of nostalgia, but also of the fact that the franchise has not forgotten to laugh at itself. It is moving in a new direction without forgetting where it has come from and still retains the tongue-in-cheek humour which is so much a part of its success.

Where Skyfall enters the 21st century and completely new territory is in the threat that is posed by Xavier Bardem’s villain, Silva. Global cyber warfare. From a disused warehouse on a bombed-out island off the coast of Shanghai he conducts a personal vendetta against M, who he calls “mother”, via the wondrous world wide web.

Xavier Bardem – the master of what is known in film theory as “crazy eyes”.

Bardem received high praise for his villainous performance as the bitter, betrayed ex-agent but I think he is one of the film’s only weak links. Skyfall’s ‘Bond girl’, Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), visibly shakes at the mention of his name but I never quite shared her terror. Yes, his voice is snakelike and sinister – we are cleverly introduced to him through the sound of his voice before his image. Yes, I believe in his motives for revenge. And yes, his facial implant is disturbing and unpleasant to look at.  BUT – when you compare him to great villains of Bonds past – Blofeld, Jaws, Scaramanga, Renard – does he really frighten you?

Another departure from traditional Bond is the limited amount of screen time that Marlohe receives. Introduced from afar alongside a painting of another brunette, Severine is to be looked at and admired. Like the figure in the painting, she is entrapped and has little more substance than her physical beauty. She is summarily dispatched by Silva who has no need for ‘superfluous’ things.

 A room with a view.

Severine’s objectification and swift departure does leave room for a more substantial female part in the form of Eve (Naomie Harris). The flirtation, and no more, between her and 007 is reminiscent of a character not seen for some time in the Bond series and the revelation as to her identity that comes at the end of the film is a welcome half-twist in the tale that bodes well for the future.

Close but no cigar – Eve (Moneypenny) and Bond

During the break-neck opening sequence Bond is mistakenly shot by Eve and presumed dead. He falls off the wagon on a nondescript desert island where he drinks in the company of the local scorpions and generally enjoys ‘being dead’. In an age where news is brief and immediate, even he can not escape CNN’s coverage of an explosion at the Mi6 building on the Thames. Cue his return to a rainy London – no surprise there – as a haggard, paunched and unshaven shadow of his former self but nonetheless devoted to Mother England. Or is it M that is his primary concern? A lot is left unsaid between the lines but there is certainly an unspoken love between them that Craig and Dench handle extremely well.

Those eyes.

It is in an effort to protect M from Silva that Bond drives north to Scotland and Skyfall – the isolated lodge that he grew up in as a boy. Whether the final sequence – explosions and all – provides any kind of catharsis for Bond is uncertain. There are as many questions as there are conclusions.

What does the destruction of Skyfall  and loss of M mean for Bond and the future of his character? How will the antiquated Mi6 adapt to modern times and the threats posed by the villains of the 21st century?

Skyfall is a superb film within its own right and marks 50 years of the Bond with aplomb. Here’s to hoping that Bond makes it to 100. I wonder if he’d get a letter in the post from the future King? We’ll have to wait and see.