Five Reasons ‘Skyfall’ Is The Best James Bond Movie Ever
What a provocative title! It is, though.
American friends: I gather that you guys don’t get this movie for another couple of weeks. DO NOT READ BELOW THE CUT. Seriously. I know spoilers for a Bond movie is a counterintuitive notion – what the Hell am I going to spoil, ‘Bond wears a tuxedo and shoots some people’ – but this one has a plot, and I am going to spoil that plot to buggery. Same goes for UK people who haven’t got round to seeing it yet. The rest of this post will completely ruin everything for you. Bookmark it, and come back when you’ve seen the movie, so you can see how right I was.
Okay. You’ve seen the film now? Onward!
I watch a lot of action movies. Action movies are my guilty pleasure, except they’re not actually very guilty, and indeed when drunk I have been known to stage long, pointless defences of the action movie as a genre, as though it needed me to stand up for it. I watch really good action movies, like The Bourne Identity and Red, and really bad action movies, like DOA: Dead or Alive, and really weird action movies, like Crank. My parents both love action movies, so I was brought up on them from my cradle: Die Hard and Assault on Precinct 13 were my Lion King and Aladdin. (Downside: I’ve still never seen The Lion King.) As a Brit, Bond films have obviously been a significant strand in this richly-textured tapestry of exploding cars and muzzle-flash; I’ve seen Tomorrow Never Dies, through a series of accidents, four times.
Most action movies are what I would call competently directed. I am a great believer in competence. The Harry Potter books are competently written: unlike Dan Brown, whose prose you do sort of have to pretend isn’t happening, J. K. Rowling doesn’t write bad sentences, but she doesn’t write particularly lovely ones either. There are very few sentences across the seven books you would want to print out and stick on your wall. That’s fine, though! She’s telling a good story, and her writing carries the story, and that’s all it needs to do. Same with all but the shittiest of action movies. They’re well directed in the sense that they show you what you need to see when you need to see it. Their scenes are coherent, they use jump-cutting or slow motion or whatever as appropriate, you rarely feel the direction is getting in the way of the story. They avoid Tomb Raider Syndrome, viz. ‘man, this would be really exciting if I could make the camera focus on something other than Lara’s left elbow’. You are carried along.
Skyfall is not competently directed. Skyfall is beautifully directed. Sam Mendes has serious theatre chops, and it shows. The scene where Bond tracks Patrice through the skyscraper in Shanghai, through a maze of tilting glass and sliding neon, is gorgeous. The tension is impeccably tuned. Mendes lets shots breathe, which is one of my favourite attributes in a director (Rian Johnson does it to terrific effect in Looper, too). And then when you get the fight, it’s this short, brutal duel conducted entirely in silhouette in a space not much bigger than a wardrobe – not at all the sprawling, tracking punch-up we learnt from the Western, but a thirty-second spasm of snapped kicks and short punches in a blue glass box, at once crunchy and surreal. Bond and the baddie don’t even look like people, they look like dancers, or puppets. During the final showdown in the house, with the action cranked to the maximum, the full suite of explosions and flames and gunfire, I was still admiring the direction. I was sitting there all ‘good shot, Bond – oh, but look at those colours’. Check out how Mendes uses blue and yellow all throughout the final reel; the way he lets them fight for space on the screen, the way he brings the darkness inside the house and puts the firelight outside, leaking in. One reason I was so excited about Skyfall was that the trailer, even for a trailer, seemed unusually packed with striking images, and the film as a whole bears that out. It’s a movie I’m going to buy on DVD as much for the freeze-frame option as anything.
I love themes. They’re great. But I don’t normally associate them with Bond films. What was the theme of Moonraker, exactly? Er… the folly of mankind’s relentless quest for perfection? I’m reaching. Tomorrow Never Dies? Jeez, I don’t know, something about the dangers of big media organisations, or stealth boats, or something. Teri Hatcher’s cleavage. I can’t remember. I do not normally go to a Bond film, emerge at the end, and sigh ‘Well, I liked the explosions and Teri Hatcher’s cleavage, but I didn’t feel it was really saying anything’. Of course it doesn’t say anything! It’s a Bond film! You were expecting maybe The Seventh Seal?
Skyfall says something. Actually, it says a bunch of things. It’s a love-letter to London. It’s a film about Britain: about the crisis of British post-Imperial identity and the British realisation that we no longer matter a damn, to anybody; that we spent a hundred years crushing anyone who got in our way, that it gained us a lot of power but very few friends, and that when the power ebbs away the friends don’t come back. (It’s the most British Bond film we’ve had for God knows how long, in fact – not in the sense of having more British accents or more tea and scones than normal, but in the sense that it couldn’t be about anywhere but Britain. It wouldn’t work as a film if Bond were an American or a German agent.) MI6’s position within Britain, in the film, is a pretty clear analogy for Britain’s position within the world, and M’s Tennyson recital is both a farewell to past glories and a rather wonderfully schmaltzy bit of stiff upper lip which filled me with confused patriotism. It’s also a film about loyalty, about mothers and sons, and about getting old; it takes the line ‘orphans always make the best agents’ and then pursues it to its logical conclusion. It’s an elegiac action movie, which is quite a hard thing to pull off.
I’m a big Pierce Brosnan fan. A week ago, GoldenEye was my favourite Bond movie. Brosnan was charming, but tough enough you could believe in him as a man whose job consisted of punching and shooting people: he was harder-edged than Moore, cooler than Dalton, but less of a bastard than Connery. When I saw Casino Royale I really liked Craig, but I wasn’t sure he was quite Bond. He made a Hell of an action hero, but there was something about him just a little too rough-hewn; he seemed as though, instead of getting into the ambassador’s party by intimidating the doorman and flirting with the waitress, he’d just drive a bus through the French windows.
My doubts have evaporated to the extent that when I go back to the Brosnan movies, I’m now worried I’ll find him too glossy. Craig is perfect in this film. For a two-minute demonstration, watch the ‘psychological examination’ scene. Put aside your doubts about word-association being a kind of clapped-out way of providing a quick shot of character depth, and just watch Craig. To ‘murder’, he drops the three syllables of ‘employment’ with a bitterness that shows he knows damn well he’s being watched. To ‘M’, conversely, he fires off ‘bitch’ so fast it barely registers; it feels genuinely reflexive, and M’s reaction proves she can see that too. To ‘heart’, he grinds out ‘target’ with a kind of horrible relish. I’ve never seen a Bond, even Connery, sound more like a contract killer who may be sitting on some very genuine psychological damage. With Brosnan that scene wouldn’t have been at all believable. ‘Target’ would have been a zinger with an eyebrow-raise attached, not the snarl of something trapped and poked.
Everyone else is great too. Judi Dench is a goddess, but this is no surprise: she has been ever since GoldenEye, the only difference is how much time she’s given to show it off, and thankfully in this one she’s given a lot. With Ben Whishaw it’s hard not to feel he’s just playing Ben Whishaw, but that’s fine – the part requires Ben Whishaw, and he throws a cocky academic smirk on it that strikes wonderful sparks with Craig’s grizzled weariness. I hope he and his Scrabble mug stick around for many movies to come. (Although I think my favourite line of his is the unmistakeably English ‘Shit. Shit, shit, shit’.) Naomie Harris is terrific: her very mild snark to a panicked M on the radio link – ‘it’s rather hard to explain, ma’am’ – is lovely, and her exchange with Bond (‘A moving target is much harder to hit.’ ‘Well then, you’d better keep moving’) is so gleefully predatory it would have bordered on the creepy were the roles reversed. Javier Bardem absolutely kills it with every tic and wince: normally a Bond villain that camp would be the fragile mastermind type, hiding behind an army of goons and avoiding physical confrontation. Silva comes over as a man who would regard hand-to-hand combat as beneath his dignity, but would nonetheless pull your arms off and beat you to death with them if it struck him as the tactically sound or simply the amusing option: he’s not a million miles away from Heath Ledger’s Joker in that respect, in the combination of capricious flightiness and physical brutality.
I don’t really expect a Bond movie to subject the character of James Bond to any serious examination, any more than I expect the average Doctor Who episode to get really down and dirty with what makes the Doctor tick. But, in both cases, finding one that does is a real treat. The mechanism that makes it possible here is Bardem’s mesmerising turn as Mr Silva.
Silva is what we’ve been waiting for all along: the Dark Bond. We’ve seen enemy Bonds before – baddie agents who are as ruthless and highly-trained and lethal as our boy – but Silva is different: he’s a genuine evil reflection, what Bond would have become if he’d fallen to the dark side. He’s turned his charisma to manipulation, his violence to sadism. His relationship with M is a perversion of Bond’s. He’s embraced the opportunities offered by modern technology, instead of remaining vaguely distrustful of them. Where Bond is buttoned-down, Silva is sprawling and indulgent. Their relationship has much of the fascination of the most recent Doctor/Master face-off with Tennant and Simm: the same sense of talent turned inward, a brilliant man who’s been broken somewhere fundamental and has just stopped giving a fuck. One of the smartest moments in the film, for my money, comes when Silva has captured Bond and tied him to a chair, and after delivering the obligatory villain speech, starts caressing his throat and chest. Bond almost visibly twitches with horror. It’s the first time I can ever remember seeing Bond be explicitly sexually threatened by a male villain. The whole scene has what on Tumblr would be called an extremely ‘rapey’ vibe, and it’s all the more brilliant for the suspicion that Silva is simply pushing buttons: he’s read Bond instantly as the kind of man who’s going to be freaked out by this kind of thing. It’s not a scene about Silva’s sexuality, which is never discussed. It’s a scene about a man who knows exactly where the cracks in Bond’s psyche are, and how to get a blade into them, because he used to be Bond. (007, to his credit, tries to rally with the ‘how do you know it’s my first time’ line, but it comes off flat and awkward.)
Ben Whishaw’s Q also gives us a perspective on Bond I enjoyed. Their oppositions are multi-layered. On one level, there’s the classic divide between man of thought and man of action, just like there used to be with Desmond Llewellyn: Q regards Bond as a trained ape, a pawn on the board, while Bond regards Q as a coddled hothouse flower who wouldn’t last ten seconds on the battlefield. That’s given delicious extra point by switching the ages round. When Q was older, Bond had no choice but to respect his wisdom. Now Q is the younger man, Bond’s contempt is more obvious. The fact that Llewellyn couldn’t take Connery or Brosnan in a fight never mattered; the fact that Whishaw couldn’t take Craig very much does, and hangs heavy between them. Then there’s the sense of Whishaw as riding a wave that Craig is in the process of falling off – the disturbing notion that a scrawny tea-drinking nerd may be better equipped for twenty-first-century warfare than a brawler in a sharp suit – and then, in a complete reversal, there’s the money question. Don’t miss Q’s shot about the Tube at rush hour. Q was a student. A year ago he was probably living in a shared flat eating Pot Noodles and drying his socks over the radiator. Chances are he still gets the Tube to work. Bond grew up in a greystone mansion in Scotland, his father had a hunting rifle, he went to Eton and Fettes and he almost certainly thinks public transport is for the little people. All these various tensions couple with a weird mutual respect to turn Bond and new-Q into an incredibly watchable double act: both wishing they had a machine to do the other one’s job, but both secretly glad that since they don’t, they’ve got someone who’s really good at what he does. I suspect this will be Craig’s last outing, but I really hope it isn’t, and that’s partly because I’d love to see him trade barbs with Whishaw’s Q again.
Okay, this is my favourite part. Watch this film very carefully.
Did you notice that each of the big set-pieces – the train fight, the skyscraper, and so on – has a different aesthetic? Did you get a sense that Skyfall is not a very visually coherent film – that it seems to bounce around between several quite distinct styles?
Hell yes, you did.
The key to the whole movie, in a sense, is Bond’s line when he’s asked where he and M are going to go to get away from Silva. He says that they’re going back in time. This has an obvious meaning – they’re going to an old house in Scotland, which is technologically cut off, preventing Silva from using any of his hacker’s bag of tricks – and also a more symbolic one, in that they’re going back to the scene of Bond’s childhood. But it’s actually the explicit acknowledgement of the structure that underlies the entire film. The whole of Skyfall is one long movement back in time.
The first big action scene, in Turkey, is a prime slice of what I think of as the post-Bourne aesthetic. It’s what action movies look like these days: it’s what the big chase scene on the building site in Casino Royale does unreflectively. It’s a grimy, high-speed, athletic chase through a crowded urban environment, with a colour palette made up predominantly of hot sun, sand, and brick/tile, built around parkour and vehicular stunts, with a couple of jaw-dropping ‘oh shit’ moments. When Bourne introduced this model, it left Bond floundering around in its wake. Bond at the time was deep in the glutinous swamp of late-period Brosnan silliness – Bourne Identity came out the same year as the surpassingly ridiculous Die Another Day, the one with the invisible car and the sun laser, and was everything Bond had stopped being. It was punchy, it was tense, it was brutal. Casino Royale was a belated acknowledgement of how far the franchise had been left behind, complete with a tough-jawed, slightly thuggish Bond, but it still felt like a film playing catch-up. All the way through the Turkey sequence I was comfortably thinking this was going to be more of the same.
I sat up and started taking notice during the Shanghai scenes. Suddenly: neon. Lots of neon. Blue light, black glass, skyscrapers. Sniper rifles. Gadgets. The future as cybernetic money palace. This looks strangely familiar! Yeah, that’s because it looks like Entrapment. We’re back in the late 90s action thriller: slick and glossy, chrome rails and electric blue Chinese ideograms, heavy with Millennium anxiety and the prospect of a future run by computer. It’s 1999, and The Matrix has us.
And then, incredibly, Macau. Red velvet. Golden serpents. Chinoiserie kitsch. Women in backless dresses. Implacable foreign henchmen with neat beards. Smirking double-entendres between Bond and Eve. The climax of this section is a fight in a pit, during which the baddie gets hauled off and devoured by a Komodo dragon, a moment so completely preposterous it would have sunk a less confident film. This kind of thing does not happen to Jason Bourne. Bond, though? Well, of course he hauls himself out of the pit, his black tie still immaculate, and delivers a pithy one-liner (‘it’s the circle of life’). It’s fine, he can get away with it, because he used to be Roger Moore. The whole sequence is straight out of the camp antics of late 70s/early 80s Bond, where everything is glamorous and exotic and nothing actually matters. The contrast is brilliantly jarring, because next we get the brutal episode on Silva’s island – complete with the shocking, needless death of Sévérine – which reminds us of the kind of unpleasant hardball Connery used to play. And then it’s the Aston Martin, and a carefully-shot scene in which Bond and M drive away through what could very easily be 1960s London, and North, out of the franchise altogether. When we leave London we leave Bond. The finale takes place in a land we’ve never seen before: a land where Bond was a child, and MI6 has no authority, and M has to fight at close quarters just like everybody else. The moment they step out of the car and stand staring at the rocks and the mist – the bones of Britain, a shot the Romans would have recognised, let alone King Arthur – is the moment they, and we, realise this is no longer a Bond film. This is something deep, and nasty, and old.
In other words, Skyfall literally runs backwards. We flip through five decades of history in reverse, five decades of action movies, and then fall through the front cover. Bond goes back to the days before he was Bond, burns his house down, holds his mother as she dies, and is reborn. By the time he gets back to London, we’re moving in the right direction again. M is an older ex-military man in a wood-panelled office. There’s a beautiful secretary licking her lips behind the desk. There’s a nerdy genius down in Q Branch who regards Bond as an unfortunate necessity. There’s a coat-stand just inside the door. James Bond got old, he got tired, he got addicted to booze and pills and failed his marksmanship exam, so he went back and blew up his past with a couple of gas canisters and then turned up to work the next morning with a fresh shirt and hunter’s eyes. He gets to do that. He’s James Bond. When who he was gets too heavy for him, he kills it, and moves on. That’s why we pay to watch him.