“Take the bloody shot!”
The possibility of Skyfall achieving acknowledgement at the Academy Awards is not without merit. An outstanding cast, Oscar-nominated composers and cinematographers with, for the first time ever, an Oscar-winning director, clearly establishes Skyfall as a film which has broken the rules regarding James Bond filmmaking. Despite this, Skyfall additionally manages to respect the series with the usual tropes of 007 by seamlessly advertising tourist hot-spots including Shanghai, Istanbul and – in the year of the 2012 Olympics – London. It includes exceptionally attractive ‘Bond Girls’ including Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, but it is Judi Dench’s ‘M’ who is the central female character. We witness the re-arrival of Q (Ben Whishaw), offering a clear attempt at re-aligning all the facets which make James Bond so engaging. This film took “the bloody shot” and is a game-changer – and makes no attempt at hiding its influences.
It is interesting that, in a year whereby Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises advertised the term ‘a storm is coming’ as Bruce Wayne harked back to his roots, this James Bond film delves deeper than any other James Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in exploring where 007 emerged from – and additionally uses the line “storm’s coming” to precede the final act. The film begins as 007 is shot during a mission in Turkey attempting to retrieve a list of undercover-agents, which has managed to get into the wrong hands. The plot is similar to the McGuffin in Mission: Impossible and the infamous ‘Noc’ list. Unlike DePalma’s thriller, Skyfall continues initially under the assumption that Bond is dead – whilst M is held accountable for the loss of the agent and the missing list. Suffice to say, due to a terrorist-attack on MI5, 007 returns to England. But he is a broken-man and has to re-establish himself as the skilled-spy that he truly is.
Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have tried to change the Bond series for decades. Licence to Kill changed the formulae as Felix Leiter became a victim to Robert Davi’s ‘Sanchez’ (and his sharks), whilst Bond in true Dirty Harry form, “went rogue” to avenge his best friend’s death. Goldeneye became self-aware as the villain was alternate-agent 006 (Sean Bean), mocking the characteristics of Bond which we love. The World is not Enough saw ‘M’ become a victim as Sophie Marceau’s ‘Elektra King’ double-crossed the whole of MI5 and even Die Another Day pre-dated Daniel Craig as Brosnan’s Bond was tortured by scorpions during the opening sequence. Until Casino Royale all these attempts simply failed under the pressures of the expectations of the Bond series – so Die Another Day jarringly blended the torture at the start with a diamond-laser finale.
In 2006, Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig proved that James Bond can be so much more – and in Skyfall, all these elements come together to create a 007 adventure that truly represents James Bond in the modern era. No more token-gestures at change – Skyfall truly, and literally, destroys the “House that Broccoli-and-Saltzman built”, in favour of a series built on firmer foundations. Scott Mendelson writes how these elements are what weaken Skyfall, stating the we are “drudging along recycled territory” whilst the filmmakers themselves offer only mere “periodic pandering” to fans of the series. I would disagree – after 23 films, this is what we have all wanted. It is simply a shame that they have tried (and failed) so regularly since Brosnan was cast to change the formulae without losing what we all love about the series.
Influences Further Afield
What separates Skyfall further from the franchise is the incredible direction of Mendes behind the camera. Rather than merely turning to action-films to inspire him, Mendes turns to films as diverse as Apocalypse Now, The Usual Suspects and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight to create mood and depict scenes. Marc Forster failed to evoke the action depicted in The Bourne Trilogy in Quantum of Solace, but it seems that Mendes knew that this direction was the wrong tone for James Bond. Whilst Jason Bourne was rough, off-the-radar and uncontrollable – James Bond can be clean cut, exemplifies extreme class and style and his attitude borders on blatant arrogance. His snarky quips representing his personal, supreme confidence in his skill. Jason Bourne would be unlikely to discuss his sexual-experiences with an enemy when tied to a chair – as James Bond does with the brilliant villain Silva (Javiar Bardem). It is this use of character that not-only separates James Bond from the Jack Bauers and Ethan Hunts of the world, but it also separates Skyfall from all of its predecessors.
Indeed, supporting cast members Judi Dench and Naomie Harris manage to provide a scope to the film that the lone-wolf in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace lacked. Harris’ ‘Eve’ is much more than a token ‘Bond-girl’, whilst M manages to garner more screen-time than any other actor other than Bond himself. The fact that Oscar-winner Judi Dench holds the role assures you of the quality of her depiction of ‘M’ in her seventh-outing as 007’s superior. In this film particularly, her role is one to be commended and celebrated. Indeed, she is as conflicted about the morality of her role in MI5, leading men into battle, as James Bond is about his espionage work on the front-line. Therefore, it is simply poetic that Silva is a character (not unlike Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye and Scaramanga in TheMan with the Golden Gun) who is physically and mentally 007’s reflected-rival, adding a further dimension to the Mother-Child relationship between Bond and M.
The Destruction of the Past
As a fan of the series, the final-act is what is noticeably different to previous outings. Even Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace had an almost-cliché finale as huge, exotic locations – Venice and the Atacama Desert in Chile respectively – set the scene for an explosive ending that would-not be out of place in any other Connery or Moore adventure. Skyfall sets the scene in the highlands of Scotland. The misty moors and dusty chandeliers are hardly the expensive ‘quality’ we are used to seeing in the series. But it is Roger Deakins that turns the location into a ghost-town that accurately represents the story which Purvis, Wade and Logan are telling. Again, this is not your usual James Bond film and the end of this film is like no-other. Sam Mendes has peeled back the layers of the character to reveal his history and his past – something that many may see as sacrilege. But Deakins cinematography is simply glorious; capturing the mood and emotion attached to the moment. After Vesper (Eva Green) ‘stripped away his armour’ in Casino Royale - only for him to bury it deep within his soul after her betrayal; Skyfall destroys every other human characteristic James Bond had, and the final act represents how much has been taken away to make 007 a lethal man with a licence to kill.
Fans of the series will leave the film with a similar crooked smile on their face. We will think to ourselves “Now he is James Bond!” the same thing we thought when the sniper-rifle hit Mr White at the end of Casino Royale. In that respect, a niggle of frustration may creep through as it has almost been three films now of ‘understanding’ James Bond. Can’t we simply have a James Bond adventure? Can’t we see a story contained unto a single film without a self-referential collective ‘aah’ when he says the same “You must be joking” line we have heard too many times in the series? Maybe. In fairness, this is what Quantum of Solace should’ve been. This is what the 20th film, Die Another Day, dreamt it could’ve been. But it is 50 years since Dr No, and this film is a way that truly celebrates that success. No other franchise has such longevity and, therefore, captures 50 years of stylistic changes and cultural shifts over the period of its release. This film will remain a special film for many reasons – the use of James Bond’s home town, London; the political and personal relevance to the nature of terrorism in the 21st century; the dramatic finale. It is only fitting that the film ends where it all began, almost daring younger and new-fans of the series to pick up the box set and go back to the start. Because behind all the Oscar-nominees and Oscar-winners; behind the cast and crew; behind the two producers who have managed to maintain the series since GoldenEye are fans of the series – like we are. And we only want what is best for Bond – and this could be the very best of the entire series.