James Bond In Skyfall: The Man With the Golden Anniversary

James Bond is 50 this year, because no one reads books any more so they don’t count.  In light of this, there’s been a primeval forest of material fetishising the fashions, guns, girls, cars and gadgets.

Sky has conjured up its own 007 movie channel for those people who don’t get ITV, which is free.

There is also a new 007 perfume for those of you who might be fans of old spice mixed with gasoline, with a top note hint of vodka and last night’s sexual acrobatics. You too can smell like the man himself absolutely wouldn’t. 

Legal Disclaimer: the 007 cologne doesn’t smell anything like the above; it’s not that appetising.

But all the merchandising and friendly puff-piecing is by the by.  The main question is: is Skyfall actually any good?  The consensus seems to be that it’s much better than Quantum of Solace even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Casino Royale.  It’s certainly overlong and rather silly, but this is Bond so that’s damn near as necessary as the Walther PPK and the bevy of nubile beauties.

It’s also beautifully shot, well-paced even if it tires a bit towards the end and generally exactly what you’d want from a Bond film.

The gist: someone has managed to get their antagonist’s hands on a list of secret operatives embedded in terrorist networks, Bond (Daniel Craig) is dead and the department is collapsing around itself.  Dame Judy Dench’s M is in an increasingly untenable position, apparently targeted by Ralph Fiennes’ government bureaucrat, Mallory.

The film opens with a sequence that sums up the strengths of Craig’s terrier-like Bond: he doggedly gives chase in a manner that is blunt and clumsy, if effective.  He bleeds freely, a visceral reminder of this Bond’s vulnerability.  There’s a neat gag involving cufflinks and an intrusive bit of product placement before the pre-credits vignette is capped off with a typically audacious stunt: a plunge from a bridge that is quite literally breath-taking.

Director Mendes resists the temptation to insult the audience’s collective intelligence by attempting to give a plausible explanation for Bond’s survival of this.

As befitting the man with the golden anniversary, Skyfall is broadly concerned with the question of Bond’s continuing relevance to the modern world.  Is the spy with a gun and an easy charm not a bit past it?  What value such a man in today’s world of highly mobile cyber-warfare in which the biggest threats are shadowy corporate entities and terrorist cells?  It’s a touch myopic but not unwarranted. 

This is reflected in Ben Whishaw’s Q, the dynamic shifted to leave Bond as the old dog with Q the young pup: the future of espionage (actually the present).

The point about Bond’s age and relevance is hit home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when Mallory pointedly tells him that he has an opportunity to ‘stay dead’ and disappear without scandal or ignominy – Bond is getting on a bit after all, and he’s taken some serious hits over the years (Thunderball).  The same character likewise offers M the chance to retire with some dignity. 

The cynic might suggest that slinking off to retire with dignity would be moot if Quantum of Solace were to be the final Bond outing.

Naturally, Bond and M refuse to leave quietly, like a pair of drunks at a restaurant.  In this sense, Skyfall suggests that Bond will carry on until there’s no other option but to put him out of his misery.

Later, when M defends British Intelligence in a monologue during a public inquiry chaired by a self-serving MP, she could almost be flying the flag for this most anachronistic of spy capers against the legion of critics clutching their Jason Bourne collections. 

Whatever the march of time, she says, we’re relevant; look we even opened the film with a sideways glance at Wikileaks. 

But in truth Skyfall is too self-absorbed to bother much about the rest of the world, reflected in the numerous references to past films and indeed to Bond’s own past.

And then there’s the biggest in-joke reference of them all.

Javier Bardem’s Silva combines Max Zorin’s hair (Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill) with Bloefeld’s (various) combination of uniformed henchmen, evil lair and dastardly scheme.  He dials up the campness of Bond bad ‘uns, albeit intentionally for once, and in doing so creates a masterclass in movie villainy.  Make no mistake; Bardem represents the movie’s greatest asset and probably the reason while you’ll return to it more than once a year at Christmas. 

If such nostalgia is to be expected, it comes with an edge: the last Bond outing to make such heavy weather of Bond references was Die Another Day, a film which came closer to derailing the franchise than any other and which prompted the sort of soul-searching that begat Craig’s new direction. 

Or to quote Q, “did you expect an exploding pen?  We don’t really go in for that any more” – ‘that’ being Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye.

No exploding pens then, but the danger implicit in reminders of past conquests is that they throw the new ones into sharp relief; they beg comparison. 

The question to be asked of Skyfall, then, seems to be “what do you have to say that isn’t steeped in nostalgia?”  

Skyfall represents an attempt to reconcile its predecessors (Casino and Quantum) with the wider canon as a whole – we’re left with the Bond we’ve come to love, in the sort of Bond film we used to expect.  It’s an assured take that neither churlishly ignores the pre-Craig years nor drowns under their weight. 

In this sense, Adele’s theme tune is representative – a modern take on the old school: a soaring ballad from one of today’s most lauded voices.  It’s effective enough, but ultimately you’ve forgotten how it goes almost as soon as it ends.

The same can’t be said of the film.

It’s pretty great as entertainment, even better as a birthday celebration, but I hope the next film spends less time making a self-conscious case for the defence and gets on with it.  That and a truly decent theme tune.

 Skyfall ends with the legend “Bond will return”, harking back to the good old days one last time.  But what was once promissory now feels defiant; less a statement of intent than a threat.  

Jack Reacher, Aaron Cross, you have been warned.

James Bond: Evolution vs Revolution

The UK doesn’t have a written constitution, something it has in common with New Zealand, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Canada, sort of.  Instead, the powers that be like to talk airily about the ‘uncodified’ constitution and the flexibility an unfettered Parliament provides, the ability of the government to adapt to meet the new challenges of the day: ‘evolution not revolution’.  These smiling apologists occasionally refer to the USA’s 2nd Amendment, the point being that King George is long gone and it’s pretty unlikely that the British Empire will be invading the USA any time soon. The 2nd Amendment, so the argument runs, is well out of date on that basis but can’t be removed from the statute books, despite being partly responsible for far too many tragedies, because it is part of a written constitution specifically designed to resist the mere whims and follies of governments. 

That the 2nd Amendment was drafted to enable the American people to defend themselves against a tyrannical (American) government, of the sort that proliferated most everywhere else in the world at the time, and which must be forever guarded against, is neither here nor there.  After all, why let facts get in the way of a good slice of conventional wisdom? 

In any event, the portion of the 2nd Amendment that refers to ‘a well regulated militia’, hereinafter referred to as the prefatory clause, is to be understood as more the expression of hope rather than something with genuine legal weight, which is reserved for the bit that says you can have a gun, AKA the operative clause.  Thanks for clearing that up, Supreme Court!

Personally, I’m thankful that where I come from most of us don’t get to have guns, but we do get to have James Bond boxsets.  James Bond gets to have a gun and voila the special relationship betwixt Brits n’ Yanks is strengthened.

And one thing we know from our Bond collections is that some day sooner than you think Daniel Craig will hand back his licence to chillax in sunnier climes and turn in the keys to the company Aston Martin.  At some point there will be a question on the lips of the people who bring us our favourite gentleman spy – evolution or revolution?

The evolution argument is a strong one – Daniel Craig’s grittier, more realistic Bond has been accompanied by serious talent behind and in front of the camera.  The franchise has been totally revitalised: there are no more invisible cars, Madonna theme tunes or campy world domination plans involving news conglomerates.  Instead we have Bond driving Fords, the Casino Royale theme tune and campy world domination plans involving the corporate buy-up of water.  

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so they say, if it ain’t broke deregulate it – no one wants to see Bond using a mobile phone to drive a middle manager’s BMW, wearing safari suits or a kilt or reminding his secretary that he took a double first in Oriental languages.  Or doing something that Timothy Dalton did.  Oh yeah, that whole thing with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan looks mildly ill-advised with hindsight.  We like gritty Bond who bleeds freely but uses puns sparingly, we like that Bond is a well-programmed psychopath and that, unlike Pierce Brosnan, it doesn’t take a gargantuan suspension of disbelief to imagine him actually doing all the physical, violent stuff.

Therefore, Tom Hardy should be the next Bond.  Evolution not revolution, besides which, Michael Fassbender’s already appearing in everything else from here to eternity, including a probable remake of From Here To Eternity (they’ve remade everything else).

My two word rebuttal: George Lazenby.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has enjoyed a renaissance over the past few years, or a rehabilitation, reappraisal, whatever.  It’s actually pretty good as Bond films go, but even so, as an actor, Lazenby makes a good wardrobe.

Lazenby famously got the role vacated by Connery after he was seen in an advert.  He wore some Bond clothes and accessories and punched the stunt co-ordinator in the face during the audition.  Because he didn’t know how to act fighting.  That would have been my first red flag, but I wasn’t alive in the late 60s, so I couldn’t warn Broccoli. 

Lazenby’s Bond is fairly similar to Connery’s Bond, too similar in fact, which is problematic, because his spin is a poor facsimile even in a film that sees Bond break new ground by getting married for five minutes.  The reason for Bond’s longevity is that his is a character with very few concrete traits, which makes him elastic enough to comfortably house various different iterations.  Timothy Dalton’s burned out, serious killer, just about capable of one final mission if he drinks enough to numb the pain, is arguably closest to Fleming’s Bond, but that makes his no more definitive a take on Bond than the others’.  Roger Moore’s Bond has to be experienced for itself, like Keanu Reeves’ ‘acting’ in the Matrix trilogy.  Brosnan’s is suave and easily the one you’d most want to be if you could be Bond, if only so you could say “and I thought Christmas only came once a year” with impunity, while Connery’s misogynist thug is the gold standard each new Bond aims for. 

With ‘impeccable’ logic then, I say vive la revolution.  I want to see Bond as scalpel not sledgehammer, unruffled; taciturn but with a cruel wit.  This isn’t year one any more – Bond doesn’t need to smash through walls or kill every single person he comes across.  And he shouldn’t fly any damn planes, either, like in Quantum of Solace. 

In Casino Royale, Craig’s Bond pledges whatever’s left of himself to Eva Green, in Quantum he’s driven by a grief-stricken berserker rage.  We’ve yet to see what approach they’ll take in Skyfall, but sooner or later they’ll have to let go of the Bond emotional journey angle, or else show Bond losing more and more of his recognisable humanity until he becomes a self-hating film noir detective, replete with trenchcoat and drinking problem.  Let’s face it, he’s already halfway there.  Actually, film noir Bond sounds pretty good to me.  

But the fact is that while gritty realism is fashionable now, it may not be in a few years time, and while Craig has been a breath of fresh air in a stale franchise, he can’t do it indefinitely.

If I were king of the world, and obviously the world would be a better, happier place if I was, I’d cast Idris Elba as the next Bond.  He’s shown himself to be a highly capable and versatile actor, he looks not just good in a suit, but comfortable, he’s smooth with a nice line in sardonic looks and he looks like he could beat seven shades out of you and then beat them back in without creasing his shirt, let alone breaking a sweat.

Yes, the internet racists would be up in arms like they were when Thor came out.  Yes, Daniel Craig took a lot of flack because his hair was the wrong colour.  Yes, morons would shout ‘stunt casting’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’, but none of those seem like good enough reasons, to me at least, to simply give the job to Christopher Nolan to direct in the expectation that Henry Cavill gets the coveted Walther PPK with Michael Caine as M, Q or any other letter of the alphabet. 

Henry Cavill, you read it here first.  Unless Man of Steel bombs of course, but in that case Nolan’s got Christian Bale on speed dial.

At any rate, Pierce Brosnan’s Irish, and no one seemed to have a problem with an Irishman playing one of the UK’s best-loved characters despite the acrimonious history between the two countries, an acrimony still playing out in bloodletting fashion when Brosnan was cast.  We were evolved enough to cope with that, I think we’re evolved enough to cope with Stringer Bell as Bond, James Bond. 

Turns out I was in favour of evolution all along.