James Bond has always been about looking forward and back at the same time, but never more so than in “Skyfall,” which is both a homecoming and a breakthrough for the 50th anniversary. In fact, it’s all about exploring the old and the new. That’s the central metaphor; it’s embedded in every ambiguous moment. It was worth the extra year taken to craft the script, do the prep, and hone every delicious detail into an organic whole.
Of course, it helps to have Javier Bardem as a flamboyant baddie with a personal grudge that’s right up there with Dr. No and Goldfinger, or cinematographer Roger Deakins providing such visual elegance. It’s not just a matter of making Bond more relevant. Sam Mendes has deconstructed Bond so well with screenwriter John Logan in order to elevate him dramatically. You have to know the rules before you can break them. Or in this case, transcend them. As a result, Mendes has not only made a great Bond movie but also a great movie. Period. Forget Bourne. Bond is now as thematically rich as “The Dark Knight.”
Having just written the book “James Bond Unmasked,” I can report that “Skyfall” explores Bond’s character more fully than ever before. But unlike his predecessors, Daniel Craig’s 007 had the benefit of an origin story and a character arc with “Casino Royale.” Here we find him more polished and less ruthless, but still conflicted, even world-weary. However, Craig’s Bond experiences a different rite of passage after being struck down in the middle of a thrilling fight atop a train in Turkey during the pre-credit sequence. He loses his mojo and goes into hiding before a resurrection that finds him coming to the defense of M (Judi Dench) and MI6 when their world collapses. But more about Bond’s existential crisis in my follow-up piece when “Skyfall” opens November 9.
This one’s about M, who’s the real Bond lady of “Skyfall.” Her past has come back to haunt her and Bond wisely takes her home to Scotland (metaphorically back in time) where he can fight on his own terms. Dench has owned M in the modern era and her seventh appearance is a summary statement about their familial relationship. I love how M takes the time to quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (her husband’s favorite poem) during an inquest about the efficacy of MI6 in the modern world:
“We are not now that
strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that
which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic
Made weak by time and fate,
but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find,
and not to yield.”
But it’s not only a question of pushing the seriousness but also celebrating the style and wit that make Bond so distinctive. We want to see Bond brazenly enjoying his freedom and power. That’s why he’s lasted so long as our most enduring cinematic figure. As Craig says in Esquire: “What’s fantastic about the Bond stories is that there’s always darkness, but with a sense of humor. It’s about danger, about someone who’s saying, ‘Fuck you’ to risk, ‘Fuck you’ to dying.”
Still, it’s fun watching Mendes mixing up the familiar Bond tropes in “Skyfall”: The return of Q (Ben Whishaw) as young and nerdy yet vital to the mission because of his computer hacking skills; field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) giving Bond “a close shave” and serving the function of Miss Moneypenny in a whole new flirty way; MI6 going underground in Winston Churchill’s bunker; the return of the fully-loaded Aston Martin DB5 but in a way that suits Craig rather than Sean Connery; the dance with Bardem’s baddie in a brilliant six-minute exchange that’s more sexually charged than Bond’s seduction of Berenice Marlohe’s Severine.
It turns out that you can teach an old dog some new tricks after half a century — and then some.