Sam Mendes’ tough, relationship-focused Bond film is really about leadership in extremis, with towering and isolated icons fighting tooth-and-nail to keep society together amidst the growing chaos of modernity.
Whatever romanticism was left in the hoary old Bond franchise, in Skyfall Judi Dench’s M does her best to put a bullet in it. The standard opening chase sequence sends James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a motorbike over the roofs of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul before putting him onto the top of a speeding train to do battle with an assassin who gunned down an MI6 agent and stole a datafile holding the identities of covert agents. First, M instructs Bond to leave his wounded cohort behind. Then, since agent Eve (Naomie Harris) can’t get a clear shot to take out the assassin without also risking hitting Bond, M tells her to fire away anyway. Result: one big bloody hole in Bond’s trim suit coat and one escaped assassin.
There should be nothing shocking about this turn of events. After all, spy novelists have been warning us since before John Le Carre cast his jaundiced eye over the ideologically exhausted battleground of the Cold War that the espionage business is a bastard’s game of cold, hard percentages. But yet the Bond series, for all its early sadism and recent toughening-up, never quite bought into all of that. After all, what was the point of having just another operative running around defusing KGB plots if the guy couldn’t have a little fun while doing it? Ian Fleming’s Bond, with his crisp attire and martinis and taste for the sporting life was always meant to be a boy’s adventure—which is what has made the series’ recent turn towards a kind of realism seem so odd. (Not that the addition of Daniel Craig was by any means a punk move; anything to get away from the dreary gleaming sameness of all those Nineties Pierce Brosnan groaners.)
The new millennium’s Bond is indeed mortal and earthbound, surrounded by villains who love to rub his face in the dirt and scuff some of that roguish gleam of entitlement off of him. Since Casino Royale, we’ve seen him banged up and bloodied like any other hero must be before he can enact his long-awaited vengeance. There is more damage inflicted on Daniel Craig’s body in just one fight scene (the Macau casino with the Komodo dragons, for instance) in Skyfall than on Roger Moore’s shirts in his entire run of films. But even as Craig’s Bond indulged in the occasional flirt with an actual relationship (Vesper Lynd, long may she endure as a smoky remnant of love in his memory), he has rarely lost that sense of being above it all, of being truly in control.
That is, until M gives the order that puts a bullet in him. What is most striking about that scene, however, is not the shot itself, or the sight of Bond plummeting like a stone into a deep crevasse, but the stricken look on M’s face afterward. More than anything else, this is a film about leadership and flailing institutions in a fluid and chaotic modernity. Dench’s M, who will cut off agents like bad limbs, is offered up here as some emblem of the past, with her nails-tough stiff-upper-lipness and the Union Jack bulldog tchotchke on her desk. Her cruelty isn’t cruelty at all, but rather the cold-blooded need to get the job done. She knows the cost, but can’t care about it. There’s a reason that when MI6 goes (literally) underground after a bomb attack on their Thameside headquarters, they set up in part of Churchill’s old wartime bunker complex. As the parliamentary inquiries circle about that missing list and her dead agents, and a rouge threat comes closer, she just battens down the hatches and toughs it out.
Skyfall is a comparatively strong entry in the Bond canon, without the true sense of dash and elan that characterized the Sean Connery films, but also without the trying-too-hard ultra chaos of the last film, Quantum of Solace. With Sam Mendes at the helm, some of the series’ excesses get pared away, particularly in its early stretches. As Bond sulks and nurses his wound with drink and some nameless dusky woman, the film is fine moving on without him. This may be the first Bond film that felt like a true ensemble story, with the focus frequently slipping away from its star to include other storylines. It is also a vanishingly rare example in the series of another character being allowed to share the frame and the story’s interest for so long. Mendes doesn’t take long before reintroducing Bond to active duty to amplify M’s role as a mother figure to the drifting and unmoored agent. She’s more stern taskmaster than anything else, of course, but the reason for their tight, if fractious, bond here becomes much more clear in a reveal late in the film that highlights Bond’s childhood origins.
Unfortunately, that reveal is paired with a particularly unimaginative confrontation with the film’s villain, an agent of international chaos played by Javier Bardem as some kind of fey and decadent blend of Julian Assange-esque techno-anarchism (he stands in a room filled with computer servers and preaches about the ease of dismantling entire societies) and Hannibal Lecter-style sadism (the latter is more than hinted at in one scene that should owe royalties to The Silence of the Lamsb). As a counterpoint to Bond’s tense and reflexive patriotism, mixed with a little white man’s imperative, Bardem’s world-annihilating character is an initially effective foil. But it doesn’t take long for the muddled script to turn him into another impossibly skilled super-villain who then makes a wildly stupid mistake just at the right point. Mendes is able to show more originality in the scenes of Bond and M trying to identify and isolate threats against Queen and Country, then when battle is finally joined.
The tough and grim but still spry Skyfall feels like something of a rearguard action in the case of the British Empire. The old regime’s iconography, with its fluttering flags and visits to old imperial outposts like Hong Kong, is striking and constant. The old emblems of Bond, his perfect martinis and the trim little Walther PPK handgun, are referenced continually, but with less of a wink to the fans than a growing worry about their obsolescence, and the realization that M and Bond’s very usefulness as guardians of the realm is in doubt. It leaves you with the knowledge that, after all is said and done, the threats will remain constant, and that nothing lasts forever; not even James Bond.