The movie version of James Bond celebrates his fiftieth birthday this year with the release of the latest and twenty-third movie in the franchise, Skyfall. That Bond remains an enduring and appealing movie icon, despite vast cultural shifts, changes in popular taste, and generational evolutions of social mores offers its own validation of the franchise. One of the secrets to the Bond films is their resilient formula. For Skyfall, let’s break down how successfully director Sam Mendes and veteran Bond writing duo Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (with some punch-up in the screenplay by John Logan) embraced and enhanced the formula with their new film.
Spy Intrigue (Grade B+): Bond is essentially a espionage thriller, but in recent years franchises like the Bourne series and films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy have raised our expectations of this kind of film. And while Bond films have occasionally emphasized style over substance, movies like From Russia With Love and Goldfinger managed to deliver both. In this latest installment, Bond (Daniel Craig) is hunting a rogue MI6 agent who is out to take down M (Judi Dench) The first hour of the film delivers some clever plot twists and turns, but by the time we’ve discovered who are villain is and what he is up to things become rudimentary.
Camp (Grade B-): While Bond’s goofy, campy silliness is often parodied, the way the franchise has meshed real world scenarios with over-the-top villains, absurd innuendo, and male fantasy makes up a large part of what is so sweetly – almost innocently – endearing about James Bond. As we’ve seen with the Daniel Craig installments of the franchise, this Bond plays down the camp factor considerably when compared to the swinging sixties, placing more of an emphasis on action and actually delivering quality thriller-filmmaking. But the film gets a boost from a wonderful performance by Javier Bardem as Silva, a disfigured, creepy super villain, who takes those qualities we love of the hero – aesthete sensibilities matched with a dogged cleverness – and exaggerates them to create a Bond-like monster. Some of Bardem’s scenes remain the movie’s best.
Women and sex appeal (Grade C-): There are some lovely ladies in the new film, with the part of first chair Bond girl falling to Bérénice Marlohe, whose role is disappointingly slight. Bond meets her at a casino (naturally) enjoys a tense conversation, a rendezvous with her that night on a yacht, and then she is disposed only a couple of scenes later. The best Bond girls have always been more intricate to the plot, allowing the innuendo-strewn dialogue and tense sexual politics to spill over into the action and the outcome. Second chair Bond Girl, Naomie Harris’ Eve, is a little more vital. A fellow MI6 agent, Eve provides opportunity for Bond-girl verbal sparring and adds some spunk to the mix.
Funny, though, that in this new Bond the sexiest scene doesn’t unfold between Bond and one of these two women, but rather between Bond and Bardem. The effete villain runs his finger across Bond’s famous (and now shaven) chest, dropping homoerotic suggestions. Then comes the big bomb shell: Craig’s Bond suggests that any kind of homosexual encounter might not be “the first time.” It’s a moment that reminds us how well this character has evolved with the times, while also nodding to the male eroticism that has always rumbled beneath the outer shell of Bond’s sexualized bravado.
Fumbling through sexual politics has always been a big part of James Bond films, though it hasn’t all been sexism. For more on that, check out self-described “female, feminist, and queer” Deborah Lipp’s video essay on how the Bond girls pointed towards a strong kind of feminine persona on screen.
Bond Bling: Gizmos and gadgets, cars, and martinis (Grade A-): If there is a theme here, it is “back to basics.” Part of that is provided by the plot, in which the sophisticated MI6 computer networks are hacked, and so Bond must rely on the kinds of technologies he utilized in the 1960s. It is a clever way to indulge the die-hard Bond fan. We get a little radio chip, Bond’s iconic Walther PPK handgun, and for the real swoon, the return after 40-years of Bond’s machine gun-toting Aston Martin DB5, easily the sexiest thing on screen in the entire film. Also leavening this side of the Bond equation is the new Q, played by one of my new favorite actors, Ben Whishaw. If there is a weak spot in the film it is that it lacks a moment where that truly unexpected and ingenious gadget saves the day. The makeshift explosives created from light bulbs and introduced in the film’s final scene just don’t cut it in Bond world.
Action (Grade A-): The single most exciting moment in the movie comes during the film’s opening action sequence, when Bond is chasing a bad guy on a motorcycle, driving across the roofs of the Istanbul market. But throughout Sam Mendes does a good job driving things forward. If there is fault, it is that the dramatic interludes lack the same zest of the action. The movie comes in at a hefty 143 minutes, which creates some drag on the movie’s lift, and trimming a half-hour or so would probably have helped both plot and action-packing power. Still, Mendes deserves credit for balancing all of these elements, making Skyfall one of the best Bond films in recent memory.