Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond; commissioned to aid the Daily Express comic strip artists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Just got back from watching Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/US, 2012) and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I worked my way through the ‘official’ James Bond series a few months ago (or was it last year?) and was left wondering how the follow up to Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, UK/US, 2008) would actually take shape.
If you want to quickly read my response to the film, scroll down to the paragraph in bold and start from there. Otherwise, feel free to read on. But don’t complain if it’s too long. 😉
Since GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, UK/US. 1995) the franchise has been trying to ‘reboot’ or ‘reinvent’ itself. I believe Eon Productions (the production company behind the ‘official’ film franchise) have struggled to identify 007’s relevance in the modern world. They reacted by building ever more elaborate action sequences, filming beautiful women, sets and locales but forgetting the things that made James Bond such an appealing and successful character to begin with.
Ian Fleming‘s novels were published following the second world war and were influenced by the noir fiction output of America and Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes. They were about a fairly ‘modern’ gentleman, well to do, who was an assassin on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond’s job would take him around the world, to many exotic locations and to meet many exotic individuals. James Bond made no pretence of being morally perfect, I believe the statement ‘James Bond detested killing’ is quote from one of Flemings’ novels (I don’t feel like hunting around to find out which one, so apologies for any inaccuracy). To 007 murder was a waste of life, something that could be taken far too easily.
In the films James Bond has had a very successful love life. In (probably) every entry to the series 007 has had a tryst with someone or other. In the novels, 007’s love life is far more complex, in one (I won’t say which) he’s actually turned down by ‘the bond girl’. Fleming’s From Russia with Love actually with 007 down after being dumped for an American sailor (if I recall correctly) and he actually turns down Honeychile Rider‘s advances in Fleming’s Dr No. The films have treat 007 as something of a misogynist dinosaur.. something actually expressed verbally quite early in GoldenEye. A true modernisation of the character wouldn’t feel the need to take that direction, although there are certainly misogynist aspects to the character (and writing) of the novels, they belong to a time long gone, and are not especially central.
When reading the novels, it’s quite clear to sense that Fleming got bored of writing them early on, in fact he went so far as to plot 007’s death in From Russia with Love and ironically, is probably why the novel was such a success (requiring a sequel in the form of Dr No). Off the top of my head, Fleming attempted to end Bond’s career at least twice, the first with his assassination at the hands of SMERSH in the aforementioned From Russia with Love, and the second in the conclusion of You Only Live Twice.
The same kinds of tensions can be found in the Bond films since the 1990’s. Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, UK/US, 2002) sees James Bond tortured and broken in the first section of the film, before being taken on a self referential and dream-like journey for revenge against a character modelled on himself. A film that may have been intended to celebrate and challenge the franchise became a sickly mash up and deconstruction of previous successes already made (and handled better) by films such as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, US/Germany, 1997).
The rather stale and desperate feel of Die Another Day left the franchise requiring a fresh start – a way to escape continuity conflicts with the previous entries to the series while also refreshing its tone and direction. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, UK, Czech Rep, US, Germany, Bahamas, 2006) saw one of Ian Fleming’s novels dramatised for the screen for the first time since (arguably) Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, UK, 1973). The second half of the film (the part actually based on the novel) follows the novel surprisingly closely, however, overall the tone, character and pace of the film is ruined by a string of unnecessary and over long chase sequences. Although refreshing to see a James Bond film with some genuine tension and interesting characters it was a film that left much to be desired and that doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing particularly well.
Quantum of Solace continued the same gritty, noir take on 007 but lacked all the things that made Casino Royale interesting (and successful). All Quantum of Solace had going for it was some pretty photography, nice set design and a generally dark atmosphere. Having said all that, it also progresses James Bond, himself, through an interesting development arc. Where Casino Royale tells the story of 007’s first mission and provides background to his hatred of SMERSH – sorry, SPECTRE – sorry Elipses? (Do we even know what they’re called in the new series?) Quantum of Solace sees him honing his craft and ‘repairing’ his broken heart.
This brings us nicely back to Skyfall. Skyfall is almost exactly the film it needed to be. It follows James Bond, now a whole man; over the death and betrayal of Vespa and back on assignment, fighting a larger than life megalomaniac. Javier Bardem plays the psychotic Silva wonderfully and gives voice to the films real achievement. Skyfall returns beautifully to Fleming’s original success through wonderfully developed (and twisted) characters it draws strength from a dark and twisted psychology. The action is allowed to be driven by the story for once and the story is actually worth following. Skyfall shows a strong influence from The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, US/UK, 2008) but retains it’s identity as a Bond film.
Yes, Skyfall still includes some fantastic pyrotechnics and opens with a hugely dynamic chase scene, but with the exception of the pretitle sequence, none of these really slow it down. Skyfall allows its characters to set the pace and tension of the film and they’re wondefully developed enough to do so. What is perhaps most impressive about the film is that Skyfall never allows its violence to become too ‘rote’. Death and chaos maintain a sense of shock and brutality for the duration and that only adds to the overall tension.
However, Skyfall isn’t devoid of corny moments. At one point at the end I unconsciously face palmed myself pre emptively (by which I mean I didn’t even realise I’d done it until I heard the smack of my palm against my head). I won’t say what this moment is, but it’ll be clear enough to anyone who’s seen it, I expect. There are plenty of other things I’d love to say about this film, but I’d be giving too much away to anyone considering going to see it.
Skyfall is definitely worth a watch, I managed to sit through it and I haven’t sat through a full James Bond at the cinema since The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, UK/US, 1999).