By: Daniel Reynolds
A couple of years back there were reports that MGM was in some financial trouble. The studio had been losing money and was having trouble getting films off the ground. Although it still seems impossible, MGM, the studio of Ben Hur, Singin’ in the Rain and Network, has been crashing as of late. Despite this, it still has two valuable properties to its name: The Hobbit (which we’ll finally see this Christmas after numerous production delays) and James Bond (a 50 year old film franchise). Now, I hardly need to delve into the history of the Bond films here; there are 23 of them out there now of varying levels of quality and importance. And, while the recent reboot of the series has kept Bond in the public consciousness, the last movie, Quantum of Solace, was something of an underwhelming, confusing flop. Yet, regardless of the franchise’s sometimes shaky past, the history does matter; or at least this is what the latest Bond film continues to insist. Sometimes, as Albert Finney’s late appearing Kincade attests, the old ways are best.
Skyfall, the newest film in the venerable franchise, begins in much the same fashion as the last couple of Bond movies starring the fashionably grizzled Daniel Craig. There is an action set piece (featuring the awesome use of a front-end loader), the stirring theme song (sung ably by Adele) and then we’re basically up to speed. The film, sharply directed by Sam Mendes, eschews the weighty back stories of Casino Royale and the aforementioned Quantum of Solace, dropping us straight into the plot just as Bond is shot off a train, dropping presumably to his death. Naturally, things only get worse from there as we learn that someone has stolen a list of undercover NATO agents with plans to, well, it is not immediately clear.
After the explosive opening, Skyfall is content to work at a different pace. Rather than dealing in romance, the film turns up the political intrigue and grapples with notions of organizational relevancy as we see the inner machinations of MI6 and its ongoing struggle to maintain order. Returning to duty is the dependable Judi Dench as M (never more matronly than seen here), Ralph Fiennes is on hand to effectively glower, and Ben Whishaw shows up as a new wisecracking Q. And while Craig’s Bond does return to life, emerging from some tropical nowhere, to reclaim his spot as England’s top agent, Skyfall shows us a man struggling to regain his edge as 007. Yes, despite being only three films in, this Bond has the weight of history on his shoulders, 50 years of action and adventure, and a need to prove himself once again.
As the story spools outward, there is this recurring element of familiar nostalgia, and not just for Bond, that continues to creep into the frame. The film liberally borrows from a bunch of movies; the use of both vibrant Asian-fueled and desolately stark production design from Inception, some Bourne-like chases sequences, a Hannibal Lector-esque confinement cell, a modest touch of The 39 Steps, even some very Tom Cruise-ian like running from Craig. Most potently, we see, as has been mentioned elsewhere, strains of Nolan’s Batman also permeating the film, and that’s before we even consider Javier Bardem’s unhinged Ledger-like performance as the crazed villain, Raoul Silva.
Ultimately, these references remain in the background; they are grace notes for a superlative film, one with wonderfully constructed action sequences, some clever humour, and (absent in the previous film) a legitimate soul. Mendes, who is not a typical action director, surprises with some achingly beautiful shots that transcend their Bond genre trappings even as men with guns and fisticuffs abound. Meanwhile, Craig is allowed to shed some of that belligerent armour he’d been burdened with in the previous outings, producing a more fun, streamlined performance that catapults the character forward, re-(re?)-establishing its worth.
While providing some truly crackerjack entertainment, Skyfall, really from both the studio and character’s perspective, is occupied with proving it’s reason for being. So, while Bond grapples with the ravages of time and M argues for her organization’s own relevance, the keepers of the crown jewel of MGM’s waning film empire attempt to recapture that past Bond-ian magic. Rather carefully, the film circles back to its beginnings even as it relaunches its characters in a new setting, connecting the future with the past. The momentum of the Bond franchise, the film ultimately argues, is not something that can just be forgotten. Instead of submerging into film history like some ironclad dinosaur, with Skyfall it is hard to disregard Bond’s own words on relative artistic merit. In an early scene he mutters that a painting is just a ‘big, bloody ship’; too significant to ignore, and impossible to sink. Yes, we’ll always need James Bond.