The first James Bond film, Dr. No, was released in the fall of 1962, though it didn’t open in the US until the next spring. Sean Connery, of course, was Bond–the villain was Joseph Wiseman, Barnard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell was Miss Moneypenny, and the first Bond girl was Ursula Andress, a Swiss model who hardly spoke English, but who looked great in a white bikini. Skyfall, the most recent, is number 23 in the series. I’ve seen ’em all. And I think Skyfall may be the best film of the lot.
But saying Skyfall is number 23 is actually kind of misleading: it’s only 23 films if you don’t count the non-Eon productions. Cubby Broccoli and his partner, Harry Saltzman founded Eon Productions specifically to make Bond films; when they died, Cubby’s daughter, Barbara took over the company, partnering with her half- brother, Michael Wilson. Barbara Broccoli’s still running things, and has announced that there will be at least two more Bonds. She’s only 52, and her credits on IMDB are amazing; just this long list of Bond films. She grew up in the Eon office; once, when she was a kid, shooting on location in Japan, she got sick and Sean Connery generously gave her his bed, sleeping on the floor so she would be comfortable, recovering.
But there have been other, non-Eon Bond films, most especially the first Casino Royale (1967), with David Niven as Bond (which also recycled Ursula Andress) and Never Say Never Again (1983). Never represented one of the real Eon crises: it brought Sean Connery out of retirement as Bond, and it came out the same year as Octopussy, far and away the worst Bond of Roger Moore’s career, and possibly the worst Eon Bond. It was Connery against Roger Moore, mano a mano, and it looked like Eon’s run might be ending. And Never was a good film; it also had Kim Basinger as a Bond girl, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as a particularly memorable villain. But its producers got caught up in the legalities of rights negotiations, and Eon came back with View to a Kill, which had Christopher Walken as the villain and Grace Jones as his remarkable sidekick, and the series survived. It’s really remarkable, keeping a series alive and flourishing for fifty years. I’ve seen ’em all. I’ve seen every Bond, most of them several times.
And Skyfall is terrific. Adele’s theme song is either the best or second best of all the Bond theme songs, depending on what you think of Goldfinger. Judi Dench is the best M ever, and I love Ben Whishaw as a young computer nerd Q. Best of all is Javier Bardem as Silva, a mesmerizing and flamboyant Bond villain. When we first see him, he’s a distant figure in a long shot, emerging from an elevator at one end of a long room. The camera holds on him as he walks towards Bond, tied to a chair, Bardem telling this remarkable story about an island full of rats. By the time he gets to Bond, he’s finished the story, and we’re totally hooked. Javier Barden won his Oscar for playing Chigurh, the sociopathic killer in No Country for Old Men; Silva is, if anything, a more compelling and remarkable creation, though with equally terrible hair.
I love the villains in Bond films. A lot of the great Bond titles are the names of the bad guys: Goldfinger, Dr. No, The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond villains are like a Who’s Who of remarkable European actors: Robert Carlyle, Sean Bean, Mads Mikkelson, Jonathan Pryce. Bond villains represent some current anxiety, something we’re scared of or worried about. Initially, Bond was a Cold War hero; some of the early villains were from Smersh, a super-secret elite KGB squad. Then, in For Your Eyes Only, the MacGuffin (the whosis, the gadget that the good guys and bad guys both want; in this film, some kind of transmitter thingy) is destroyed by Bond, who then says to his Soviet counterpart: “I don’t have it, you don’t have it. Detente.” The Soviet laughs, and that’s the last Cold War Bond. Well, sort of: Goldeneye is a post-Soviet nightmare, with some kind of Russki technology on sale to the highest bidder, brokered by Bond’s friend and colleague, 006 (Sean Bean). One of my favorites is Tomorrow Never Dies, where the villain is a media mogul–basically, he’s Rupert Murdoch. And of course, more recently, Bond villains have been either terrorists or are linked to terrorists.
What’s interesting about Skyfall is that Bardem’s villain isn’t so much a terrorist as a former spy with Mommy issues; he specifically wants to kill M. And the last third of the film is basically Home Alone, James Bond playing Macauley Culkin, with Javier Bardem playing the Joe Pesci role. I’m serious: Bond lures Silva to his ancestral Scottish castle, and then booby-traps it. Fills it, in fact, with IEDs, that favorite weapon of terrorists.
But before that point, there’s a scene where Judi Dench, as M, testifies before Parliament, arguing that England needs Bond (and guys like him) more than ever, because of the shadowy world of international terrorism. We need guys who can handle amorality. And I thought that driving home afterwards, how Presidents Bush and Obama have become 00-agents; they’ve arrogated to themselves licenses to kill, only using drones instead of field agents to project American (or Western) power. Sam Mendes, Skyfall‘s director, and this screenplay (by Robert Wade and Neal Purvis), make a case for drone warfare, for the quiet assassination, without due process, of anyone deemed a threat to national security. Extra-Constitution, indefensible in interational law? Oh, absolutely. And Judi Dench makes that case, as M. And everything else in the film supports her argument. Bardem’s character is at least arguably not a terrorist–he’s certainly non-ideological–and yet, the film provides a rationale for the real-life, real-time deployment of, well, James Bond. CIA and Army Ranger and Marine sharpshooters in Afghanistan. Seal Team Six. Predator drones out of Shamsi airbase in Pakistan. And drone pilots in Texas and California raining death down on suspected Al Queda targets half a world away.
Bond becomes relevant again, coldly relevant, in a film with a flamboyantly gay villain with an awful die job. And I rooted and cheered for Bond to beat the bad guy, like everyone else. And only questioned it all a bit later.
And Daniel Craig is a tremendous Bond. Sam Mendes said he would only direct a Bond film if 007 was vulnerable and human. Craig’s a great enough actor to pull it off; his hair is graying, as is his beard, and he can’t pass an MI-6 physical exam or shooting test. He’s damaged; he’s assailable. But he’s also Bond, and M knows that about him, knows that he has what a field agent must have; the ability to, without hesitation, pull the trigger. Two of the three Daniel Craig Bonds are among the finest films in the series; only Quantum of Solace failed, because of an inadequately imagined threat and villain.
So Skyfall does include all the Bond tropes: ‘shaken not stirred,’ the tux and the casino scene, the fabulous opening chase scene and the amazing stunts, the conscience-less womanizing. That particular aspect of Bond films has always been their biggest weakness; Bond’s skirt-chasing has had a smirky Playboy smarminess to it, perhaps forgiveable to the Mad Men sensibilities of the early sixties, but increasingly repugnant as the series aged. In Skyfall, however, the Bond girl’s role is entirely tragic. Berenice Marlohe plays Severine, and Bond sleeps with her with entirely tactical motivations, to procure an introduction to Silva. Silva then dispenses with her completely cold-bloodedly. It’s a tough scene to watch, and an effective one; beautiful women are disposable to sociopaths like Silva. And to a borderline sociopath like James Bond.
I don’t mean to suggest that the film is entirely dark in tone. One of the hallmarks of Bond films is the way they don’t entirely take themselves seriously. In fact, of the three great crises that the Eon empire has weathered, (the other two being a six year hiatus locked up in court in the early 90’s, and Never Say Never Again), the most significant was the challenge posed by Michael Meyers and the Austin Powers films. Meyers dissected the Bond world so skillfully, and skewered it so precisely, that it appeared as though Bond couldn’t survive. And The World Is Not Enough, the first post-Austin Powers Bond, was ludicrous, what with Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist (the silliest Bond girl ever). But Bond survived even being pantsed by Michael Meyers. It survived by going darker. It survived by hiring Daniel Craig, who finds a way to turn jokey-ness into gallows humor.
Skyfall, the title, is an attempt to give Bond, or at least this Bond, some backstory. It works pretty well, but it’s also kind of silly; Ian Fleming’s Bond started off fighting Nazis in World War II, which would suggest that James Bond’s pushing ninety. A better solution is the one my wife favors: that ‘James Bond, 007’ is a title, like M, or Q. They just recruit the newest ‘James Bond’, like they did when ‘Q’ transitioned from Desmond Llewelyn to John Cleese to, now, Ben Withrow. It’d be easy to do: just make a James Bond film with Sean Connery AND Roger Moore, AND Timothy Dalton, AND Pierce Brosnan AND Daniel Craig. Bring ’em all out of retirement. (I think we can pass on George Lazenby). I’d watch that film.
Anyway, Bond, who has survived multiple re-castings and some frankly pretty terrible films, seems also to have survived the biggest challenge of them all: irrelevancy. The Cold War, his original raison-d’etre, has long since expired, but Bond lives on. And with Skyfall, we may have seen the finest film in the series.