“007 reporting for duty.” – James Bond
Welcome back to 00 Saturdays here at Film Seizure. This is our weekly walk through the Bond saga. This week, we take a look at the third James Bond film for Daniel Craig, and my absolute favorite of the series to date, Skyfall.
Our 23rd James Bond film opens with the death of 007. On a mission in Istanbul, Bond and MI-6 agent Eve (later to be revealed to have the last name Moneypenny) are hot on the trail of a mercenary who has stolen a hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While Bond and the baddie are on top of a train duking it out, Eve (Naomi Harris) is given an order by M to shoot the mercenary, Patrice, but she doesn’t have a clear shot. She accidentally hits Bond and he falls into a river believed to be dead.
And away we go into one of the most fascinating and emotionally satisfying James Bond film of them all.
While Bond in these opening moments still feels like a sledgehammer, he feels much, much more seasoned at his job. Some of this is one of the advantages of this film coming four years after Quantum of Solace. Some of that was due to some financial issues at MGM, but I feel like it helped develop an even better script and a great Bond as Craig ages more into the role and away from that rookie 00 in the first two films.
However, Craig’s Bond is no less angry. He’s indignant that M gave Eve the order to fire even though she couldn’t confirm a clean shot on Patrice. He’s indignant that Patrice got away, thus he is part of the team that failed. He’s just indignant. Later, he has to do something he’s ill-prepared for – he must return home and face his past.
Skyfall represents many things that other Bond films have only touched upon in the past. It’s about death and resurrection, moving on and being passed over. After the failed attempt to retrieve the hard drive, M is called to meet with Gareth Mallory, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, who tells her that her retirement will begin in two months. M, now effectively fired, then learns that someone is trying to open the hard drive. When she and her Chief of Staff, Bill Tanner, try to stop the hack attempt, she witnesses an explosion at the MI-6 headquarters that claims the life of several employees. This brings Bond back from his own “death” to help M in the final moments of her life as head of MI-6.
Judi Dench’s M plays the largest role yet as her screen time in this film equals more cumulative time than the character had ever seen in the 22 films prior to this entry. Truthfully, she really deserves being the second billed actor in this film, and for good reason. In the previous films, M was critical of Bond for his headstrong ways and his lack of, well, humanity. It’s one thing to make sure your agent remains somewhat emotionally detached when on the job, but when he seems to completely lack any emotion other than rage… It’s a real problem. Even in the Pierce Brosnan era, she didn’t exactly enjoy their relationship. In the Craig era, she is more of a mother figure to Bond. She tries to coach him through that inconsolable rage at the organization that badgered him and killed Vesper. She needs Bond now and, despite his cold demeanor toward her, he needs her as well. It really sets an amazing emotional tone for this film.
It’s M’s choices and how she ran MI-6 that make up the plot of Skyfall. M was always hard. She sometimes came off as dispassionate. She always looked for statistics before coming to logical decisions. She was not someone who always trusted instincts, even from the likes of 007. There were times she was forced to fall back on Bond’s intuition, but she tended to make wagered choices. M ordering Eve to fire at the risk of hitting Bond was a choice between possibly injuring or killing Bond versus knowing she’d be putting the whole of the British secret agents at risk. This way of thinking ultimately comes back to roost.
Our villain of this film is a former MI-6 agent named Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem. He is an expert in cyberterrorism. When he hacked the Chinese government, she allowed them to take him in exchange for six other agents that had been captured previously. This was all in the interest of a smooth handover between the British and Chinese when Hong Kong was changing hands. He tried to commit suicide with cyanide, but it didn’t kill him, only left him disfigured. Again, numbers. Trading one agent for the lives of more despite the good that the agent can do and what other possibilities it could be to protect the others. It’s a revenge plot and it is something that had its origins in what we had seen in M’s character in previous entries.
It’s without a doubt in my mind that Skyfall is the best acted film in the series with powerful performances from Dench, Craig, Bardem, and new characters to the series that fit familiar roles like Ben Whishaw’s Q, Harris’ Moneypenny, and Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory who will eventually become the new M. All this said, this is an absolutely gorgeous film too. That’s thanks to the Academy Award nominated eye of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. This film features wonderful shots of Istanbul, Macau, and Shanghai. When the film moves to the dreary Scottish pastures for the finale at the Bond family home, Skyfall, it still looks beautiful.
Deakins also knows how to shoot Bond in almost iconic ways. We first see Bond enter a scene out of focus and slowly walk to the forefront, zeroing in on Craig’s icy blue eyes. It’s great. It’s how we should see his Bond. He’s steely. When he enters the floating casino in Macau, there’s this wonderful shot of Bond framed perfectly with the floating paper lanterns and fireworks. There’s a color palette to this film that makes it look and feel unlike any other entry in the series or any movie that came out in 2012.
It’s not a Bond film without a whole bunch of action and this film isn’t just dramatic, it is exciting as hell too.
There’s the chase and fight scene in Istanbul that kicks the whole thing off thatis quite exciting in its own right, but the film only goes up from there. Bond reconnects, if you will, to Patrice in Shanghai. Patrice is going to assassinate someone in the building across the street. In his building, there’s a bright billboard that can be seen through the window. It’s all shot in front of those bright lights from the sign only allowing you to see only what is most important. There’s even a scene in Macau that features some dangerous lizards and big, beefy henchmen.
Of course, the entire third act at Skyfall featuring Bond, M, and family property caretaker Kincade (Albert Finney) is awesome. It’s three people against an army led by someone just as good as Bond. They don’t have gadgets from Q Branch. They don’t have backup. They just have what they have at the home – old shotguns, nails, and various other things to try to build as many booby traps as possible. Oh… I mean Bond’s tricked out Aston Martin is there too.
My favorite scene, though, and maybe the most exciting sequence of the entire series in my opinion, comes once Silva is in London and disguised as a policeman. There’s a hearing with Mallory and M and some various ministers from Parliament. Silva’s set up an ambush to kill as many of the people in that hearing. When Bond realizes what the heavy is up to after he escapes MI-6 detainment and is led on a chase through the London Underground that ends with Silva dropping a train on Bond, he’s forced to rush to the hearing to save M. He’s unable to get there by car so he’s booking it down the streets of London against a ticking clock for when the attack will happen. It’s edge of your seat type of stuff. All this builds with some excellent dialog from M reading a poem by Tennyson that was one of her late husband’s favorites.
It really shouldn’t be understated how good Bardem is in this as Silva. When he speaks and gives his side of the story, or provides exposition, the score is absent or restrained. His character is that important that his lines are often given the entire soundtrack. His performance comes off as soft, quiet, and menacing like an old Bond villain. He’s a dandy and quite insane. Bardem and Craig’s scene filmed at the abandoned Hashima Island in Japan is tense with only dialog. They even have a gun match to shoot a shot glass off a girl’s head. It’s the kind of scene that gives you goosebumps and there is not a single action beat to it until the very end of the sequence.
This is a film that features a guy who has made a role his playing at the very same level as two Oscar winners, and being directed by a thirdwith Sam Mendes just proving with every scene that he is one of the best directors working today. It’s shot by one of the absolute masters of the craft. You know… I have to believe that producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli wanted this to be something, I dunno… special for the 50th anniversary of the series.
There are two things that almost go unnoticed in the film. The first, and the one that is for good reason, is the ultimate lack of the classic Bond Girl. M IS the Bond Girl in the film. The more typical one is a red herring in the character of Sévérine played by Bérénice Marlohe. She is Silva’s mistress and a former prostitute. Bond sees her in Shanghai and becomes intimate with her in Macau. She hopes that maybe Bond can do something to stop Silva. However, she’s the girl that Silva uses to compete with Bond in that duel to shoot the shot glass off her head. Bond misses, but Silva just shoots her dead. She’s built up to be your typical Bond Girl, but only exists for about a 15 minute stretch before she becomes yet another victim of the circumstances of M’s past.
The other girl is good ol’ Eve Moneypenny. I’ve never really talked too much about the Moneypenny character throughout this series. Moneypenny is the longtime admirer of Bond’s. For 14 films, she was played by Lois Maxwell before it was briefly handed off to Caroline Bliss for the Dalton era. Samantha Bond played Moneypenny in a much more modern, yet still adoring, way in the Brosnan films. Skyfall builds up what we see at the start of the series with Dr. No. It places Moneypenny into the employ of M – a male M. The film is incredibly smart to let Bond and Moneypenny have playful moments and considerable amounts of opportunity to flirt, but keeps them from actually acting on anything to preserve the true trajectory of their actual relationship. It also finally gives the long running character a whole bunch to do for the first time in 50 years.
The other understated thing is that new M, Ralph Fiennes. I love how this film sets him up to be somebody you want to root against. I love these types of characters. The first time you see him, you see him telling M that she’s done. She’s cocked it up and it’s her time to go. You want to immediately tell him to piss off. However, at the intelligence hearing, he calls off the dogs that want to denigrate her so she can speak and defend herself. When Silva shows up, he takes a bullet to the arm for her. When Bond and M disappear to Skyfall, he praises Tanner and Q’s trail they are setting up for Silva to follow as tactical genius. By the end, when our current M is laid to rest and it’s time for a new one to take her place, you want him to be it. I always love those types of characters who are pragmatic and sometimes say the things you don’t like, but is a good guy in the end.
When I saw this movie, I was blown away. For 17 years, GoldenEye was my favorite film in the series for a handful of reasons – and I think they are reasons many would understand and support. I remember telling my Film Seizure co-host Jason Oliver that Skyfall was the new #1. His response was shock, recognizing that when a new favorite Bond film comes along for as deep of a fan of the series as I am, it was a really, really big deal.
Join me next week for a look at the music of Skyfall. In two weeks, we take a look at Daniel Craig’s penultimate adventure as agent 007, Spectre.