Bob Mondello at NPR opens his review of Skyfall with an important point about these newest editions to the James Bond franchise. Any Jason Bourne can engage in stunningly athletic chases and fist fights. But only Bond will use a backhoe to open the roof of a train car, jump in, and…check his cufflinks before continuing the pursuit. Mondello’s key argument is that the people behind Daniel Craig’s star turn as the quintessential super spy get it, that magic that makes Bond Bond and not Bourne.
But having said that, this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s James Bond. From the “beginning,” with Casino Royale, this Bond seemed grittier, younger, able to kill a man with his bare hands and then visibly squelch his emotions. It helped that the folks behind the reboot hired quality actors and turned the focus off of gadgets and onto characters while maintaining Bond’s swagger and style. But a focus on characters forces another change, pushing our hero and those who surround him into something like actual humans in this modern world. These creators embrace a female “M,” using the talented Judy Dench as a believable figure not a politically correct giggle. Skyfall builds on this trend, proving this character-driven Bond is not a fluke. And while Skyfall does interesting things with its women, particularly M, it is in the redefinition of modern masculinity that the reboot makes it greatest contribution.
***Spoilers after the jump***
Bond has always been a masculinist fantasy and this continues to be true for Craig’s version. But by and large, this Bond’s beddings of a bevy of beauties are shown to be part of his job (albeit one of the perks) or something he does to distract himself from the pain of his life choices. Ditto his drinking. And alcohol connects M and Bond, both of them showing a preference in Skyfall for high end scotch, particularly in times of emotional compromise and buried pain.
Even more telling, Bond’s best bits with female characters come in the form of banter and witty repartee. This includes various tête-à-tête with Eve (Naomie Harris), the other field agent who nearly takes Bond’s head off in the opening sequence, and it includes M herself, who need be neither a bombshell nor a scold to partake in Bond’s story. Indeed, Skyfall deepens M, showing from the get go that she’s a deeply complicated person who will not flinch from making difficult decisions—even if its hurts someone, even if it hurts her personally.
The reboot also emphasizes Craig/Bond’s good looks, showing him naked and turning the objectification onto the hero as well as his bed buddies. Again, Skyfall takes this one step further in the opening monologue by the film’s villain, Silva, embodied with his usual creepy aplomb by Javier Bardem. Silva sees himself and Bond as brothers, of sorts, but he implies they could also be lovers, running his hands over the tied up Bond and commenting on Bond’s attractiveness. What’s remarkable about this queeny performance is not the implication that Silva is gay. (Really, there’s no evidence for that and he’s better categorized as psychopathic than by any sexuality.) No, what stands out is Bond’s response. No revulsion, no rejection, rather, the calculated flirtation that marks every Bond reaction to any seductress (or, in this case, potential seducer).
Silva himself represents this new masculinity. Not driven by money or ideology, Silva has a personal grudge against M, seeking to discredit and then kill her. But we even get an explanation for his insanity. After surviving torture and botched suicide, Silva snaps, the trauma of his ordeals causing him to focus his insanity on the person who gave him up: M. And it is Silva who sets the stage for the film’s overarching trope, that of family, because it is he who declares M “Mother” (a symbol impossible prior to a female head for MI6). Drawing this trope out allows Bond to recognize his own seeking after family in M and to ultimately reconcile his unresolved grief over his parent’s untimely death.
I hope when you read that last sentence you heard the record-needle scratching sound that signals the need for a double-take. Because no one has ever conceived of Bond enacting deep-seated emotional issues through his life decisions. Before this millennial Bond, such a sentence was inconceivable. But, as M tells him, “Orphans always make the best recruits.”
Silva is a computer genius, and he’s always one step ahead of MI6 (including their new computer wunderkind, and Bond’s personal quartermaster, the new “Q” [Ben Whishaw]). So Bond and M take their battle out of the modern era, fleeing to Bond’s abandoned family estate, Skyfall—a decrepit, classic “big house” sitting lonely on a Scottish moor. There is genius in the setting for this finale. Bond confronts his childhood and he plays the game as he wants to play it. But in the process, he destroys Skyfall, literally, and thereby symbolically lets go of the past. The “past” here also contains a double meaning: both Bond’s biography and the weighty history of the entire Bond franchise. Between this symbolic destruction, and the emphasis on complicated emotions and messy human relationships, Skyfall drives home its delightfully playful and yet deeply earnest declaration that this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s James Bond—and it never will be again.
I could add in several criticisms. The preoccupation with masculinity still leaves most of the female characters—except for M—a bit thin. (Although Harris does a great job establishing herself as a character we’ve both seen before—ahem—and will see again.) The bringing in of Ralph Fiennes adds much interest but squeezes out a female character. And the whole thing adds up to a intriguingly odd apology for colonialism and nationalistic love of country. Having said all that, Skyfall is so interesting on masculinity that I’m willing to give it a political pass. And all else said, it’s still a hell of a good time.
Last, try not to get Adele’s addition to the Bond-theme canon stuck in your head. Undoubtedly, one of the best.