It was rather imperative to release a Bond film in the year 2012, as it was the 50th anniversary of the series’ inception with Dr. No in 1962. It was a time to celebrate the most lasting film franchise of all time. The Academy Awards even dedicated a portion of that year’s ceremony to a Bond tribute, although it is rather curious that not a single actor who played James Bond was in attendance. Instead, the tribute was introduced by Bond Girl Halle Berry. The tribute itself really just came down to Ms. Shirley Bassey belting out the Goldfinger theme just as well as she did back in the 60s.
Skyfall ultimately proved a much better tribute. What better way to pay homage to the series than to call back to its earliest days? Or, if nothing else, to put its best foot forward and just be a great film?
We begin with 007 on assignment in Istanbul with a rookie field agent named Eve. Someone has stolen a hard drive containing the names of every undercover agent NATO has planted in terrorist cells, and Bond and Eve can’t let them escape with it. Because this is the beginning of the movie and things can’t be easy at this point, Bond and Eve fail after a thrilling chase sequence which culminates with Eve accidentally shooting 007 off of a bridge (in her defense, M demanded she take a shot she didn’t have any confidence in).
With Bond seemingly dead and the list out in the world, M comes under fire from government forces who would just love to shut down her branch of MI6, considering it both antiquated and dangerous. Gareth Mallory, a government big-wig who made his name during the IRA days, tells M that she will be forced into retirement in two months time. As if this isn’t bad enough, someone hacks into M’s computer, leaves her a message that says “Think on your sins,” and blows up MI6 headquarters right in front of her. Someone with a nasty vendetta is trying to take M down. Blaming herself for the innocent lives lost in the bombing, M vows to find the person responsible.
Of course, Bond is alive and has been healing up–and brooding–in an exotic beach locale. He returns to M when he gets news of the bombing. She isn’t surprised to see him because of course 007 is alive. They have it out because Bond is mad she ordered the shot when he thinks he could have finished the job. Bond has to be cleared for duty, and that doesn’t go well. He fails miserably, and walks out of a psychological assessment when the doctor uses the word ‘skyfall’ during word association. Luckily, M fudges the results to get him back in.
It’s a rather daring move, making Bond weak and vulnerable. Mallory even recommends that Bond take the opportunity presented by his near-death experience to walk away cleanly. Secret Service is a young man’s game, as he points out. Since Bond not-so-secretly didn’t pass the tests to get back to field work, it sets up direct tension as to whether or not he is in over his head this time.
With an assist from Eve, who has been temporarily suspended from actual field work, Bond eventually tracks everything to Silva, an old agent who wants M dead. Bond takes M on the run to get ahead of Silva with the help of the new Q (!) and Mallory, who proves to be a mean shot with a renegade attitude perfectly fitting for their little unit. We also get a rare look at Bond’s elusive backstory for this 50th anniversary outing when the place 007 is taking M turns out to be Skyfall, his family home in Scotland. Silva shows up and Bond manages to take him out, but not before M is fatally wounded. Mallory takes over as M and MI6 moves into the future, with James Bond still in possession of an active role.
Oh, and Eve decides she likes being behind the scenes more than doing field work. She’s going to work closely with Mallory to oversee things. The real kicker? Turns out her last name is Moneypenny. She’s back, ladies and gentlemen.
One of the most genius things that happened during Judi Dench’s stellar turn as M is that the relationship between 007 and his boss deepened. It’s no accident that Bond’s relationship with M is the most lasting, significant relationship he’s had with anyone–let alone a woman. In many ways she’s his ultimate Bond girl/friend/maternal figure. It’s very sad to see her leave the series, but given that Dench was 78 and legally blind (but able to hide it very well), it seemed inevitable that she would be saying goodbye to M soon. At least this way we get to send her off properly. Thankfully, our introduction to Mallory implies that M will continue to be a big figure in 007’s life, and not just a background character who only shows up at the beginning and very end of films.
Living in a computer age, Skyfall also directly tangles with the question of what place classic espionage has in the world. Has the internet made the world more transparent, or do we live in an age of shadows more than ever? After all, Silva is able to manipulate computers to tell lies.
Casino Royale put the Bond series back on track, Quantum of Solace very nearly derailed it, and Skyfall realized its full potential. It’s a cracker of a movie–even outside of the 007 franchise. Well-staged action sequences that actually have stakes. Well-drawn characters you actually care about. And a villain who is truly chilling. Whether or not this is the best Bond movie depends on how well you love the classics like Goldfinger. For me, I love that Skyfall honors the classics while raising the stakes and elevating the series.
Notable Moments: Judi Dench’s M is the first in the series not only to get a proper goodbye, but to die onscreen. There usually isn’t any ceremony at all when Ms change. The predecessor simply doesn’t reappear, and when a new face shows up it isn’t commented on at all. The only slight exception, naturally, was Judi Dench’s first appearance in the role back in GoldenEye, when it was made clear that she was new to the position and that Bond didn’t like the idea of having a woman in charge. In keeping with the transition idea, we also get to meet her replacement, Gareth Mallory. He’ll get his first solo outing as M in Spectre. In other big news, Skyfall became the first Bond film to win an Academy Award in 47 years (Thunderball having been the last). Not only did it break that losing streak, Skyfall was the first Bond film to win more than one trophy (for Best Original Song and Sound Editing). Three Bond themes had been nominated for Best Original Song, but “Skyfall” was the first to win the category. Perhaps this Academy Award run was inevitable, given that director Sam Mendes is the first Oscar-winning director to take a crack at the series.
Gadgets: Now that Q is back, gadgets make a subtle return. Q gives 007 a Walther PPK coded to his palm-print so only he can fire it (“less a random killing machine and more of a personal statement.”) and a small radio transmitter that can broadcast 007’s location when activated. When Bond is disappointed, Q cheekily tells him that they don’t really go for exploding pens anymore. YES YES YES. Oh, Bond also needs a car that can’t be tracked when he and M go on the run, so naturally he gets the classic silver Aston Martin DB5 that originally showed up in Goldfinger. It has an ejection seat and guns hidden in the front bumper.
Ally: Technically, Eve has this one locked up, but let’s have a moment for a new ally and another making a grand return. First, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) seems to be a standard government official when he’s first introduced, but there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s a man of action–a former Lieutenant who spent three months imprisoned by the IRA back in his day. When Silva bursts into a government hearing to assassinate M, Mallory even takes the bullet himself while pushing her out of the way. Then he picks up a gun and covers Bond when he arrives. Even though he’s wounded. Turns out, he’s something of a badass, which is an entirely new development for an M. Second, we have Q returning to the series in the modernized form of Ben Whishaw. Like Moneypenny, Q had been cast off when the series was rebooted in Casino Royale. In his case, producers wanted to get away from CGI spectacle and gadgets, which Q had come to symbolize. This version of Q is more like the tech analyst you see in shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. He’s a brilliant young man and computer genius, not a gadget-maker. Making Q a hacker is such a genius course correction it’s a wonder no one had thought of it before.
Bond Girl: Leading up to Skyfall‘s release, Naomie Harris was touted as the Bond Girl in press. I am not surprised at all that since Skyfall premiered, people have tried their hardest to relegate her to the supporting Bond Girl category. Why? Because when producers decided to bring back Moneypenny, they made an audacious decision to do it by making her a full-fledged Bond Girl. And people who cling to Moneypenny’s traditional role as M’s secretary refuse to accept that. Well tough noogies, I say. You don’t even find out that she’s Moneypenny until the final scene of the movie. Prior to that, she’s just Eve, a rookie field agent who discovers she likes working behind the scenes more than being in the field. Moneypenny had been retired from the series in Casino Royale because her character was seen as dated. Producers finally realized that when they rebooted Bond they gave themselves the perfect opportunity to re-introduce Moneypenny for modern audiences. And how do you make her less of a secretary caricature? You make her Bond’s equal. Make no mistake, that’s what she is. How else? Make her a Bond Girl. As for those who claim that a Bond Girl has to sleep with James? Plenty O’Toole didn’t. Solange didn’t get all the way. And in the last Bond movie, Camille didn’t. In fact, this is the second Bond movie in a row where the Bond girl doesn’t sleep with him. Well, perhaps. That shaving scene in Skyfall does end rather abruptly. We don’t actually know if she slept with him or not. I prefer to think not. Not because Moneypenny should be perpetually sexually frustrated by Bond, but because I like to think of Moneypenny as an independent woman smart enough not to take their flirtation all the way.
I love, love, love the way they brought Moneypenny back and made her kick-ass. Lois Maxwell would be proud. The downside is that even after they made the courageous decision to make Moneypenny a Bond Girl, they still relegated her to the sidelines. They almost should have called M the Bond Girl, since she’s much more central to the plot. Moneypenny doesn’t even get to participate in the final showdown–I believe that’s the first time a Bond Girl hasn’t played a role in the endgame in the entire series. But M is there. If they were going to make Moneypenny a Bond Girl, they should have gone all the way. I suppose I’m being unfair, since in the final scene she reveals that she’s decided to work with Mallory instead of returning to the field. But still.
Supporting Bond Girl: If you ask me, one of the most compelling supporting Bond Girls in the series was Maud Adams as Andrea Anders in The Man With the Golden Gun. She was a woman trapped by a supremely dangerous man, who called upon 007 believing that he was the only one who could kill the man she was so afraid of. It didn’t end well for her. That’s the exact story we have here with Severine, except that she’s afforded much greater depth as a character. And her tragic end is even more horrific. There’s an effort to make Berenice Marloh the main Bond Girl now that Naomie Harris has been revealed as Moneypenny, and as good as Marloh is there’s no denying that she’s our supporting girl here. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me her total screentime added up to less than 30 minutes. Hell, less than 20 minutes. But she definitely makes quite an impression with her brief turn in the spotlight. Most Bond movies don’t have much interest in their girls, especially the supporting ones. For example, we didn’t know anything about Andrea Anders other than that she felt trapped and was terrified by Scaramanga. By briefly teasing at Severine’s past (and with a truly haunted expression from Marloh), we feel for her so much more.
Villain: Holy crap. I mean seriously: holy crap. Bond producers had toyed with the idea of employing a villain who was essentially an evil version of James Bond before, but this is the first time the idea was allowed to run its course. Boy, does it pay off big time. Silva makes GoldenEye‘s Alec Trevelyan look like a wimp. Seriously: if Silva and Trevelyan were in school together, Silva would steal Trevelyan’s lunch money, kick sand in his face, and then burn his house down with his family still in it. That’s just how Silva roles. Academy Award-winner Javier Bardem brought such menace and oddball flair to Silva that there was talk of him becoming the first actor in a Bond film to score an Oscar nomination for his performance. Alas, it was not to be. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes, but the Academy left him in the cold. Which is totally not a smart thing to do. I mean, would you mess with the guy who played Anton Chigurh and Silva? It’s actually a shame, because Bardem is incredible here. He really goes for broke bringing Silva to life, and the fact that he pulls it off is astounding.
Yes, Silva has many tics and eccentricities. Yes, he has a deformity (even if you can’t see it until he removes his fake jaw). And yes, I spend a lot of time in these reviews making fun of how it seems that all Bond villains must have some sort of tic, eccentricity, and/or deformity. Third nipples, metal hands, eyes that cry blood–we’ve seen it all at this point. The problem is that usually, those oddities are the only real character traits the villains get. Producers make a fatal error thinking that a tic is the equivalent of a personality in some way, and that just isn’t so. We end up with a lot of villains who have no real depth or menace at all as a consequence.
But not Silva. He’s just full of personality. He used to be M’s right hand man from 1986 through 1997. He thinks she betrayed him and left him to die under torture (in actuality she arranged to trade him for six other agents after it became clear he was becoming reckless and getting involved in bad deeds). Silva attempted suicide with the cyanide capsule implanted in his back molar, except that it didn’t kill him. It just burned up his insides and forced him to need some serious dentures in order to hold his face in place. It also gave him the ability to see his new goal in life: to see M’s face one more time. And kill her.
Bond is also a peculiar obsession for Silva (and not just because he finds him attractive). To Silva, he and Bond represent the ‘last rats’ in the stable of double-Os M utilized throughout her career. Possessing the same training, Silva understands Bond. He knows his instincts. He knows his weaknesses. He knows the ins and outs of MI6, and how to bring it to its knees.
I said earlier that whether or not you think Skyfall is the best Bond film depends on how well you love the classics like Goldfinger. The same applies for Silva in the villain category. For my money, he’s the perfect embodiment of the ‘oddball’ villain done right. He’s also a way of elevating that classic trope for the 21st century. And he’s just a mean sumbitch.
Henchman: None that lasts long at all. Or even has a name.
Theme Song: Ladies and gentlemen, a Bond theme finally won an Oscar for Best Original Song! Adele‘s “Skyfall” is remarkably restrained given the hard-edged rock songs and pop weirdness we had been getting since 2002’s Die Another Day. Like the movie itself, “Skyfall” is a return to the classic 007 form in many ways. Back in the day, producers hired someone with a big voice to bring their music to vibrant life. Shirley Bassey. Tom Jones. Nancy Sinatra. And who has a bigger voice in the modern age than Adele? She’s the perfect successor to the classic Bond theme. When she goes big, she blows the roof off the place. When she goes quiet, she breaks your heart. “Skyfall” goes for the latter, which is perfectly fitting for Skyfall‘s mournful tone. I don’t know that I’d call it one of Bond’s best theme songs, but it is definitely a marked improvement. Hopefully it will be a course adjustment for more quality Bond music in the future.
Iconic Moment: This is a tough one. We had Bond getting shot off a train in the opening scene. M dying in Bond’s arms. Silva’s chilling introductory monologue about turning rats into cannibals. Severine’s harrowing death scene. But you know what? I’m going to give it to the Moneypenny reveal. The moment we found out that our Bond Girl was Moneypenny all along is the moment that gives me the most glee–and the one I keep replaying the most.
Grades: Movie: 5/5; Bond Girl: 4/5; Supporting Bond Girl: 5/5; Villain: 5/5; Henchman: –; Theme Song: 4.5/5
You can find links to all the Bond movie reviews as well as ‘Best of’ and ‘Worst of’ lists on my Bond Project page. Up next: Spectre.