“You know the rules of the game. You’ve been playing it long enough. We both have.”
“Maybe too long.”
“Speak for yourself.”
Those are M’s words to James Bond early on in 2012’s Skyfall and they stick to you like glue. We know the rules just as well as Bond does, and one immediately gets the sense that he has started to grow tired of the game he’s been playing. But Skyfall isn’t done with him yet and masterfully sets the stage, beginning like any other Bond film with a relentlessly well-executed action sequence (this time on top of a train) designed to get your heart racing. There’s nothing surprising about it, though, until it ends with James (Daniel Craig) getting struck by some friendly fire and losing his target — and his footing — as he topples off the train and disappears into the water below. Presumed dead, the world and MI6 quickly move on. Business as usual, just one of the rules of Bond’s world. If people think you’re dead, your flat is liable to get rented and your things immediately put into storage. Deceased agents aren’t usually around to complain.
Of course, we know that James has to be alive, so finding out he simply let everyone believe he was dead is less of a surprise and more of a sign of things to come. He’s still living dangerously even where there is no danger, an audience watching in morbid fascination while a scorpion perches precariously on his hand as he lifts it to take a drink, practically daring it to sting him. A living dead man, Bond still courts death and toys with his own self-destruction like he just can’t help himself. In all of his stories, Bond is the scorpion. It’s in his nature to be who he is, and he’d sooner drown than change. Skyfall might be one of the first Bond films to suggest that he could actually be more.
Then M (Judi Dench) receives a mysterious message that reads “Think on your sins” before an explosion at MI6 headquarters rocks the building and kills several agents. When Bond sees the news coverage, he decides it’s time to get back in the game. This time, it’s personal.
People love a good resurrection story. It’s the subject of one of the most well-known pieces of literature in the world (The Bible) and featured in countless other stories of small or mythic proportions. Bond has lived many lives. Over the years, he has changed faces but it’s always Bond, whether he’s pausing to fix a shirt cuff while the train implodes behind him or driving an Aston Martin. But this Bond is also tired and lacks confidence, an air of mortality and vulnerability following him around in the wake of a credits sequence full of tombstones and imagery of a man drowning set to a spooky Adele number. He can’t shoot straight after his injury and he’s out of shape, out of the game that Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pointedly calls as one for young men. Is James Bond getting too old for this? Whatever the case, M clears him for duty although he fails all of his field tests — a decision to lie that may have been at Bond’s expense … or maybe it’s because shit is hitting the fan and she knows it, but he’s the only one she really trusts.
An unseen enemy starts systematically releasing the identities of deep undercover MI6 agents. It’s a shopworn spy plot, but their vendetta feels personal here, too. The aim isn’t to needlessly kill British agents. It’s someone from M’s past who wants her to know this is all for her and that they’re coming. In that way, Skyfall is much more of a spy thriller built on slow-building suspense rather than fast-paced action. Unlike previous Bond films, there’s no known enemy target. The identity of who is behind the outing of some of MI6’s most top-secret agents remains a complete mystery until he chooses to reveal himself. Skyfall’s plot is blissfully uncomplicated. M is in trouble and James has to protect her. Her past has come back to haunt her and MI6 in the form of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), one of the greatest Bond villains of all time. Silva is Bond’s antagonistic equal, deceptively playful with an unquenchable violence brimming just below the surface, always teetering somewhere between cartoonish and deeply sinister — a walking, talking Venn diagram of scared and horny.
Silva’s story is also not without tragedy or relevance. He’s a former agent of MI6 who, at the time, was M’s supposed favorite. That ended after she turned him over to the enemy and, while in captivity, he suffered significant facial deformities from crunching down on a faulty cyanide capsule. His faith in his country and his previous employer shattered, Silva becomes a mercenary and carves out a new life for himself in the shadowy world of cyberterrorism, free from M’s tyranny. Bardem’s performance is so delightfully unhinged, the perfect marriage of flamboyant and menacing in a villain.
Evil Bond is an idea Bond films have played with before, chiefly in 1995’s GoldenEye. Sean Bean plays a convincingly corrupted 006 to Brosnan’s company-man 007, but there’s something lacking in 006’s plight that is more fully realized here in Silva, and the way it plays out with Bardem’s character in Skyfall is both horrific and breathtaking in its inevitability. It also flirts with the very idea that, given a different set of circumstances, were he and Bond so very different?
And speaking of flirting.
At this point, Craig’s Bond is probably used to being tied to a chair by sexually curious villains (although Mads Mikkelsen is significantly less gentle to the touch in 2006’s Casino Royale). Silva has his way with James, unbuttoning the agent’s shirt to explore his chest area before letting his hands wander down to grab Bond’s thighs with a flippant remark that there’s a first time for everything. James responds with smugness, “What makes you think this is my first time?” — a line that, at one point, filmmakers were told to cut, but thankfully were allowed to keep for the theatrical release. A secret agent who brutalizes men and only seduces women is boring. There’s no way in his entire career that James has never found himself in the position to get intimate with another man for a mission, and it’s refreshing to see that acknowledged, however briefly. Honestly, my kingdom for a male Bond Girl. I’m an equal opportunist.
The James Bond franchise isn’t exactly what you’d call woman-friendly, though it has plenty of women-identifying fans. The Craig Bond films at least have taken steps in the right direction, providing opportunities for more fleshed-out female characters at whom you don’t have to necessarily struggle not to roll your eyes. These are Bond Girls who are not so easily dispensable or who, in the case of Vesper Lynd, successfully manage to stay relevant through the next four films after her death by haunting the ever-living fuck out of James. Then there are characters like Dench’s M, who are blissfully allowed to thrive and be a presence right up until their dignified end.
Skyfall’s near-laser focus is on the consequences awaiting back home. When governments don’t value the individual and agents are treated as expendable, villains like Silva are less of an anomaly and more of an inevitability. If the price of freedom is a loss of self, is it freedom at all? What started as a domestic threat becomes a cloud of grim mortality hanging over the film’s main characters the farther we venture into the shadows — as James escapes Silva’s grasp long enough to turn the tables on him and return them both to London where his and M’s troubles finally come home to roost. They are right where Silva wants them. Gotta respect a villain with a singular goal. One man’s cyberterrorism boiled down to an old grudge set against the backdrop of a larger question: Does the modern world still need James Bond?
Bardem plays his classic monologuing villain to perfection. The moment he removes the illusion in order to reveal just how much damage the cyanide did to his facial structure is so horrifying it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him. Everything on one side of his face droops down to the point of absurd grotesquerie, saying to M, “Look upon your work, mother.” Shortly after that, M confesses to James that she had given Silva up out of practicality, and Bond is then faced with the knowledge that anyone could become expendable to her. Even him.
The focus of Silva’s rage and anguish is M, the demanding matriarch of MI6 who shows little concern for her agents as individuals. Even if he doesn’t want to, Bond can’t help but relate at the moment of Silva’s revelation. M made an earlier call that nearly cost Bond his life instead of trusting him to finish the job, a difference of opinion that put them at odds when James decides to resurrect himself. The M from 2008’s Quantum of Solace who spoke of regret being unprofessional hasn’t changed, but Bond is showing unwilling signs of evolving past the game.
In GoldenEye, Judi Dench’s M directly challenged the relevance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. Calling him a “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur” and a “relic of the Cold War” is as much a criticism of Bond as it is the films from which they hail, which are almost always a product of their time. Skyfall echoes these sentiments by putting forth the question of whether technology has made the human contribution of spy work irrelevant in a world of smart computers and terrorists who exist only in shadows and, in turn, whether Bond films are still relevant themselves. Upon meeting his new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), Bond shares an amusing exchange with him. Bond blows him off for his youth and Q cheekily suggests he can do more in his pajamas with a computer than James can with a gun, but sometimes they still need someone to pull a trigger.
Sam Mendes’s Skyfall takes the existential center of this film and forces you, and its characters, to look directly at it. The humanity and intimacy of it is staggering. It’s a singular moment that prioritizes character work and storytelling over mindless action in the same way that movies like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight could exist entirely on their own with no precursor or follow-up. There’s a real sense of stakes in this one far beyond any other Bond film in recent memory, feeling as much like a battle for Bond’s soul as it is a battle against the inevitability of the future and the even more inevitable question. When the time comes, can we adapt or will we be replaced? Bond and Q speak about the inevitability of time in a painting called The Fighting Temeraire by J.M.W Turner, featuring an old warship long past its glory days being hauled away for scraps. Bond still uses a straight razor because he likes doing things the old-fashioned way, but even old hardware can still have its uses. Exploding pens are a thing of the past, apparently, but this is not a Bond film that favors fancy gadgets. Not when they’re doing their best to strip him bare.
Here, everything bends to the will of the story, and while this film is overflowing with delightfully engaging side characters — I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny, who is a wonderful addition to the films — the main focus is always Bond and Silva, and the woman tethering the connection between the two of them, M, the film’s true “Bond Girl,” though I loathe to call her that because M is so much more. She’s one of the only constants in Bond’s life, almost a surrogate mother to him albeit not a very functional one. This almost connects Bond and Silva in a familial way as well; in Silva’s undoubtedly warped mind, M is very much a mother figure to him in the same way Jocasta was mother to Oedipus.
To try and keep M safe, Bond eventually takes her to Skyfall, his much-diminished childhood home that looks as haunted as it feels. M and James are both dealing with ghosts in this film, only one of those ghosts is actively trying to kill them. Their last stand feels like a slow knife sneaking up on you and leaving you bleeding out on the floor once you reach the climax of the film. Enemy against enemy. Orphan against orphan. Brother against brother.
Skyfall has that feeling of a sun setting. Saying goodbye to Dench’s character after she saw us through the entire Brosnan era and ushered us into Craig’s with all of the poise and grace she always possessed was significantly brutal, and with the loss of M, everything has that distinct feeling of finality like a creeping but inevitable dread. It’s the very air in the room, which Bardem masterfully manipulates to his will and to our growing horror. We watch helplessly while M avoids dying by Silva’s hand, only to die in Bond’s arms from an earlier bullet wound after telling James, with her final breath, that at least she got one thing right — him. The firelight in the chapel gives off the dulled orange hue of a flame slowly being extinguished and, in that moment, James has a reaction I never would have expected. He cries.
This is not the cold, emotionally unavailable Bond before and after the events of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace who behaves as if nothing can touch him. That Bond won’t be found here. This is the Bond that, at the beginning of the film, didn’t want to leave a wounded agent behind to die and the Bond who, at the end of the film, wept real tears over the woman for whom he worked. Men can still be men and cry. In the way that Bond couldn’t let himself feel Vesper’s death, he feels M’s acutely and, what’s more, allows himself to feel it. If you take the humanity out of intelligence, then what’s left? There’s still some ice in those blue eyes, but it’s melting. Slowly, but surely.
This new Bond is a far cry from previous incarnations who valued detachment as a means to survival and never seemed to grow tired of the game. Craig has always brought an emotional complexity to the character that really shines here. He isn’t afraid to get in touch with his feelings either, and we like that in a man.
When all is said and done, we find James once again back at MI6 in the new M’s office, ready to get back to work. Where there is still a need for it, James Bond will always be there, in one form or another. Like King Arthur, he was once thought dead only to return whenever England needed him as legend foretold. The once and future agent who carries a Walther PPK instead of a magical sword. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it works well enough here. At any rate, Javier Bardem makes a compelling Mordred who’s come to topple the kingdom James fights for and Craig’s more emotionally complex Bond lends significant weight to the idea of him becoming less of the cold womanizer we’ve seen in previous Bonds and more of the romantic hero that we see glimpses of in him during the next two films. Now that’s a Bond I can work with. M’s given name is also Mallory, so really, what do you want from me?
Craig may not have had the perfect Bond run (who among them has), but at least with Skyfall, they did get one thing right.