Historically speaking, the average moviegoer loves James Bond films a lot more than I do. I have nothing against the spy genre itself, but the Bond concept never appealed to me. Based on the trailers, the TV commercials, the very few Bond films I caught, and the same five scenes constantly referenced throughout pop culture, my impression of the scripts for most Bond films went like so:
PANICKY POLITICIAN: Ladies and gentlemen, a deformed billionaire Dick Tracy reject has a preposterous plan to take over and destroy the world, and we’re not sure in which order. We need our best man to stop him.
BRITISH CIA HEAD: How about James Bond? He’s a millionaire who knows a lot about sex, bartending, and tuxedos.
PANICKY POLITICIAN: Brilliant. Send him a million-dollar car and a box of our latest, deadliest, billion-dollar single-use Sharper Image toys.
BOND JAMES BOND: There’ll be sex, right? I was promised sex.
FUNNY-FACE VILLAIN: I’m killing your sex partner and stealing your scenes! And also incidentally detonating things and ruining world peace because of issues.
BOND JAMES BOND: Not my sex partner! You fiend.
[Bond chases or runs from henchmen, using up his toys one by one. There are explosions.]
BACKUP SEX PARTNER: Job well done. Join me in my lair.
BOND JAMES BOND: Way ahead of you. Do you like expensive booze?
Bear in mind, my impression was formed in my youth, years before Austin Powers cemented it. Before Daniel Craig inherited the mantle, I’d only seen two Roger Moore installments (A View to a Kill, and…I forget #2), the second and third big-screen adaptations of Remington Steele, and whichever one was the very first with Sean Connery. I was never very interested in stories where all the characters seemed fabulously wealthy. To me, the film version of Bond was a hero tailor-made for fans of Dallas and Dynasty. As inaccurate as this may or may not have been, I was never motivated to watch enough Bond films to test my supposition to the fullest.
(Granted, one could say the same about Batman. I would argue that at least Batman never reveled in his fortune as Bond reveled in his unlimited MI6 expense account. Bruce Wayne only pretended to revel in it, as part of his Bruce Wayne disguise. If the entire Wayne family fortune had evaporated during Bruce’s formative orphan years, he still would’ve become an angry vigilante on a vendetta, fighting crime with sticks and stones while wearing hobo rags if he’d had to.)
When the series was rebooted with Casino Royale, I was pleased with the complete change of pace, with the notion of Bond as a diamond in the rough who hadn’t yet been seduced by designer clothing, mixed drinks, or simple civility. It wasn’t quite a grade-A achievement, but it was a vast improvement over the slapstick cartoon that was Die Another Day. I was disappointed but not quite surprised when Quantum of Solace sunk to a duller, glummer, more haphazard level.
Having seen Skyfall, I’m not only relieved — I’m astounded by the comeback. Bond’s new chapter revisits numerous recurring motifs, reconfigures or jettisons them, and utilizes them in service to an engaging, sometimes touching (!) tale about two dear old friends combating old age, threats in new forms, and an increasingly cavalier world that believes them obsolete. At base level it’s the first time I’ve seen Bond and M share more than instructions and mission reports, as the relationship between Bond and Dame Judi Dench’s M is explored both psychologically and historically, to a depth I never dreamed the Bond producers ever cared to reach. They start off at ugly cross-purposes after a tragic mishap punctuates the opening scene’s stunt spectacular, but reconcile and reexamine their shared past when the whims of a madman jeopardize lives and cast the very future of MI6 itself in doubt.
On another level, it’s meta-commentary on the Bond series itself. In a pop-culture world protected from terrorism in modern times by the likes of Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, John McClane, Chuck Bartowski, and the Spy Kids, how can a quaint, sybaritic, fifty-year-old one-percenter hope to keep up, let alone stand out? Skyfall goes a long way toward answering that question in confident style, in the hands of director Sam Mendes (recommended for the job by Craig after their experience with Road to Perdition) and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo). The parodies and Bourne potshots are easily forgotten before the end of the first hour, around which point Javier Bardem literally strolls into the movie as Bond’s figurative evil twin Silva, grafting the irresistible force of Anton Chigurh with elements of the Phantom of the Opera and Heath Ledger’s anarchic Joker, giving Bond and his crew no choice but to bring their A-game and be better heroes and characters if they’re to win the movie back from him.
Old Bond fans will recognize nods to plenty of staples from past films, some of which even I knew because of pop-culture saturation — a classic Aston-Martin; the gadgetry of a new Q (Ben Whishaw, young and stingy); a drink order prepared just so; the expensive animation of the dancing-girl opening credits; and doubtlessly so on. Thankfully, though, Skyfall isn’t just a series of in-jokes and stunts stapled together with perfunctory transitions. From the surprisingly structurally sound rooftops of Turkey to the neon skyscrapers of Shanghai, from the dank London sewers to the moors of ye olde Scotland, Skyfall keeps shifting locales as each bravura set piece begets the next, but keeps the interactions and emotions in the forefront, cultivating the survivors for a once-unimaginable future in which Bond isn’t just an overpriced action figure in his own films, but a fully formed man whose tragic past and present-day friends inform what he does and give him reasons to keep doing it.
If James Bond can retain this level of dimensionality in future films without succumbing to the spoiled upper-class affectations of his predecessors, I wouldn’t mind following along.