Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on November 23, 2012
Warning! There are spoilers on the road ahead.
When the first promotional photo for SKYFALL (2012) was released earlier this year it caused a minor uproar. It was an azure-tinted picture of Daniel Craig’s muscular back as he sits poolside, solitarily contemplating his next move. It was reminiscent of a promotional photo from Craig’s debut as James Bond in CASINO ROYAL (2006) that showed him emerging from the ocean like a Greek god, much like Ursula Andress’ enchanting entrance in DR. NO (1962), which had embedded itself into the minds and imaginations of countless men and adolescent boys decades earlier. The public’s response to Daniel Craig’s wet torso was somewhat mixed but women (and some men) seemed to love the unusual direction that the publicity campaign for SKYFALL took. They openly swooned over Craig’s imposing physique while many male fans of the Bond series were left wondering where was the designer suit, the gun and the girl? Craig’s nudity seemed casual and unrestrained making the character of James Bond appear exposed and defenseless. His body was being artfully used to sell the Bond mystique and in the past that was a job usually reserved for beautiful women. The Bond girls are renowned for their physical assets and have been used as promotional tools for decades but they’ve got competition now. And while it’s true that previous Bond actors including Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan had their fair share of female fans, the character’s masculine charms have never been exploited in such a direct way. 007 is back, quite literally, but he’s not your father’s James Bond and the first publicity photo from SKYFALL illustrates that point beautifully.
James Bond has been thrilling audiences for 50 years but the popular film franchise has seen plenty of ups and downs. When the films were good they took audiences on a fun and frivolous ride doused in glamor and punctuated by wise cracks, comic book villains, deadly dames and ridiculous gadgets. This formula worked particularly well in the ‘60s as we watched 007 easily maneuver through the corridors of power while disposing of cold war enemies who constantly threatened to invade his bachelor pad and put an end to his swinging lifestyle. A great score, breathtaking action sequences and some eye-popping visuals can easily mask a weak script and any questionable directing choices but as the franchise struggled to remain relevant this formula for success seemed to get more strained and frayed around the edges. By the time Timothy Dalton took over the role of Bond my own interest in the film series had bottomed out. I continued to fondly look back at the early Bond movies and was happy to revisit them but they were dazzling relics from another era that often felt disconnected from our modern world.
The loosely defined War on Terror has replaced The Cold War and our general mistrust of government has become epidemic. It’s much harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys these days and James Bond had become an outdated hero who soldiered on without questioning himself or his alliances. But that seemed to change when Daniel Craig was hired to play 007. In CASINO ROYAL Craig gave us a new kind of Bond who was redefining his role in the world and willing to risk all for love. Unfortunately QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) felt like a step backward. That was partially due to the unsubstantial action driven plot, Bond’s grim approach to saving the day and the lack of quality supporting players. As fascinating as the character is, 007 needs to be surrounded by an interesting and appealing supporting cast or it becomes all too easy to lose interest in his escapades. Following the lackluster response to QUANTUM OF SOLACE the future looked grim for James Bond. The film franchise was put on life support when MGM announced that they were facing bankruptcy but with the 50th anniversary approaching producers were able to overcome financial setbacks and hire Oscar winning director Sam Mendes, along with screenwriter John Logan, and the talented cinematographer Roger Deakins to inject 007 with some much needed life. Their combined skills brought us SKYALL and it’s become one of the most critically acclaimed Bond films in the franchise’s long history but they’re not the only reason for the film’s success. SKYFALL also benefits from having a great cast of supporting players working alongside Daniel Craig including Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney and Dame Judi Dench.
A lot happens in SKYFALL, a film that uses its intriguing title in much the same way that CITIZEN KANE made use of the vague and mysterious “Rosebud.” The character of James Bond eventually comes apart like a Russian nesting doll as we’re invited to imagine his retirement, visit his ancestral home, discover how he got his dry sense of humor, consider his ambiguous relationship with M and contemplate his many sins as well as the sins of the government he works for. Bond is no longer just a dashing British playboy who hunts down bad guys for the good of Queen and country. He’s a deeply flawed and scarred middle-aged killer with a lot of blood on his hands. And instead of tracking down mysterious evildoers living in volcanoes he’s battling members of his own organization in the heart of London.
All of these changes to the Bond formula have a few fans crying foul so why does the film work so well for me? First and foremost it contains many of the key elements found in the most successful Bond films. Glamor? Check! This is one of the best-looking Bond films in decades. The lush settings combined with Roger Deakins’s exceptional cinematography and Sam Mendes’ smart directing choices make SKY FALL a dazzling and decadent visual feast. Wisecracks? Check! The humor’s low-key and surprisingly sharp but I was amazed by how many times I found myself chuckling or smiling during the movie. Comic book villains? Check! Javier Bardem has a hell of a good time playing Silva, a rogue MI6 agent who threatens to bring down the entire organization. In many ways he’s Bond’s evil doppelganger and Bardem brings just the right amount of camp and creepiness to the role. Deadly dames? Check! But this time the real threat to Bond’s life are the women in his own organization. For the first time in Bond’s history he’s shot and put out of commission by a female agent (Naomie Harris) and comes to realize that he’s merely cannon fodder for M (Judi Dench). Ridiculous gadgets? Check! Although it becomes clear that MI6 is a failing organization that the British government no longer wants to fund, the new Q (Ben Whishaw) was able to provide Bond with a couple of small but important gadgets that eventually save his life.
Besides all the above, I found SKYFALL particularly fascinating for the way it attempted to deconstruct Bond’s character and explore his complicated sexual history. In 2012 sex is no longer a simple distraction or a quick pleasurable escape for James Bond. It’s a menacing power play that often ends with deadly results. Bond uses sex to level the playing field between his attractive coworker Eve (Naomie Harris), who he obviously felt got the best of him when she accidentally shot him. Bond doesn’t seduce Eve but it’s suggested that their relationship is more than just professional. And although Bond is somewhat of a broken man at the start of the film, he emerges from his erotic encounter with Eve in a Shanghai hotel like a man reborn as he goes in search of his next conquest. And she arrives quickly in the form of Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a sex worker apparently forced into the trade who is currently being controlled by Bond’s nemesis, Silva. Bond immediately sizes Sévérine up and realizes the only way to get to Silva is through her and the best weapon at his disposal is his body. Bond takes complete advantage of Sévérine and exploits her weakness, which is sex. She’s merely an attractive block in the road during Bond’s quest to reach Silvia and when Sévérine meets her deadly end it’s sudden and ugly. She’s just one of many causalities in a film with a surprisingly high body count but her death is particularly unsettling and bluntly illustrates why Silva is such a monster. Her death’s also a disturbing reminder that Bond and Silva share some common DNA. These two cold-hearted government agents have only one purpose and that purpose is to complete their missions; no matter how many dead bodies they leave in their wake.
And what to make of Javier Bardem’s Silva? If you’ve seen the film or read any reviews you may have heard that Bond and Silva have one of the most unusual exchanges in 007’s history. After capturing Bond and tying him to a chair, the sexually ambivalent Silva attempts to seduce our man suggesting that, “There’s a first time for everything – eh, Mr. Bond?” While Bond casually responds with, “What makes you think this is my first time?” Their brief back-and-forth shatters any preconceived notions about Bond’s sexuality and destroys the idea that he’s the “ultimate straight male fantasy.” The truth is that Bond is a male fatale and his body is just another weapon in his arsenal. A lot of critics don’t seem to understand this aspect of Bond’s character and are easy to dismiss him as a misogynistic creep with an unquenchable sexual appetite. And while it’s absolutely true that James Bond is somewhat of a dinosaur who often has little regard for the women in his life, it’s also true that he’s got a job to do and work is the only thing that truly matters to 007. He’s a well-oiled killing machine, more misanthropic than misogynist in my estimation, and his fleeting romances always (or eventually) take a backseat to the mission he’s on.
How viewers respond to this unraveling of Bond’s character will depend on a number of things but I personally found SKYFALL extremely entertaining although the film isn’t without its flaws. I wish an editor had been on hand to make cuts to a couple of the extended action sequences that book-ended the film and I think the writers could have taken more care in constructing a back-story for Bond but the fact that they even attempted such a feat is worth cheering. After three films Daniel Craig has truly made the character of 007 his own and he’s able to successfully carry the immeasurable weight of James Bond’s legacy on his broad shoulders. SKYFALL isn’t just one of the best films in the Bond franchise, it’s also one of the few that pacts an emotional wallop worthy of the character. I have no idea where we go from here but I look forward to finding out.
As regular Morlock readers know, I’ve been covering the 50th anniversary of James Bond all year. Here a few links to some Bond related stories that you might want to revisit:
- Spy Games: James Bond at 50
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