I thought that James Bond had turned a page. Both of Daniel Craig’s initial outings in the role were markedly different from the blend of high-tech silliness and misogyny which characterised the previous episodes: his was a James Bond that could genuinely fall in love, get hurt (indeed nearly die), and was kept in check by a formidable matriarch (Judi Dench). I hoped that “Skyfall” would continue this progress; I looked forward to James Bond becoming a more three dimensional character. I relished the prospect of something which had hitherto been ridiculous becoming something interesting, as occurred when “Batman” was revamped. When a “Skyfall” DVD landed on my doorstep, I hastened to watch it.
My first impressions were positive: we see Craig arriving too late to prevent a fellow agent being fatally wounded. A touch of humanity is applied when Bond ignores his superior’s urging to chase after the perpetrator in order to administer some rudimentary first aid. After finding that his efforts are in vain, he’s off again in hot pursuit and is shot during the chase. Following this, Bond disappears.
After this, we are provided with another interesting plot element: we are shown Bond’s retirement plan, namely to feign death and retreat to an anonymous island in the tropics. This is not some winsome paradise, however: he appears bored and listless, and he spends his evenings playing drinking games with a scorpion on his wrist poised to sting him.
Yet another positive becomes apparent after his return to duty: entropy is a major theme. Bond is no longer as physically fit, nor as good a marksman, nor as psychologically prepared for duty as he once was. We see him undergo a series of tests, after which he collapses, exhausted. He stands before a mirror and picks out bits of shrapnel from an old wound. The unflappable, almost superhuman agent is shown to be frail and possessing altogether human weaknesses which are accumulating over time. I wondered if this plot point was directly inspired by the last Batman film, in which the hero was simply too old and broken in body and spirit to carry on as he had previously. MI6’s mission is called into question as well: politicians ask if it’s an anachronism, particularly since a ghastly security breach has led to several prominent agents being killed.
Late in the narrative, we learn more about Bond’s past: it’s revealed he was an orphan, which may explain the contradiction between his general emotional detachment and his unusual devotion to Judi Dench’s M. She perhaps represents the parental influence that Bond lacked; otherwise, humanity offers limited opportunity for him to feel sentiment. We also discover that M prefers to select orphans as agents; this hints at pathological characteristics of her own. Allusions are made to agents operating in the shadows: this suggests that such operatives are shadow people, cut off from having much in the way of roots. I am not well versed in the world of espionage, nevertheless, this idea has resonance.
The film is short on wacky devices. Ben Whishaw has expertly taken up the mantle as Q; he quietly but cleverly derides the idea of exploding pens and other such bric-a-brac. He supplies Bond with nothing more outrageous than a gun that is coded to his hand print and an emergency radio. Q also suggests to Bond that he could do more damage with his laptop, wearing his pyjamas and with a cup of Earl Grey tea in hand than Bond could ever do out in the field with his gun; anyone involved with technology will probably be unable to suppress a smile at that remark.
Finally, it was good to see Britain as the central location for a Bond film: this was an atypical approach and should be applauded, as it has hitherto seemed that Bond simply couldn’t wait to get away from the UK the moment the opening credits finished. Furthermore, while the film is London-centric, it does not take place exclusively in London: we are also taken to the Highlands, albeit it its majesty is shown to be rather bleak.
All these positives, however, cannot fully mask the film’s problems. Firstly, the antagonism at the heart of the story is more than somewhat ludicrous: MI6 is threatened by a lone criminal (and his hired cronies) who is hell bent destroying the agency and M in particular. Javier Bardem, playing the villain, looks more than mildly preposterous with blonde hair; he is also shown to be a typical Bond grotesque, complete with a prosthetic device that reminded me of Moonraker’s “Jaws”. His motives are rather facile from a plot perspective: he was once a British agent, later handed over by M to the Chinese as part of a deal. He intends to avenge this betrayal.
Bardem is in control of events in a manner which seems unbearably unlikely: for example, accompanied by only two other gunmen, albeit all dressed in police uniforms, he somehow manages to defeat the entire security apparatus around the Houses of Parliament. He can hack into the most complex systems with ease; furthermore, somehow he has amassed a fortune which has enabled him to afford an army of mercenaries willing to fight and die for the sake of his personal vendetta. He even launches into a typical Bond villain monologue at one juncture, detailing how rats can be made to eat each other. I am certain Bardem enjoyed playing such an over the top character; it was the most “carpet chewing” performance I’d seen this side of Al Pacino’s Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate”. However, the film’s essential grip on some semblance of reality ended the moment he appeared.
Furthermore, though I was initially cheered by the sight of James Bond’s old Aston Martin DB5 (which he utilises as an escape vehicle) this was purely due to my liking of that particular car’s design. I realised later that Craig revving up its engine was a turning point: after this, it seemed as if the old format for Bond films reasserted itself with a flourish. The Aston Martin still retained its old ejector seat, a hangover from “Goldfinger”; Bond shows it off to M. A preposterous gun battle happens in an unlikely location. Bond coughs a bit rather than dies of smoke inhalation after a sizeable explosion. By the end of the film, “M” has returned to the wood panelled office of old, eschewing more modern digs; just outside it, Miss Moneypenny has made a return as M’s assistant, reprising her classic role as a metaphorical used handkerchief full of the sputum of sexist innuendo. As it was with Lois Maxwell and Sean Connery, it is unlikely the relationship will ever be fully consummated or explored. “Bond will be back”, the end credits promised. The old Bond, I sadly concluded, had indeed returned.