I have to talk to someone about the newest James Bond film, Skyfall. Lacking anyone I know personally who cares, I’m doing it here. Maybe there will be spoilers in what I am aboutto write.
While Skyfall isnot as bad as Quantum of Solace wasand while it might be a fine action thriller, it’s not a good James Bondmovie. What’s the standard by which onecan make such an assessment? Well, Ithink we can quickly agree that any of the Eon Sean Connery films set thestandard. We’d probably debate what elsebelongs in that pantheon. I’d certainlyinclude a great many other films that I consider superior, including On her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, TheLiving Daylights, Goldeneye, The World is Not Enough and Eon’s Casino Royale.
What might we distill from among those to be the requirementsfor a good James Bond film? I proposethat the foremost criterion is that a good James Bond movie incorporates ideasthat are not found in other films of the era. I found none of those in Skyfalland by that criterion, I dismiss it as an inferior James Bond film. An excellent example of the sort of novelidea that is entirely missing from Skyfallis the frogman fight in Thunderball. Scuba-diving was not science fiction when thelatter film was made; anyone of moderate means could go scuba diving. The idea of having dozens of scuba-diversbattle each other underwater, though, was ingenious and, I surmise, devilishlyhard to film at the time. By contrast, amotorcycle chase over the rooftops of Istanbul is not conceptuallybrilliant. In fact, it feels likesomething that was done at least as well in a Jason Bourne movie; the secondone, if I remember correctly.
A reasonable counter-proposition might be that although theEon Casino Royale is generallyaccepted as one of the finest Bond films, it actually doesn’t have any of thosesorts of ideas. That might be true,although Le Chiffre’s predicament arguably qualifies and so does Vespa’s betrayal,which is the reason for the Bond’s progressive mental deterioration andmisogyny in the novels. And whatcertainly qualifies as a remarkable idea was the whole notion of making a Bondfilm with brutally-realistic hand-to-hand combat and showing the agent at theoutset of his career. Unfortunately, itturns out that’s not enough of an idea to power Quantum of Solace and Skyfallas well.
Something else that was remarkable in the original Bondmovies was a particular character trait of Bond himself. He loved to kill his opponents. To do so was to triumph, and he relishedthat. Look at the smirk on Connery’sface when he kills Professor Dent in Dr.No. There had been anti-heroes infilm before James Bond, but never one who was presented quite so heroicallywhile being that brutal. Daniel Craigincorporates something of that attitude into his performance, but it’s a differentnuance. In his performance, the responseto killing is more one that conveys surprise at being the one thatsurvived. That’s interesting, but notinteresting enough. Craig’s Bond is alsowritten as being too much of a hero. Atthe beginning of Skyfall, forexample, he hesitates over a wounded colleague. That plot point is relevant with respect to M’s behavior in that scene,and M’s behavior is what Skyfall isall about. But a compassionate JamesBond is not a memorable or interesting as the refined brute. The brute was even present in Roger Moore’sversion. After bedding a woman in Live and Let Die, he kills her and as he’sabout to do that, she protests: ”You wouldn’t kill me after what we’ve justdone!” “Well, I certainly wouldn’t do itbefore,” Bond replies as he pulls the trigger.
Now Eon’s CasinoRoyale was the James Bond film that most closely followed the plot of theoriginal Fleming novel, other than FromRussia with Love and, of course, Thunderball,where the novel was written for the screen. After seeing that film, which I consider to be one of the very finest ofthe series, I thought it would be a wonderful idea for Eon to now proceed witha series of movies that filmed the books, using their new approach of veryrealistic violence rather than the science fiction and even comic action thathad become a hallmark of the franchise.
Did you know that, with Skyfall,they’re essentially doing just that? Yes,Skyfall is a more faithful movieversion of the novel, The Man with theGolden Gun than the Roger Moore film with title.
Now, let’s say that one decided to go back to the originaltexts and bring them to the screen using the rich yet muted palate of Casino Royale. Would one naturally start with the novel thatwas least well-received, having been published posthumously from an early IanFleming draft? Even if one might dismissthe quality of the novel given that one would be adapting it anyway, liftingonly the essential plot elements, might not the earlier Golden Gun film given one pause? As bad as Quantum of Solacewas and as bad as License to Kill was,I propose that we can quickly agree that TheMan with the Golden Gun is certainly the worst James Bond movie.
But there it is. Skyfall is a filmed representation ofFleming’s novel, The Man with the GoldenGun. In the beginning of the book,Bond is presumed dead, just as he is in Skyfall. When he returns, his fitness for duty isquestioned in both treatments. In thebook, a former double-o agent returns from a disappearance and attempts to killM. Bond is that agent in the novel,whereas in the film, it’s Mr. Silver. Inthe book, Bond must stop the killing of British agents, which is precisely hismission in Skyfall. The assassin in the novel is identified byhis unique choice of weapon and ammunition. An assassin in Skyfall isidentified by his unique bullets. In thebook, Bond catches up with the principal villain on an island he’s taken over,which is exactly the setting in which Bond finds Mr. Silver in the movie. Just in case aficionados might have missedthese hints, some additional ones are provided by which Skyfall references the earlier GoldenGun film. In both movies, Bondvisits Macau and proceeds from there to an island in the South China Sea. And in the climax of both films, someone diesbecause although they shoot first, they’re shooting at a mirror image of their nemesis.
I can only suppose that, if one wants to reboot the franchiseby going back to the original texts then it might have been considered lessriskly to do so with one of the least well-known plots than it would have beento redo From Russia with Love, forexample. Still, I would have thought Golden Gun would have been toxicmaterial to reference. Could it possiblyhave come up in the pitch meeting? Surely the Eon folk have an encyclopedic knowledge of the pantheon and recognizedthe intention.
For all of my disappointment with Skyfall, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s a fine actionthriller. In particular, Bond’s scenewith Séverine in the bar is extremely wellwritten and masterfully acted. Watchingthat scene made me expect that I would end up feeling delighted by themovie. Then a subway train crashedthrough a ceiling and I knew it is was hopeless and just wanted it to beover.
A fine action thriller doesn’tnearly qualify as a good James Bond film; otherwise, License to Kill would not be close to the bottom of every Bond film’slist. All the good James Bond films relyon novel ideas for their effect, and Skyfalldoesn’t have any of those.