More HMSS reviews of Skyfall (Part II)

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

Second of a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Xander Johnson

James Bond has done battle with adversaries with varying goals and delusions of grandeur. He has also conducted these battles in many exotic and unfamiliar environments. Despite fans following Bond’s every move for 23 films during his 50-year odyssey into cinema history, Bond has never been shown outside of a two-dimensional light. He’s a soldier for the Empire. That is all that they ever needed to know.

It’s this little detail that sets Sam Mendes’ Skyfall apart from the rest of the Bond franchise.

Skyfall brings the audience up close and intimate with Bond (Daniel Craig) in a way that has never been seen before. M (Judi Dench) makes a poor judgment during a field mission in which Bond and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) must retrieve a file that contains all of the names of active field agents working for MI6. The result is Bond being taken down by a bullet, plummeting off of a moving train. Bond is declared dead, his assets seized and sold. He enjoys his “death” in a tropical landscape, and as he sits with a young woman, dressed down from his usual Tom Ford suits, Bond reveals a vulnerability that has never been seen before.

Back in Britain, M is the target of a review stemming from her poor judgment. She then becomes the target of a hacker who warns her about the deaths of many to come, and closes with the message, “Think on your sins.” Unfortunately, this hacker makes good on the promise. The targets are the agents whose names were on the file that Bond was sent to retrieve. These deaths, as well as MI6 being compromised, spread fear and panic throughout the British government, and it is all on M’s shoulders.

During his “death” Bond sees a news report detailing the current crisis in Britain. He shows his loyalty by wasting no time in returning without second thoughts. He meets with M in her home and he is told that he must retake the tests to be qualified for active field duty since he has been written off as deceased.

As he progresses through his mission, Bond travels to Shanghai, where he battles his target in a fight scene takes place that it is reminiscent of 007’s fight with Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Bond later finds himself face to face with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant and psychotic former agent who harbors a clear grudge against M. As Silva’s path of destruction and terror continues, he accomplishes something no other Bond villain has before: he takes the fight to Bond’s doorstep in a mental and personal way. The motif of the fight being brought to Bond comes full circle during the film’s climax, which takes place in the only place that this ordeal could ever possibly end: Bond’s childhood home.

After a breathtaking opening credit sequence as well as the dark and somber tones of Adele’s title song, it is apparent that Bond is no longer in his prime of life. Age renders him weary and rusty, and his experiences have broken him down into a seasoned but morose figure. Even his physical appearance is a product of his aging: bags under his eyes, with the visage of a tormented war veteran.

When he returns to MI6, Bond finds himself out of his element and surrounded by young upstarts, a role reversal from previous Bond films where Bond is shown as the cocksure young man. This relationship is best conveyed with Bond’s interactions with his new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), who was previously the old coot fending off the young whippersnapper Bond. With Craig and Whishaw, it’s the other way around, with Bond being the aged and seasoned death dealer, and Q as the up-and-comer whose youth makes him perhaps a little too sure of himself. Q even makes the argument that he could do more damage with his laptop before his first cup of tea than Bond could do in a year on the field.

Bond’s age takes center stage once again when he retakes his field aptitude tests. He struggles with a simple physical exercise and performs so poorly on his marksmanship test that calling it failure would be an act of charity. But Bond’s psychological examination truly reveals his state of mind. A psychologist begins a word association exercise that causes Bond to draw connections to either his job or lack of personal life, as when he writes off a word like murder as “employment.” But the word Skyfall so disturbs Bond that he ends the evaluation abruptly.

Despite failing the tests, M declares Bond fit for duty. But he finds himself against a formidable enemy, and once again, role reversals come into play; Silva is well-dressed, clean-cut, and still a very capable death dealer, while Bond is showing no signs of improvement from his earlier handicaps, a fact which Silva relates to Bond as he gives him his true results of his field aptitude test. Only an intervention from Q’s tracking device (which Bond humorously calls a radio) saves him from Silva.

After a direct attack on MI6, Bond’s abilities show improvement through sheer perseverance and determination, as he thwarts Silva’s attempts to assassinate M. Knowing full well that M is in danger, Bond takes her to the only place he knows she will be safe, and where they will have a home field advantage against Silva: Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall.

It’s there where Bond makes a full recovery and he again becomes the agent he was back in his prime, and shows yet another role reversal. Bond almost single-handedly dispatches all of Silva’s entourage through sheer cunning and resourcefulness. Silva falls apart from his injuries sustained throughout the course of the final battle. The battle with Silva ends with Bond killing him by throwing a knife into his back, but Bond is still unable to save M from her demise from an injury she sustained very early in the fight.

M is given a proper burial, and is replaced by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who continues to use Bond as an active field agent and immediately gives him his next assignment.

Skyfall proves itself to be not just another action-packed, fun-loving Bond film. Instead, it’s the story of Bond’s fall from grace and rise from the ashes. He starts at his lowest point and must work his way up to being the secret agent the audience knows and loves. The audience may ask questions such as “is Bond a character that really needs a backstory?”, but when a story such as Skyfall is delivered, it’s a treat to see the who, what, where, why and how behind the iconic Bond, James Bond.

(C) 2013 Xander Johnson

Thoughts on James Bond theme songs

There’s an interesting piece in today’s (October 12) London Times Online, about the QOS theme song, “Another Way to Die,” and its place in the James Bond film series’ musical history.

Columnist Dan Caims, in his article “Bond themes: Can nobody do it better?,” doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about the Jack White/Alicia Keys collaboration.  Neither does he have any great love for any Bond theme song since McCartney & Wing’s “Live and Let Die,” from way back in 1973.  What’s really interesting is his recounting of a discussion with David Arnold, wherein the current Bond composer pretty much confirms what we’ve all intuited: the marketing suits, and not the music personnel, are the ones making the decisions about theme song performers.  Caims refers back to relatively weak efforts by  a-Ha and Sheryl Crow trumping the superior work by The Pretenders and k.d. lang, as well as the thin beer of  “All Time High” and “For Your Eyes Only.”

Personally, and the above examples work just fine for me, my thought is always been that EON always misses the mark when they try to manufacture a hit record, based on marketing research and charts analysis and other MBA stuff, rather than musical taste and artistic perception.  People love classic 007 tunes like “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice” and “Diamonds Are Forever” and etc. because 1.) Oh, sure, they’re expertly crafted commercial pop music, but, more importantly, 2.) They’re evocative of the films themselves. You get a small dose of that ol’ Bond magic when you hear the music, because it reminds you of the regular-size dose you received in the movie theater.  That’s why we go for that stuff — not because we’re all big Shirley Bassey or Nancy Sinatra fans.  The best Bond theme songs are like the films they come from: they’re lightning captured in a bottle.  Whenever the producers try to force the magic, it doesn’t happen.

Check out the article.  Though some excellent and perceptive thinking in it, even if you don’t agree with all of his examples or conclusions.

— Paul