Skyfall successfully drags Bond into the twenty-first century by putting a decent female character centre stage.
Where previously audiences were prepared to enjoy action movies for their indulgent, surface pleasures, the past decade has seen an increasing preoccupation with realism and relevancy. This may seem a strange demand to make of films based primarily on spectacle and often fantasy, but it has undoubtedly produced some compelling films.
Under the stewardship of Christopher Nolan, a franchise centred on a cape-wearing, millionaire playboy-cum-vigilante, was rather miraculously transposed into a believable and pertinent trilogy that still maintained the spirit of the source material. Yet even though Batman was able to get real and reinvent himself, the same cannot be said of Britain’s own superhero, James Bond, whose reboot six years ago felt like more of a castration than anything else.
With the ongoing success of the gritty Jason Bourne series very much in mind, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) saw him dispensing with the outlandishness, the kitsch and, yes, the misogyny that made the Bond franchise distinctive. The foppish Pierce Brosnan (who had starred in the previous four outings) was replaced by the rough-and-ready Daniel Craig; the gadgets were nowhere to be seen, albeit for an in-car defibrillator; and in place of a series of multi-racial sexual conquests, we saw Bond - shudder - fall in love.
Quantum of Solace, its 2008, Marc Forster-helmed sequel, further proved that rooting the Bond franchise in reality meant running it into the ground. No longer was Bond a marauding super spy obliged to shoot baddies and bed temptresses for queen and country; now he was a wimpy, heartbroken renegade looking for the people who offed his missus, Vesper Lynd. Complete with a rather drab villain, distinctly lacking in facial disfigurement as well as any whiff of menace, and an environmental subplot seemingly thrown in for good measure, it was overcomplicated and underwhelming to boot.
Arriving 50 years after Terence Young’s Dr No first hit cinema screens, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is being hailed as a needful return to the slick Bond of old. However, it is more than just a tail-between-the-legs retreat into the tried and tested formula. The real strength of the twenty-third instalment to the franchise is that it finally manages to reconcile the grit of the past two movies to the kitsch of the previous 20. It’s Bond for the twenty-first century: compelling yet believable, with his bollocks as well as his heart in the right place.
The opening finds Bond in pursuit of a stolen hard drive containing classified state secrets. Where in the previous films, this might entail a spot of free-running, or something equally as conceivable, this chase sees Bond riding dirt bikes over the roofs of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, mounting a speeding train with a JCB and bare-knuckle fighting with his assailant on top of the carriages, stopping on occasion to adjust his cufflinks. When his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) attempts to pick off the target with a sniper rifle, Bond is caught in the crossfire, falls into the river below and is washed away.
Of course, the bullet barely scratches him and he washes up alive on a tropical paradise, where, for the next few months, he shacks up with a barmaid and enjoys being officially dead. But when cyberterrorists mount an attack on MI6 base, Bond decides to head back to Blighty.
In London, he reunites with M (Judi Dench), the long-in-the tooth head of MI6 who, while the 00s are off fighting the bad guys, is at home battling the bureaucrats. Sending Bond off in search of those behind the attacks, M is forced to take part in a trumped-up public inquiry. And as she is faced with a panel of grandstanding politicians crowing on about transparency, 007 follows the trail to the private island of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a menacing, eccentric, golden-haired Bond villain par excellence. As such, Mendes manages to give us the thrills, one-liners and panache we’ve been missing, while keeping things grounded in a stunted political world we recognise.
Mendes also manages to have his cake and eat it when it comes to the film’s treatment of women, too. As Bond beds an appropriate number of nubile honeys while quipping about their inability to drive or shoot properly, things seem back to normal, but the noxious machismo is deftly undercut. This is because the true Bond girl of Skyfall is none other than M. By that I don’t mean they finally succumb to a night of passion, but her character is brought to the forefront of the story and, in the film’s final act, the two head off together to thwart Silva’s dastardly plot. Serving as the perfect foil to Bond’s incurable sexism, their dynamic also draws out some previously unexplored depths of Bond’s character in the run-up to the film’s rollicking finale.
In a recent blog for the Guardian, Jane Martinson suggested that while the Bond franchise still has some way to go towards addressing its deeply problematic sexual politics, by virtue of Dench’s prominence, Skyfall is at least ‘a sexy Bond with just a bit of the sexist left out’. Truth is, Bond is still the dirty old man he’s always been, but this film merely repackages it in a more believable and palatable form. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
We all know that Bond is an anachronism, but the likes of Martinson seem to forget that the public – men and women alike – are capable of indulging in a bit of fantasy. The franchise didn’t go stale because the audience grew hostile to its sexual politics, or indeed its gadget-strewn outlandishness, but because it became a little too predictable. Skyfall’s stratospheric success proves that Bond can cater to modern tastes and that, under the right circumstances, we’re all prepared to leave our cynicism at the cinema door.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.