Greatest Hits: Skyfall (2012) – BlogalongaBond 23
BlogalongaBond retires with dignity – but as the man himself hits 50, there’s no such thing as growing old gracefully…
(Sam Mendes, 2012)
Last month, I called Quantum Of Solace the B-side to Casino Royale. Which, of course, makes Skyfall – not only the 50th anniversary 007 movie but the grand farewell to BlogalongaBond (sob) – the new track that accompanies a Greatest Hits album. It’s got exactly that mix of for-the-fans nostalgia and forward-thinking experimentation that accompanies the best such songs. And after nearly two years of rewatching and re-examining every element of Bondage, it feels like the only way to close proceedings.
The entire theme of Skyfall echoes with the vibe of the Greatest Hits album: “Bond’s getting on a bit. Maybe it’s time to hang up the Walther PPK?” Joyously, the film decides there’s plenty of life in the old dog. Skyfall throws everything it can at Bond to hint he’s a has-been – cyber-terrorism replacing espionage as today’s biggest threat, the indignity of new colleagues barely out of nappies, a near-death experience – and asks the character to dig deep and rediscover what makes him so unique, so British and so enduring. We’ve been down this road before (in Goldeneye’s talk of Cold War dinosaurs, in Die Another Day’s “while you were gone, things changed”) but Skyfall shows as well as tells. When he heads to Shanghai, where Ethan Hunt merrily scampered up the side of a skyscraper in Mission: Impossible 3, an out-of-shape Bond has to cling onto the bottom of a lift for grim life.
And the film itself slows down to the relaxed canter of a franchise that is now eligible for SAGA membership. Where Quantum Of Solace never stopped running, much of Skyfall is languorously slow, and so leisurely 007 probably only spends a third of the running time overseas – not since Thunderball has Bond been so tied to Britain. The result is to focus on the psychology: what happens to this human bullet when he’s not being fired? [Interestingly, Daniel Craig’s supposedly cold, hard Bond has spent three films playing, respectively, a loved-up dupe, a sulky grudge-merchant and a pill-popping drop-out. Which is great for drama, but hardly a ringing endorsement for the Bond branding department. You wouldn’t see Roger Moore so wracked with self-doubt.]
The effect is to deconstruct Bond in order to rebuild him, and the result – as spelled out, frequently, in a script that can’t stop foghorning its big theme – is that THE OLD WAYS ARE BEST. Subtext: this isn’t Quantum Of Solace. [See what I mean about a B-side? It’s been expunged from the official history, like it never happened.] The James Bond of Skyfall is a seasoned pro, as if we’ve fast-forwarded several adventures – from debutant to potential has-been in just three films. But that gives Skyfall its kick, the sense of a man fighting his own franchise in the face of whippersnapper laptop geeks and government enquiries (the film’s neatest touch of topicality, and proof that Jimbo doesn’t have to jet into space to be up on the latest trends.)
The metaphor clicks into place with the arrival of Javier Bardem’s Silva, a proper old-school villain with flamboyant schemes and a particularly gruesome disfigurement. OK, so the entire plot is predicated on grapes so sour the villain insists on killing an enemy face-to-face when he could have done the job remotely early in the film… and he executes a a plan “years in the making” that relies on incredible foreknowledge about his target’s diary moments on a specific day. But still: Bardem works wonders creating a villain who is Bond’s binary opponent, a man so desperate to escape the reality that he’s a relic he’s done an NVQ in computer hacking. But he’s still being sucked back into the whirlpool of his past, his psychology stuck in exactly the same place as Bond’s. For the first time in Bond history, it’s thematically important that the villain comes across as a throwback.
Bond learns his lesson and embraces his roots: the old ways are best. The film’s final act continues to deconstruct and rebuild in a theatre of quietly elegiac sadness and Pinter-esque psychological precision, albeit with the pauses replaced with staccato bursts of Straw Dogs-esque violence. (Pinter famously refused to work with Sam Peckinpah, but I think he’d have dug Skyfall.) It’s here that the recruitment of Sam Mendes and his lyrically-minded cameraman Roger Deakins makes most sense. This is a film of slow, gently probing zooms rather than jagged editing, and in the end it comes down to a fight between a quartet of old souls, misty-eyed from all the trouble they’ve seen. (And how apt, how lovely, that where Bruce Wayne’s mentor was tough-as-nails Liam Neeson, Bond’s mentor is the gently doddering Albert Finney.)
Even so, Skyfall isn’t strictly “out with the new, in with the old” – but something stranger and more tantalising. The 007 films have always had a weird non-relationship with conventional chronology, given how Bond essentially remains ageless. And what’s really interesting about Skyfall is how Mendes stretches that Moebius strip elasticity as far as he can, and then lets it snap back into place with a satisfying twang as familiar assumptions are abandoned. We finally get proof that Bond is his family name, and not a code name passed from agent to agent, Connery to Moore. It turns out that Judi Dench couldn’t have starred in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies because she was running MI6’s Hong Kong branch that year. And, even as a certain Aston Martin is ejected from the premises, the film ends with the classic team (M, Q, Moneypenny) in place, as if we’re suddenly watching Goldfinger.
The old ways are best – but maybe there’s a new way of doing the old ways. This as much of a reboot as Casino Royale was, an Abrams’ Star Trek-style dive into a parallel universe where we can now remake the 1960s in the 2010s. Skyfall comes not to praise old Bond but to bury him, resurrect him and put him back in the field. I can’t wait to see what the next fifty years holds for cinema’s sprightliest zombie.