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 about
While Skyfall is
not as bad as Quantum of Solace was
and while it might be a fine action thriller, it’s not a good James Bond
movie. What’s the standard by which one
can make such an assessment? Well, I
think we can quickly agree that any of the Eon Sean Connery films set the
standard. We’d probably debate what else
belongs in that pantheon. I’d certainly
include a great many other films that I consider superior, including On her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, The
Living Daylights, Goldeneye, The World is Not Enough and Eon’s Casino Royale.
What might we distill from among those to be the requirements
for a good James Bond film? I propose
that the foremost criterion is that a good James Bond movie incorporates ideas
that are not found in other films of the era.
I found none of those in Skyfall
and by that criterion, I dismiss it as an inferior James Bond film. An excellent example of the sort of novel
idea that is entirely missing from Skyfall
is the frogman fight in Thunderball. Scuba-diving was not science fiction when the
latter film was made; anyone of moderate means could go scuba diving. The idea of having dozens of scuba-divers
battle each other underwater, though, was ingenious and, I surmise, devilishly
hard to film at the time. By contrast, a
motorcycle chase over the rooftops of Istanbul is not conceptually
brilliant. In fact, it feels like
something that was done at least as well in a Jason Bourne movie; the second
one, if I remember correctly.
A reasonable counter-proposition might be that although the
Eon Casino Royale is generally
accepted as one of the finest Bond films, it actually doesn’t have any of those
sorts 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 and
misogyny in the novels. And what
certainly qualifies as a remarkable idea was the whole notion of making a Bond
film with brutally-realistic hand-to-hand combat and showing the agent at the
outset of his career. Unfortunately, it
turns out that’s not enough of an idea to power Quantum of Solace and Skyfall
Something else that was remarkable in the original Bond
movies was a particular character trait of Bond himself. He loved to kill his opponents. To do so was to triumph, and he relished
that. Look at the smirk on Connery’s
face when he kills Professor Dent in Dr.
No. There had been anti-heroes in
film before James Bond, but never one who was presented quite so heroically
while being that brutal. Daniel Craig
incorporates something of that attitude into his performance, but it’s a different
nuance. In his performance, the response
to killing is more one that conveys surprise at being the one that
survived. That’s interesting, but not
interesting enough. Craig’s Bond is also
written as being too much of a hero. At
the beginning of Skyfall, for
example, 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 is
all about. But a compassionate James
Bond is not a memorable or interesting as the refined brute. The brute was even present in Roger Moore’s
version. After bedding a woman in Live and Let Die, he kills her and as he’s
about to do that, she protests: ”You wouldn’t kill me after what we’ve just
done!” “Well, I certainly wouldn’t do it
before,” Bond replies as he pulls the trigger.
Now Eon’s Casino
Royale was the James Bond film that most closely followed the plot of the
original Fleming novel, other than From
Russia 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 of
the series, I thought it would be a wonderful idea for Eon to now proceed with
a series of movies that filmed the books, using their new approach of very
realistic violence rather than the science fiction and even comic action that
had become a hallmark of the franchise.
Did you know that, with Skyfall,
they’re essentially doing just that? Yes,
Skyfall is a more faithful movie
version of the novel, The Man with the
Golden Gun than the Roger Moore film with title.
Now, let’s say that one decided to go back to the original
texts and bring them to the screen using the rich yet muted palate of Casino Royale. Would one naturally start with the novel that
was least well-received, having been published posthumously from an early Ian
Fleming draft? Even if one might dismiss
the quality of the novel given that one would be adapting it anyway, lifting
only the essential plot elements, might not the earlier Golden Gun film given one pause?
As bad as Quantum of Solace
was and as bad as License to Kill was,
I propose that we can quickly agree that The
Man with the Golden Gun is certainly the worst James Bond movie.
But there it is. Skyfall is a filmed representation of
Fleming’s novel, The Man with the Golden
Gun. In the beginning of the book,
Bond is presumed dead, just as he is in Skyfall. When he returns, his fitness for duty is
questioned in both treatments. In the
book, a former double-o agent returns from a disappearance and attempts to kill
M. Bond is that agent in the novel,
whereas in the film, it’s Mr. Silver. In
the book, Bond must stop the killing of British agents, which is precisely his
mission in Skyfall. The assassin in the novel is identified by
his unique choice of weapon and ammunition.
An assassin in Skyfall is
identified by his unique bullets. In the
book, 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 missed
these hints, some additional ones are provided by which Skyfall references the earlier Golden
Gun film. In both movies, Bond
visits Macau and proceeds from there to an island in the South China Sea. And in the climax of both films, someone dies
because 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 franchise
by going back to the original texts then it might have been considered less
riskly to do so with one of the least well-known plots than it would have been
to redo From Russia with Love, for
example. Still, I would have thought Golden Gun would have been toxic
material to reference. Could it possibly
have come up in the pitch meeting?
Surely the Eon folk have an encyclopedic knowledge of the pantheon and recognized
For all of my disappointment with Skyfall, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it’s a fine action
thriller. In particular, Bond’s scene
with Séverine in the bar is extremely well
written and masterfully acted. Watching
that scene made me expect that I would end up feeling delighted by the
movie. Then a subway train crashed
through a ceiling and I knew it is was hopeless and just wanted it to be
A fine action thriller doesn’t
nearly qualify as a good James Bond film; otherwise, License to Kill would not be close to the bottom of every Bond film’s
list. All the good James Bond films rely
on novel ideas for their effect, and Skyfall
doesn’t have any of those.