Skyfall – how to do Bond for over 50 years (film review)

So what is it about James Bond? It’s difficult to ignore the stats. We’ve been in love with this misogynistic ‘blunt instrument’ for fifty years now. That beats any spotty teen wizard or teen vampire, any re-birthing of a Bourne, and any Batman, Superman, Spiderman style film and remake you can name. As if it’s not all mystifying enough, this latest Bond may be the best one ever. We love James Bond. Love love love him, and the love affair is only getting stronger.

On the 5th of October 1962 Dr. No was released on to the world. It had mixed reviews, Ian Flemming called it “dreadful, simply dreadful” but it did receive a rebuke from the Vatican which is as powerful as the best review. After much searching amongst the likes of David Niven (!) James Mason, Cary Grant and Rex Harrison (!) a prematurely balding actor named Sean Connery was chosen for the role, primarily because he was willing to sign on to do three films, and willing to wear a toupee. He would go on to do five and after a break another one to make it six in the end. Despite how brilliantly Connery played (was) Bond, every actor after him was popular in the role and made a huge success of it. No matter which Bond is your favourite or which you prefer, it seems playing Bond will always be a boost to your career.

It’s now fifty years later, and on the 26th of October 2012, the twenty-fifth film in the franchise, Skyfall was released on the fiftieth anniversary of our watching James Bond. That’s twenty-five films in fifty years – one every 2 years. None of them (with the possible exception of Dr No initially and Niven’s Casino Royale) were flops. Even with the disastrous costumes and poor dubbing of George Lazenby’s On Her Majesties Secret Service, we still loved Bond. Lazenby was the only actor (besides David Niven) to play the Bond role once, deciding in 1969 that the secret agent was behind the times and unlikely to appeal to the generations of film goers in the future, and therefore breaking his contract. Despite the intelligence behind this decision, he simply could not have been more mistaken. Connery was seduced back with a 1.25 million dollar salary (around 7 mill today) and (remarkably) 12.5% of the gross profits as well as an additional $144,000 per week if they ran overtime on the shoot. That film was called Diamonds are Forever, and is still being sold like hot-cakes on Amazon every Christmas. It must be almost as good as owning a Beatles song.

Twenty-three of the twenty-five films are Eon Productions, which does seem to be partly accountable for the magic. The other two are Casino Royale with David Niven and Never Say Never Again with Connery. The series has grossed over US$5.6 billion to date, making it the second-highest-grossing film series (behind Harry Potter), and the single most successful adjusted for inflation. Six actors have portrayed 007 in the Eon series, with the Sean Connery films largely setting the style and mood of the series, and Roger Moore starring in the most films.

When Daniel Craig was first brought in with Casino Royale in 2006 it was finally decided that Lazenby may have had a point back in 1969, and Bond was getting a little outdated. The cheezy one-liners and the sleazy persona was something we loved to quote, but would we still want to watch it on the big screen? It was decided no. So a new kind of Bond was formed, with less emphasis on his womanising and more on his intellectual capacities, a little back story to explain the misogyny, substance abuse and abandonment issues. Anyway, Connery is really the only Bond that can make a duck stuck to your head look cool, so we saw a downsizing in the gadgets, and upsizing in the consequences of actions. Daniel Craig was revealed to be a Bond for the new millenium, and so he became. Remarkably, he did re-birth Bond, and gave us all permission to fall in love again.

Not that we’d all fallen out of love of course.

Skyfall is great! Javier Bardem is a wonderful Bond villain – a gay man with mummy issues – brilliant! And yes, there is no end to the action and yes the two and a half hours fly by, even on the second viewing. It’s a total “What’s not love?”going on here with Bond thriving under the intelligent Mendes touch. M = Mother… so clever. Q as a young techie… fantastic. There are lots of clever up-to-date in jokes so that the campy Bond jokes are all there, but they’ve been given the Mendes shuffle, so camp is in the villain, and the jokes are in the narrative. But that’s Bond isn’t it? We know this character so very well, there is room to play around with the history of all that he is as well as give us a rip-roaring Bond film. And that for me was the stand out of the film; the way Sam Mendes , Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have so much fun with the history of Bond within a Bond film.

Of course the primary problem of making any Bond film is time. Despite his longevity, Bond is anything but timeless. He is a man who is very much a product of his age. MI6 are a Cold War organisation. Bond is a superceded model in every conceivable way. The spy himself is meant to be around thirty-two in Dr. No, so that puts him at eighty-two for Skyfall. The unlimited budgets, the 60’s style gadgets, the needlessly complicated plans for world domination, not to mention the elongated deaths are all something we laugh at but can’t play a part in Bond any more. And yet, those are stuff of Bond and the very substance we look for when we go to see the films. We’re that most difficult of audiences; Can it be true to Bond style, but get rid of the campy Bond crap that we love and love to hate but really love so much?

They’ve managed to do it in Skyfall by playing around with time. We saw Craig’s Bond’s at the start of his 00 life in Casino Royale and here in Skyfall he’s sort of at the end, with a promise of more to come. We have the most ultra modern of sets in Shanghai where a spectacular fight scene is set, and at the same time we have the ubiquitous animal pit to fall into. Our villain can do anything with a computer, so it is only by taking M back through time we can keep her safe. Bond is tired, unable to pass his fitness tests, labelled mentally unfit and a substance abuser just as he is offered the next brief that we know we will see in a couple of years time. Despite Craig’s extremely obvious forty-four years, he still has the Austin Martin garaged as if it were he in Dr. No, flipping people out of an ejector seat. Time is not neglected, ignored or adhered to. It is simply another part of the Bond charm – the way he brings that 1960’s style chic to everything he does. Those moments where, even in a grey flannel suit, the understated cuff adjustment (parodied and copied in countless other films) is there just as we remember it. With all of his new millenium adjustments, Craig is just so Bond. And we love it.

Eon have been able to do something with this character that we never expected. Surprise us. And that, is a most remarkable achievement in a franchise that, like McDonald’s, is solidly built on adherence to a strict formula.

It’s that perfect balance of surprise alongside the traditional Bond charm that Skyfall dishes up flawlessly.

And I have no doubt, they’ll be able to do it for us again.