The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: James Bond’s Impressive Comeback in Sam Mendes’s Skyfall

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James Bond (Daniel Craig) and his legendary Aston Martin DB5

To the sounds of energetic percussive music, James Bond tracks down a villain on the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. All of a sudden, a Jeep manned by a female British agent picks him up. Mere moments later, 007 has already become involved in a motorbike chase over the rooftops along the marketplace. He lands on top of a train and tries to retrieve a very important stolen list from the baddie. ‘M,’ listening in over the radio, has qualms that her super spy might fail her. While he is in a fistfight with the enemy, she orders the female agent to shoot at Bond from a distance. The woman hits 007. He falls off a bridge and down a waterfall.

The 23rd James Bond adventure Skyfall by Sam Mendes opens with a roar, not just because of the MGM lion. Expectations for the film were enormous, with a renowned Oscar-winning director at the helm, an impressive cast led by Daniel Craig as returning secret agent, and half a century of Her Majesty’s super spy looming. Many had qualms with Quantum Of Solace, because it contained too little of the Bond trademarks. Gone were the gun barrel sequence at the beginning, the characteristic one-liners, myriads of over-the-top gadgets, and a womanizing 007. Enter breakneck-paced editing and modern action elements instead. Would Skyfall be able to deliver and return the series to its former glory in the eyes of the fans?

Sam Mendes’s movies is a standalone story that borrows a page or two from Ian Fleming’s original Thunderball novel. An out-of-shape James Bond (Daniel Craig) shows up at MI6 and fails a bunch of tests. Normally he would’ve been suspended from active duty, but for lack of better options, ‘M’ (Judi Dench) sends him out in the field again. Her own past comes back to haunt her, and as a consequence, the British secret service is under attack by an unknown threat. A drive containing the identity of every agent embedded in terrorist organizations across the globe has been stolen. James Bond has to rise from the dead to save the day.

‘You must be joking.’

All those who had issues with Quantum Of Solace should dig this one. Skyfall is a more traditional entry into the series than the last film by Marc Forster. It bridges the gap between the old classics and the more modern 007 movies. Not only has James Bond returned, but so have the legendary one-liners. ‘Q’ is back as well – in the guise of a nerdy Ben Whishaw – and with him the dry humor that seemed to be largely absent from the previous adventure. The actor has proven his versatility as mass murderer in Perfume and as a homosexual composer in Cloud Atlas. His performance in Skyfall doesn’t leave much to be desired. Introduced as a clumsy boy genius, he’s the Desmond Llewellyn of the 21st century.

The true star of the movie, however, is the bad guy. Raoul Silva is a classic 007 villain. It’s as if Spaniard Javier Bardem was reprising his role as a psychopath from No Country For Old Men, just with a ridiculous bleach-blonde hairdo and rather bizarre sexual tendencies. Unlike former opponents for James Bond, he doesn’t strive for global domination or the destruction of the human race – The World Is Not Enough for him in this respect. In fact, his goals are somewhat pedestrian in comparison. He’s only out to seek revenge, and it’s personal. Ralph Fiennes also excels as an ambiguous character. For the most part, it’s hard to tell whose side his Gareth Mallory is really on. Is he loyal to Britain and MI6 or will he go rogue?

As for the girls, French newcomer Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine essentially plays the Teri Hatcher role. She dazzles with exotic beauty in Skyfall and also impressed on the red carpet at the premieres in both London and Berlin. Unfortunately, she gets too little screen time to show off her acting chops. A femme fatale associated with the villain, Sévérine is essentially a damsel in distress with a difficult past. She sides with 007 because she thinks he can save her and finally helps him by introducing him to her sponsor before going the way of all flesh.

Naomie Harris, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Her British secret agent Eve is anything but needy and not as glamorous, although she can certainly hold her own in a fancy costume. She doesn’t even shy away from shooting at James Bond because she is ordered to do so or from aligning with the enigmatic bureaucrat Gareth Mallory instead of ‘M’ early on. Despite all that, it’s easy to see that the two spies Eve and 007 get along splendidly, with their fair share of flirting between the lines.

‘Mommy was very bad.’

In a way, however, the main Bond girl of the film is long-serving Oscar winner Judi Dench. Her ‘M’ has never been as prominently featured in any of her seven movies in the series as in Skyfall. It’s her who is constantly under fire this time around, because the stolen list doesn’t only threaten MI6 but Britain’s security in general. In her fight against a villain on a personal vendetta, she needs every single ally she can find – even if it means that 007 must return to active duty in spite of his numerous physical and psychological ails to come to the rescue. James Bond himself, on the other hand, almost resembles an Alfred Hitchcock character. Sam Mendes doesn’t beat about the bush with references to the English master of suspense while carefully examining 007’s psyche.

‘M’ is something like the the secret agent’s pigheaded mother. She’s unable to come to terms with the fact that life has changed and that secrets don’t really exist anymore because everyone is transparent in modern society. Yet she tries to cling to the old order. ‘M’ doesn’t want to let anybody in on her mysteries. She wants to remain a sort of sovereign, a de-facto ruler of the British empire like the Queen of England. That’s why she is doomed eventually. When her whole world goes down in flames, we feel reminded of the burning house in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Nothing will ever be the same. The universe constantly renews itself, and nobody can stop the process.

That Skyfall boasts an impressive cast shows in the smaller supporting roles as well. Legendary British thespian Albert Finney also leaves his mark on the film. If you thought, however, that he would assume a part similar to that of Dr. Albert Hirsch he played most recently in The Bourne Legacy, you’re on the wrong track. Instead, he shines as Kincade, the grumpy, but warmhearted old gatekeeper of Bond’s Scottish childhood home. Classically trained actress Helen McCrory, known from Hugo and Harry Potter, as a Member of Parliament, Ola Rapace as hired gun Patrice, and returning Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner are able to convince in the little screen time given to them by the complex narrative, too.

‘Sometimes the old ways are the best.’

As the 50th anniversary film, Skyfall naturally alludes to several classics from the series. The Istanbul and Scotland settings are obvious nods to From Russia With Love. The same goes for Bond’s rather Spartan equipment, which also reminds us of Sean Connery’s second mission, as well as the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. Likewise, the Sévérine character and the Chinese settings of Macau and Shanghai are apparent references to Tomorrow Never Dies with Pierce Brosnan. Oh, and 007 finally gets his legendary Walther PPK back.

Yet Skyfall doesn’t overdo it the way Die Another Day did a decade ago for Bond’s 40th anniversary. After a promising opening, that film bordered on ridiculous in the course of the story, with a Face/Off-like transformation by the villain, an invisible car, an ice palace, as well as a satellite weapon. The over-the-top movie also signaled the end of the Pierce Brosnan years and paved the way for the reinvention during the Daniel Craig era. This time, established 007 authors Neil Purvis and Robert Wade crafted a much better and more realistic script. Having renowned screenwriter John Logan of Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo fame come in for some polishes certainly must have helped as well.

In the music department, Thomas Newman’s score is nothing but versatile and stunning. It’s sometimes energetic and percussive, occasionally majestic, electronic, and playful. He even toys around with Monty Norman’s world-famous James Bond theme here and there, and with the fanfare in particular – while also adding his own touches of ethno flavor to do justice to the fantastic exotic locations in Skyfall. Sometimes the score brims over with booming noises, but Thomas Newman certainly knows how to use the dynamics to his advantage and to pick his spots. So do Sam Mendes, his direction, and the marvelous cinematography by acclaimed The Big Lebowski and A Beautiful Mind camera operator Roger Deakins.

All three men master the delicate high-wire act between loud, fast, and powerful on the one hand and quiet and graceful on the other hand with ease. There are a couple of Christopher Nolan-esque sequences, especially toward the grand finale. Here, the soundtrack also takes on Hans Zimmer-like dimensions at times. Yet these moments are never as annoying as the German composer’s sonic accompaniment for The Dark Knight, a film that American Beauty director Sam Mendes has frequently referred to when talking about inspirations for Skyfall. Similarly, the iconic spy’s latest adventure never loses itself in a string of epic, but ultimately meaningless sequences the way Nolan’s recent blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises does.

The eponymous title song by Adele has all the elements of a classic theme for a Bond movie, but her voice sounds a little thin and frail. She simply doesn’t have the banshee-like power pipes of a Shirley Bassey or a Tina Turner from former entries. On first glance, the tune’s lyrics look somewhat cryptic as well, to say the least. For those reasons and the somewhat lackluster CGI animations, the credit sequence may seem to dawdle along a bit at first, compared to others in the series. As Skyfall unfolds, however, it all makes perfect sense.

‘Everybody needs a hobby.’ – ‘So what’s yours?’ – ‘Resurrection.’

The James Bond of the film is a fragile character full of insecurities. He’s no longer the philandering, chauvinistic dinosaur from the Cold War, as Judi Dench’s ‘M’ once described Pierce Brosnan’s super spy so aptly in GoldenEye. Daniel Craig’s 007 looks old, exhausted, and wasted occasionally. He suffers from neuroses and turns into a down-and-out drunkard because his replacement mother from MI6 deliberately took a chance on his life. We also learn about Bond’s parents, more so than in any other movie from the series, and enter the depths of his troubled soul in a more profound manner than in Casino Royale. Skyfall goes a bit further in many ways. It even openly questions his sexuality and masculinity.

James Bond is back, and minor quibbles aside, that’s a good thing – because he has returned with his strongest outing of the new millennium. If Daniel Craig and the producers intend to continue following that path, more kudos to them. The character has undergone a stunning transformation recently. Once an untouchable larger-than-life figure, 007 has evolved from the lady-killing, cliché-ridden relic of a bipolar global order. In the process, he has turned into a well-rounded, more human, and more believable person with problems just like everybody else. This, by the way, also brings him closer to the way Bond was depicted in the novels of Ian Fleming.

A great deal of this remarkable transformation is owed to Daniel Craig and his cynical interpretation of the super spy. By means of his strong performances, he has really managed to modernize and carry the iconic secret agent into the more ambiguous world of the 21st century. You know how much he must have suffered just by looking at him and into his icy steel blue eyes. Skyfall, incidentally, spends more time in the United Kingdom, and especially in London, than any of the previous films in the series. Maybe it’s only fitting that James Bond comes home after half a century of traveling all around the globe as an ‘international man of mystery.’ Here’s a shaken, not stirred Vodka Martini (or two) to another 50 years of more fascinating 007 adventures.

Seen at CineStar Event, Berlin, Germany, on 24 October 2012.