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My 12 for ’12: Skyfall & Balancing Bonds…

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #11

The wonderful thing about a pop culture commodity like James Bond is the flexibility that the character affords those looking to tell stories using the iconic character. Want to tell a story about high-stakes gambling? We can do that. What about averting a war between China and Great Britain? We’ve got it covered. Want to knock off Star Wars? Why not? How about pitching the character against Fu Manchu? We’re way ahead of you. Bond is flexible, and it’s one of the strengths of the character. Don’t like Roger Moore’s interpretation? Here’s Timothy Dalton. Tiring of Pierce Brosnan? Daniel Craig will be along to kick things into action.

While this makes for a fascinating study of the flexibility and adaptability of a cultural touchstone, it does create a bit of a dilemma when trying to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary. Given that Bond is so many things to so many people, can he be everything at once? Skyfall does an impressive job balancing the old and new, while managing to focus on the character at the heart of one of the most enduring cinematic franchises.

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Skyfall was a pretty massive success. It is the biggest movie of all time at the UK box office. It is Sony’s most successful film ever. It has made a massive amount of money at the United States box office and the third biggest movie of the year at the international box office, without the boost of being released in 3D or in IMAX. So it’s a very good job all around, and I think that everybody involved with the film should be proud of the result. It’s hardly the most prestigious award, but even my better half was convinced. As the credits rolled, I asked her opinion and she responded, “It was like a good real film.”

I think there’s a number of reasons the film did so well. 2012 was, for example, a great year for Great Britain. The Olympic Games were a massive success for the nation, watched around the world. They created a massive sense of patriotism, creating a mood that was very proud to be British. Given that Bond is perhaps one of the most iconic British characters of all time (even appearing at the games), I think he was buoyed somewhat by that swell of pride. His fiftieth anniversary also put us all in a mood to celebrate the character and his rich legacy. And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that Skyfall was quite simply very good.

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I’ll admit to being a bit surprised at how well Sam Mendes adapted to the demands of a massive action movie. I’m a fan of the director, but it’s very hard to argue that his work on Skyfall felt like the logical progression of a career that ran from American Beauty through Road to Perdition and even Revolutionary Road. I was impressed at how well Mendes handled the impressive Bond set pieces, including the confrontation on the train and the absolutely stunning Shanghai wrestling match. However, what really struck me was the fact that this action sensibility didn’t come at a cost to the movie’s character work.

Let’s talk about the action, first. There’s a lot in the action set pieces of Skyfall that feels more in line with classic Bond than the two previous entries in the series. The stuntwork in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace felt heavily (a little too heavily at times) inspired by the success of The Bourne Identity and its sequels. It wouldn’t have felt like a proper fiftieth birthday bash if Bond were simply emulating the next generation of spy films, and so Skyfall treats to a number of delightful “Bondian” touches.

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There are a few moments that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Roger Moore film, although perhaps there’s a touch of early Pierce Brosnan to them as well. Demonstrating the character’s lateral thinking when it comes to his combat environment, the opening sequence of Skyfall saw Bond attacking a train with a digger. Sure, it’s hardly driving a tank through St. Petersberg, but it’s the sort ingenious absurdity that distinguishes Bond from so many of the pop culture.

Indeed, Craig’s Bond demonstrates a nice amount of the flourish that defined Roger Moore’s take on the iconic secret agent, coming a long way from the half-formed brutal thug we met in Casino Royale who apparently wore his tailored suit with a chip on his shoulder. The moment Bond paused to adjust his cuffs after landing on the train is a wonderful example of what distinguishes Bond from most other pop culture secret agents. While Silva isn’t the most conventional of Bond villains, I also admire that he does at least conspire to use a train as a bullet in his attempts to kill Bond – he might have more tangible motivations and generally more realistic means, but Silva still loves his dramatics.

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There’s also room to incorporate the type of absurdity that we associate with the classic films in the series, rather than simply playing everything absolutely po-faced. The convenient encounter with the komodo dragons is endearing enough that we excuse the camp diversion in an otherwise serious film. (It is easily the most ridiculous moment in a Bond film since Die Another Day, but Craig and Mendes manage to make it entertaining enough that it doesn’t seem too surreal.)

At the same time, Skyfall celebrates the Bond set pieces without being beholden to them. While the opening sequence is a classic piece of Bond action, and the dragons are the type of element that we’d imagine in one of the films from the seventies, Skyfall also looks absolutely stunning and beautiful on its own terms. Respect for you predecessors is a virtue, but pure homage is not enough to sustain a film. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is absolutely beautiful, and the skyscraper fight in Shanghai looks like absolutely nothing in the series, but is easily one of the most striking visuals in a franchise at fifty years of age.

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So Mendes and his team do well by themselves when it comes to the standard Bond tropes, and the action movie demands that come with making a film in one of the most iconic film franchises in history. However, where Skyfall really excels is in the way that it handles its characters. There have been films that have dealt with Bond as a character before – GoldenEye and Casino Royale come to mind – but Skyfall is remarkable for the way that it is almost exclusively character driven. Alec Trevelyan and Elektra King might have been striking back at Britain for past decisions, but no previous Bond movie had been so concerned with the motivations of its lead characters.

Throughout the runtime, Skyfall treats Bond, M and Silva as real characters driven by real psychological wants and needs. Bond and Silva both want something from M that she simply can’t give them. For the first time in the series, we journey back into Bond’s own past to explore his roots. Ian Fleming famously wrote Bond as a blank slate for the audience to engage with, only coloured by a few of the author’s opinions or insights. It was the third book, Moonraker, before we discovered Bond had an office in London. Even then he would be the first to concede that he didn’t have a life between missions.

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Casino Royale was a modern origin for the cinematic Bond, and a truly sensational one at that. However, even in that most personal and probing of films, we get a limited sense of who Bond actually is and where he came from – all educated guesswork from Vesper that feels a little too generic and normal. Indeed, we only encounter Bond on the cusp of attaining the legendary “00” status with his two required kills. You could argue (and I’d agree) that the history presented in Skyfall perhaps mirrors Batman Begins a little too closely, but then Bond and Batman have always been linked.

As such, the trip to the Skyfall estate is the perfect metaphor for the movie itself. It represents a trip back in time, to the roots of the franchise. However, it is also about the delicate balance between the old and the new. The final scene of the film is quite telling. It’s a return to the classic status quo, but in a way that still feels new and vibrant. We all know Moneypenny and we’ve all seen the inside of M’s office, but Skyfall allows us to see them in a new way.

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Early on in Skyfall, Bond quips that his hobby is “resurrection.” Perhaps it is. But Skyfall also suggests he has a talent for renewal.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

6 Responses

  1. The perfect gift for all Bond fans to celebrate his birthday and a great setup for the next 50 years. Needless to say it is my list of favorites as well.(probably near the top but I have not seen Django , Master , Licoln, ZDT etc.)

    • Django isn’t eligible for my list, alas, as it’s not released here until January. Which is a massive wait, to be honest. But it’ll be worth it. I think my better half and I will be there again on opening night to see it. Nor are Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty, which I have yet to see. As for The Master… well, that would be telling!

  2. I know this may sound strange for a Bond film, but I found it too superficial for my taste. I found most of the throwbacks to the older movies more awkward than successful. The Komodo dragon scene seemed out of place, IMO. The scene I disliked the most was when the classic bond car gets destroyed and bond shows some anger. There was no establishment in the movie that Craig’s bond is much of a gear head. Why would he care about this vehicle? This moment was purely for nostalgia and not for any sense of character consistency. It’s the same with the cufflinks thing. I always felt that the Craig bond didn’t really care about being properly British and was more of a brute who used style for utility. The scene, like most of the movie, seemed like fan service rather than being good on its own merits.

    That being said, I did enjoy the movie. Is it just me or are all Craig bond’s villains made vaguely effeminate?

    • To be fair, effeminate Bond villains are nothing new – although none of Craig’s trio of baddies are anywhere near as stereotypical caricatures as Wint and Kidd. That said, I’ll concede that Silva is decidedly effeminate with his long blonde hair and his flirting with Bond. (You could make an argue that his “mommy issues” are another unfortunate stereotype raising their head, but let’s not go there – I’d interpret Silva as pansexual, rather than the homophobic stereotype that some have tried to suggest.)

      I’d argue, however, that Le Chiffre is more emasculated than actively effeminate, if that doesn’t sound too much like splitting hairs. With the inhaler, the fact that his Bond villain feature involves crying and his decidedly leaner frame, plus his interest in maths as opposed to the more masculine hobbies of other Bond villains (like shark-raising, genocide and even clay pigeon-shooting), I think that Le Chiffre is more of a sly play on various stereotypes about 21st century men as compared to their more rugged predecessors. I hesitate to use the word “metrosexual”, but Le Chiffre seems to lack traditionally masculine characteristics rather than having additional stereotypically feminine traits.

      Although my better half has noted, repeatedly, that Craig’s villains seem inordinately interested in Bond’s private parts. Then again, I’d like to hope that’s a call back to Fleming’s castration anxiety rather than a simple “we can now go further than we used to” logic at play. (Which ironically, was reversed in the Moore era – The Spy Who Loved Me features Moore castrating the bad guy through an enlongated gun barrel, for symbolism.)

      And very fair points about Skyfall.

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