(This is the first part of a four-part review essay, which is now up in full. Part Two appeared on September 6, 2013, Part Three on September 9 and Part Four on September 11. You can read the completed essay on a single page here.)
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
It was recently announced that Sam Mendes would be returning to the James Bond series to direct its next, as yet unnamed film ("Bond 24"). This will make him the first to direct two Bond films back to back since John Glen back in the '80s.1
This is, of course, a reflection of the commercial success of Skyfall, which far exceeded every expectation. Indeed, when it was first announced that Sam Mendes would be helming Bond 23, there were cracks on the web about how he would give us Bond and a female agent going undercover in suburbia and bickering endlessly. In some ways, though, this film is just as incongruous as if he really did pattern a Bond movie after American Beauty.
Sources and Inspirations
When I first saw M writing Bond's obituary in the trailer after Bond's apparent death, my thoughts went straight to You Only Live Twice--the book, not the film. Yet watching the movie I was struck by how much of it seemed to have been lifted from earlier Bond films, and not the storied '60s-era Bond films whose recycling thoughtful Bond fans have long taken for granted (like You Only Live Twice, and Goldfinger), but the less celebrated Pierce Brosnan Bonds.
We see a mission go bad in the pre-titles action sequence, and Bond end up out of touch and apparently lost to the Service for an extended period, ended when a scruffy, damaged 007 finally returns to a suspicious agency, and an utterly unapologetic, unsympathetic M who nonetheless sends him straight back out into the field--just like Die Another Day. That mission has him up against a villain who stages a bombing inside MI 6 headquarters as the opening act in a revenge campaign directed against the head of the agency, for her betrayal of them when they were in her charge, specifically their abandonment to captivity and torture by the bad guys--just like in The World Is Not Enough (which also took us to Istanbul).2
The enemy (Javier Bardem's Silva) is a blond, physically scarred former British intelligence operative not of British ethnicity who was left to the enemy by his mission-minded employers, and pretty much left for dead, but has since survived, and turned renegade and criminal. His identity is only revealed well into the movie, when, after his people have captured Bond and the woman he is with and taken them to an isolated, rubble-filled site full of broken statuary, he comes to meet him face to face and confront him with his past before doing them in. Then that enemy uses computer wizardry in a plan to attack the city of London in general and the most sensitive of British government sites in particular, in said revenge scheme, the sheer modernity of which technique points up what many are thinking--that Bond is an old dog who has had his day, that the kind of work at which he excels and the world he represents are outdated.
Just like in Goldeneye.
There were, too, apparent borrowings from other, older Bond films, interestingly some of the series' least popular, both at the time of release and in the years since. The idea of presenting a dark "twin" to Bond who has a Spanish name, lurks on a Southeast Asian island and tests his shooting skills against 007 in a deadly contest, recalled The Man With the Golden Gun's Francisco Scaramanga. (It is worth remembering, too, that in the book by that name Bond had also just "come back from the dead," and gone after the villain to redeem himself in the eyes of the Service--and his own eyes as well.) The idea of casting a bleached-blond Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner as a villain in a computer-themed plot harkened back to A View to a Kill. The one new gadget Bond is offered is a personalized firearm with a biometric scanner, which saves his life when a villain gets a hold of it and turns it on him--just like in Licence to Kill.
And much of what the filmmakers did not lift from those Bond films, they got out of other movies--and again, not exactly the old classics one expects them to steal from, but relatively recent hits. The tale centers on a stolen computer list of undercover operatives whom the enemy is threatening to expose--just as in the plot of the first Mission: Impossible (which also had Ethan Hunt fighting a treacherous former colleague).3
The villain is not just gratuitously sadistic, and of freakish appearance and manner, but a Jungian "shadow" figure who challenges and even threatens to upset the hero's perception of himself. Halfway through the film the good guys have him in custody after a too-easy capture--and then, because it was all part of his inhumanly brilliant plan to be captured, has contrived it so that he simply walks out of his cell to create havoc through the movie's second half.
Just like the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Thrown into the mix are a number of other elements familiar from recent thrillers, like the new Q--one of the screen's more tiresome clichès, the tech wizard--a scrawny, bespectacled and exceedingly smug young man who spews techno-babble as he works the nerd-magic he constantly oversells.4 And the heavier accent on bureaucratic politics, which goes all the way to M sitting through a hearing in Parliament. And in general a heightened consciousness of the contemporary world's sheer media saturation, with Bond watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and Silva's use of YouTube to blow the covers of British agents working undercover.
However, we also get a finale which inverts the usual pattern. Instead of Bond going after the villains, he is fleeing from them. Instead of the final confrontation happening in their lair, it happens instead at his childhood home. Instead of a flashily futuristic fortress packed with high technology, the setting of this battle is a run-down old Scottish manor, where the gimmickry is of a decidedly old-fashioned kind--the means of escape a priest-hole dating back to the Reformation.5
One can see it all as a mix of the overly derivative with content that may feel like it does not belong in a Bond movie at all.
Very well, one might say to that, but does it work?
1. John Glen actually helmed five movies in a row--For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (1987) and Licence to Kill (1995).
2. Indeed, given that Skyfall screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade were the team behind The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, one would not be unjustified in suspecting that they were simply reusing their own ideas from earlier writing sessions.
3. Mission: Impossible, of course, did copy its most famous sequence (the break-in at the CIA) from an old classic, 1964's Topkapi, based on Eric Ambler's novel The Light of Day. That was a much more sophisticated bit of theft, as demonstrated by the fact that "everybody" who now steals it thinks they are only stealing it from Mission: Impossible.
4. In fairness, though, we at least didn't have to hear him rant against the Star Wars prequels.
5. I'm sure much of the audience saw this wondered just what a priest-hole, and for that matter, the Reformation, was.