It’s always a good idea to leave both your brain and your political views at the door before watching a James Bond film. The combination of implausible plotting, over the top action sequences and unsubtle propaganda wallowing in an unabashed love of British patriotism tends to distract from the entertainment value. Better to watch it for the classic ingredients the series is famous for – sexy Bond girls. exotic locations, eccentric super-villains and of course Bond’s suave but ruthless secret agent.
For the 50th anniversary this cocktail has been shaken, if not entirely stirred, as Sam Mendes takes to the helm and manages to serve up a mildly refreshing take on a franchise which all too often treads familiar ground with generic predictability.
The first half of Skyfall ticks all the boxes with suitable panache – the opening action scene is an expertly staged motorbike chase across rooftops and onto a speeding train – and more vertiginous action follows in neon-lit Shanghai, where Roger Deakins’ luminous cinematography adds a veneer of class to the series not seen before – the pairing of Mendes with Deakins has certainly paid dividends from an aesthetic point of view (it’s a shame they didn’t follow Christopher Nolan’s lead and film the action sequences in IMAX).
Then we’re back in Britain, and Skyfall stays here for the remainder of the film, an altogether lower key story emerging which attempts to add some depth and back story to the regular characters as well as setting up the franchise for a new era. The most obvious aspect of this approach is in the emphasis on an embattled M (Judi Dench), who faces bureaucratic challenges to her 00 department and a psychopathic, vengeance-driven ghost from the past played by Javier Bardem (one of the most entertaining Bond villains in the series). She is the real Bond girl in Skyfall and Dench and Craig’s rapport – all dry wit and unspoken mutual respect – drives the narrative towards its explosive conclusion.
This move towards the personal is a marked shift away from the Cold War politics of the early Bond movies. MGM’s Louis Meyer and Sam Goldwyn were unsympathetic to the Communist ideology of the Soviets, at a time when “reds under the beds” anti-Communist sentiment was reaching fever pitch, so it wasn’t hard to distort them into ruthless yet cartoonishly one-dimensional villains.
In truth, the quintessential traits of a propaganda movie are present in Skyfall, if somewhat subtler than its Cold War predecessors. The initial premise centered around a leaked list of NATO spies embedded in terrorist cells certainly supports the idea that Western intelligence agencies are genuinely “fighting terrorism”. The real world – where MI6 arm and train al Qaeda-affiliated mercenaries to carry out atrocities in campaigns of covert destabilization – has never been the one inhabited by Fleming’s fictional spy, on screen or off. Bond has never been about accurately reflecting contemporary geopolitics, instead inhabiting a simplistic worldview of us/them and good/bad. That said, at least Skyfall isn’t an unashamed exercise in demonizing perceived enemies of the West.
Bond himself rarely evolves as a character, perhaps in keeping with the words of Ian Fleming, who said of him, “I don’t think that he is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. Who is? He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway … He’s a cipher; a blunt instrument in the hands of the government.” The real coup achieved with Skyfall is the attempt to break that mould and show a hint of sensitivity beneath the cold, ruthless exterior. If the franchise is to continue (and we can assume it will, since it’s almost as invincible as Bond himself), this seems like as good a direction as any to take it.