It’s been four years since the blond Bond graced screens in 2008’s discombobulated film, Quantum of Solace, but our favorite immaculately dressed secret agent is back globe-trotting, bedding various women, and kicking ass in Skyfall, opening this Friday.
Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), the 23rd installment in the James Bond franchise sees Daniel Craig’s 007 a bit older and grayer in the beard. While a new boss at MI6, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), thinks our hero’s lost a step, his trusty “mum” M (Judi Dench) believes otherwise, and when the agency is attacked by a demented gay, deformed cyberstalker, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), M sends her most trusted agent into action.
So far, early reviews indicate that this could be the most critically hailed Bond film yet. But is it? Marlow Stern thinks it’s worthy of the praise, while Ramin Setoodeh has his doubts.
Ramin: Let’s start with the bad news. Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie, isn’t as slick or as entertaining as this summer’s The Bourne Legacy, the spy franchise refresh starring Jeremy Renner that rips off Bond and does it better. Nor is it as good as 2006’s Casino Royale, the reboot that first handed the 007 reins to Daniel Craig and easily became the best contemporary Bond film. But at least Skyfall is a vast improvement from 2008’s horrendous Quantum of Solace. Sam Mendes is the director of the latest installment, and this is a good Bond film—at times, a very good film. But it’s never truly great.
Marlow: Muted praise, mon frère. I don’t want to derail this conversation, but I will say that The Bourne Legacy pales in comparison to Skyfall, primarily because Renner lacks the requisite charisma—and machismo—to be a Hollywood leading man–action hero. After my first viewing of Skyfall, I too believed Casino Royale to be the superior Bond entry. It was more glamorous—shot in scenic locales like the Bahamas and Lake Como, Italy, as opposed to the drab settings of Istanbul and London, where the majority of Skyfall takes place; the opening parkour sequence is superior; and Eva Green was a helluva Bond girl in Casino. But upon further reflection, I think it’s not only the best modern Bond film, but deserves to rank alongside favorites like Dr. No and Goldfinger among the all-time greats. Whereas Bond was a glamorous cipher in previous entries, Mendes does a great job of exploring 007’s twisted psyche. He’s older, and the blond hair—and Speedo—has been replaced by gray stubble and a bit more philosophical superspy. The ‘M’ in M (Judi Dench, in a splendid performance), may as well stand for “mum,” because Mendes really cuts to the core of not only Bond’s lingering issues stemming from being an orphan, but the pair’s resulting complicated mother-son relationship. And can we talk about how great Javier Bardem is as the villain?
Ramin: Gosh, you’re wrong on so many different points, I don’t know where to go from here. First, stop bashing Renner. He’s a great actor. Second, Skyfall is nowhere near as awesome as Casino Royale, so you need to offer a retraction on that as well. This Bond opens (spoiler warning!) with the death of James Bond. That’s right—Bond is hit, mistakenly, by a gunshot from one of his colleagues that sends him plunging from the top of a train to the bottom of an ocean. He falls deep into oceanic silence, interrupted only by the sound of Adele (singing a mediocre Bond anthem), and you know what? We’ve seen this before! The drowning hero is a reoccurring motif in the Bourne movies. So Bond is now stealing from the spy vehicle that robbed him. Or maybe he’s just getting old. That’s certainly the central theme of Skyfall, with the graying (I myself prefer the Speedo-clad) Bond, who takes himself VERY SERIOUSLY. Like I said, I enjoyed the film, but if I’m going to be nit-picky, I have to admit that Mendes’s direction is a little too dismal. It’s heavy and muggy and dark, like he’s making the sequel to Road to Perdition or Revolutionary Road. Overtaken by a rogue threat, Bond thinks about quitting, and M (played marvelously, as always, by Dench) is being shown the door by her superiors. Can’t they just have fun? Bond barely even has sex in Skyfall. As for Bardem’s villain, he’s a stereotype. A lispy, bisexual mad guy, who feels like a gay variation of his No Country for Old Men psycho killer. Speaking of which, remember when Rupert Everett wanted to play a gay James Bond? Whatever happened to that?
Marlow: Enough about Renner, who’s clearly at his best when he’s splitting screen time with someone else (see: The Hurt Locker, The Town, etc.). And shame on you for bad-mouthing record-industry savior Adele, whose Bond anthem absolutely soars in theaters. Despite a minor similarity during the opening sequence, the film only apes Bourne in the sense that this iteration of Bond is trying to reconcile his past. And, while I agree it isn’t the most glamorous Bond entry, it’s the most emotionally rich by far. I do agree the homoeroticism in the film is a big deal. The scene everyone will be talking about is Silva’s (Bardem) introduction. Sporting an outrageous blond wig and dressed in a coat and cravat, he saunters over to Bond, who’s once again tied to a chair (similar to when he got his testicles “scratched” repeatedly by Casino’s villain). Silva opens Bond’s shirt and slowly caresses his chest. In response to Silva’s come-on, Bond replies, “What makes you think this is my first time?” Hyperanalytical scholars will read the film, written by openly gay screenwriter John Logan, as being all about Bond guarding his heterosexuality against a charismatic gay villain whose main goal is to “recruit” him to his team. This gay baddie manages to penetrate MI6 with a “virus,” forcing Bond to flee to his childhood home, where he’s faced with confronting his lingering psychological issues stemming from being an orphan, as well as his mom issues with M. But how about Bardem? He’s like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and the giddily psychotic Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. One of the best Bond villains ever.
Ramin: For me, what worked best in Skyfall is the relationship between Bond and his leading lady, M. Craig and Dench make an elegant on-screen pairing, oozing a kind of work-companionship chemistry that brings to mind the Bogart-and-Bacall days of Hollywood. I think you made the point in our office, after screening the film, that the Bond girl this time around is Dame Judi. And I’m down with that. The action scenes, pacing, and choreography of the first half—roughly 75 minutes—of Skyfall are very strong. But as we near the end, as Bond starts to grapple with the idea of his own death (without the possibility of resurrection), our hero returns to the estate of his childhood home, where he begins rigging a series of booby traps for the villains pursuing him. This is a metaphor, of course, about how our own past always comes back to haunt us. But in a weird way, these final scenes were reminiscent for me of the final Harry Potter and the first Home Alone, both large pieces of Hollywood mass entertainment that eventually did come to an end. And yet, here is James Bond—the man Hollywood refuses to let retire. As much as I enjoyed Skyfall, I kept wondering if we could ever let James Bond go. And if we should. Maybe after 50 years, he deserves some rest, as opposed to simply handing over the franchise to another young actor.
Marlow: I’m in total agreement that the relationship between Bond and M is topnotch, and that Dame Judi Dench IS the Bond girl of the film and the most badass one yet, even popping off a few rounds. As far as the childhood-home-invasion conclusion goes, I think that also ties into the themes of masculinity and heterosexuality explored in the film. Much like Straw Dogs (the original with Dustin Hoffman, not the crap remake), which was about an emasculated man defending his home and smoking hot wife against a gang of hooligan intruders in the English countryside—a thinly veiled metaphor for him coming to grips with his own sexuality—the conclusion of Skyfall is also about Bond facing his own past, his mommy-daddy issues, and his heterosexuality, with 007 defending his home against a group of invaders, led by the über-gay Silva. Hell, he’s even wielding a lengthy double-barreled shotgun in one scene. Phallic symbol, much? But I enjoyed the conclusion of the film and thought it tied everything together quite nicely and set the template for several more exciting Bond adventures. I’ve heard rumors that Christopher Nolan wants to direct a Bond film, so let’s make this happen, people!