My top five favorite James Bond movies before seeing the latest and 23rd installment, Skyfall, were Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), Live and Let Die (1973), and Casino Royale (2006). Now that I've seen the much-hyped Skyfall...my Top 5 list remains intact. However, even though I give Casino Royale a slight edge over Skyfall (both are far superior to 2008's Quantum of Solace, which is still pretty good), I still think Daniel Craig remains the second best Bond after Sean Connery, and his three films so are are among the series' best offerings. Craig has that rugged combination of thuggish brutality and suave sophistication so essential to Ian Fleming's original literary lethal lothario, though Sean Connery also added the crucial element of charm, making him equally credible as a cold-hearted killer and as a warm-blooded womanizer, both essential qualities depending on what the situation called for.
As everyone knows, the cinematic incarnation of Bond - which began with Dr. No in 1962 - turns 50 this year, though he was first introduced into the public's pop cultural consciousness via Ian Fleming's first 007 novel Casino Royale in 1953. Fleming - whose celebrity fans included Raymond Chandler and John F. Kennedy - went on to pen thirteen more bestselling Bond books before his untimely death from a heart attack in 1964, living long enough to barely get a taste of the era-enduring, generation-spanning popularity of his multi-media phenomenon.
But as a persona borne of midcentury mores, Bond has seemed like a retrograde anachronism at least since 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, when Sean Connery briefly returned to the official Harry Saltzman/Albert Broccoli series (1983's soulless anomaly Never Say Never Again just doesn't count). Then Roger Moore's increasingly campy run following the pulpy voodoo/ blaxploitation thrills of Live and Let Die - namely The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), and the relatively abysmal A View to a Kill (1985) - further diminished the integrity of the character, reducing him to a comic book clown, though all of Moore's post LALD films, particularly the visually spectacular Spy Who Loved Me, did have their good points, boasting some of the best theme songs in the series to boot.
Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War was over, and secret agents seemed about as significant in our society and our cinema as cowboys and private eyes. Still around, but who cared? They were sources of nostalgia, nothing more. It seemed like the end of James Bond, an aging action hero already past his prime, a sudden relic of a blissfully bygone period in our world history.
But by then, the successful series' famous formula of outrageous action, exotic locales and healthy hedonism had been too deeply embedded in the collective filmgoing consciousness and the public demanded more, so the producers attempted to adapt their lucrative cash cow to his radically changing environment, while straining to maintain those traditional elements - basically, stylized sex and violence - so integral to Bond's appeal. Thus began the reinvention of James Bond.
For me, the four Piece Brosnan entries - GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999, my favorite of the quartet), and especially the cartoonish Die Another Day (2002) - tried way too hard to update the concept, eschewing Bond's amoral inclinations and antiquated social attitudes for more "politically correct" behavior at the expense of the character's core identity, and Brosnan himself, a good actor, was simply too nice to play the role convincingly. He could be very charming, but never intimidating. I never believed it when he threw a punch, much less fired a gun. Even Roger Moore was somewhat more believable as a badass, but he too was far too gentlemanly to properly convey Bond's dark side.
My third favorite Bond, Timothy Dalton, whose two entries, The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989 - official end of the Cold War), remain among the franchise's finest, was effective in conveying hardboiled menace, but he lacked both Brosnan's and Moore's elegance, as well as Connery's charm. George Lazenby, star of the largely unsung 007 masterpiece On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was criminally under-rated in my opinion, having been sandwiched in between Connery's last two "official" Bond films, You Only Live Twice (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1972), suffering unfairly from the comparison. He was certainly better than serviceable in the most emotionally challenging of any Bond film pre-Craig.
That brings us back around to Daniel Craig, so far the 21st century incarnation of James Bond. After the gritty glory of Casino Royale and the somewhat less impressive but still commendably bare-knuckled and bloodthirsty Quantum of Solace, I had high expectations for Skyfall and overall, I was not disappointed. If I had to reach back and compare it to any of the classic Bonds, it would probably be From Russia With Love (1963), which was likewise short on gimmicky gadgets and almost atypically absent of any truly epic action set-pieces, featuring relatively realistic combative techniques and genuine character development amid the exotic espionage. Skyfall starts off with a trademark over-the-top chase sequence, and features several spectacular sequences befitting its blockbuster status, but this is really a character study of Bond, delving into his back story, and revolving around his complicated relationship with M (Judi Dench), with only one real Bond girl this time, beautiful Bérénice Marlohe as sad and sensuous Sévérine.
But the film does boast a uniquely drawn, truly memorable villain, the effeminately evil former MI6 agent Silva, brilliantly played by Javier Bardem, providing Bond with a deadly, devious doppelganger whose vengeful vision is unusually personal, without the traditional aim of world domination, his targets more specifically selected, as opposed to the more grandiose, ambitious agendas of Auric Goldinger or Blofeld. Naomi Harris as "Eve" is actually a more significant character than initially revealed, and the new, youthful version of Q, played by Ben Whishaw, is a bratty computer genius who, while an engaging enough chap, is a pale echo of the great Desmond Llewelyn, but whose naturalistic rapport with Craig is pleasing enough, and promising for future installments. The opening credits sequence is beautifully realized as usual, but the computerized graphics don't favorably compare to the practical artistry of legendary titles designer Maurice Bender. Somehow, they lack the organic warmth.
Adele's theme song is a satisfyingly soulful echo of earlier hits like "Nobody Does It Better" by Carly Simon, and "For Your Eyes Only" by Sheena Easton, and while not particularly special, it is the best Bond theme since Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill," IMO. Thomas Newman's score wisely and wryly weaves in Monty Norman and John Barry's original Bond theme music, even though sometimes, despite the snazzy suits and breathtaking stunts, Skyfall didn't feel much like a "real" Bond movie at all, partly due to its rather offbeat storyline. But it still worked because of its emotional complexity, stunning cinematography, and uniformly outstanding acting from an exceptional cast. If you accept the fact that this is not your daddy's (or grandaddy's) James Bond, but a whole new cocktail cleverly blended using some of the original ingredients but with a trendy twist, you will enjoy this movie. I really, really liked it, though I'm not quite sure I loved it yet. It just feels too different than any previous Bond film, including the two with Craig, but it's far, far better than any of the Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore efforts, staying basically if imaginatively true to the essence of the character while successfully modernizing his methods. Skyfall may not be as instantly iconic as the truly classic Bond movies, but it's a minor masterpiece in its own right, and a righteous celebration of Bond's first half century as a movie hero.
As for my few complaints, the contemporary context notwithstanding, some of the self-conscious nods toward Bond's legacy sometimes come off as unduly ironic and even slightly patronizing, like when John Barry's arrangement of Monty Norman's familiar "James Bond Theme" is briefly revived after the introduction of the original Aston-Martin. I loved the homage, but it did feel a little like playing Neal Hefti's 1960s Batman TV theme during a chase sequence in The Dark Knight (a film that the makers of Skyfall acknowledged as inspiration, and it shows, from plot to tone to characterization, especially Bardem's Silva, reminiscent of Heath Ledger's anarchic Joker). The "James Bond Theme" should never be played in a Bond movie for laughs or nostalgia or even as a "tribute." It's a timeless tune forever associated with the character, and if it's become too outdated and corny to work into the soundtrack without a wink, then maybe it's time to put the series to rest as well. However, the wordless reprise of Bond's beloved "shaken not stirred" martini was priceless, maybe my favorite single bit in the entire film.
In fact, Skyfall's director (American Beauty's Sam Mendes) and writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, crafting an entirely original story independent of Fleming's works) constantly reference the superiority of old school style, almost to the point of redundant insecurity, like they need to convince the audience of Bond's rebooted relevance. They do an excellent job of pointing out (perhaps too often) that Bond's seemingly outdated brand of "shadowy" spy work is possibly more necessary now, in the age of terrorism, than it was during the Cold War, when a society's enemies were more clearly defined by nationality and geography. These days, the foe is less conspicuous but even more insidious, driven by individual prejudices and personal vendettas as much as cultural or religious ideology, making them harder to identify, seek out and destroy (case in point: Bin Laden and Al Queda.) Whether this "new" threat proves strategically formidable and creatively inspirational enough to keep Bond going for another few films - much less fifty more years - remains to be seen, but meantime, they're still providing fans old and new with a hell of a good time, even if Skyfall's somber mood sometimes swerves into outright morbidity. Maybe next time, they won't take the material so seriously. You can be refreshingly dark without being relentlessly grim. The main goal of any successful Bond film should be plain old-fashioned - if edgy - fun. At least they brought back the trademark "gun barrel" sequence, even if they put it at the wrong end of the movie. Skyfall didn't really feel like a true Bond movie until it was almost over.
Ultimately there simply is no such thing as a "bad" Bond film, at least not for my money. They can each only be judged by the series' own impossibly lofty standards, and even at their very "worst," they all consistently provide more entertainment bang per buck, even adjusted for inflation, than almost any other movie out there. Long live James Bond. Or some viable version thereof. Cheers.
UPDATE: after seeing Skyfall for the second time - and twice is the only way to see it - I've slightly revised my list of Top 10 Bonds: Goldfinger, Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, Casino Royale, Skyfall, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, You Only Live Twice, License to Kill.
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