The Death of James Bond
The secret to the film’s growing reputation as one of the greatest Bond adventures of all time, has everything to do with Skyfall’s realization of that key 21st century trend that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace touched on briefly: character development. Sure, the first two Craig movies altered our aesthetic expectations for a Bond film, but their existence as action flicks based around a charismatic, yet intrinsically familiar and static figure, made the resulting changes feel more like an update of style, rather than actual content. It wasn’t until this most recent film that something new and radical was added to the Bond formula.
With Skyfall, Mendes and John Logan (the writer credited for the bulk of the film’s script), introduce theme to the Bond universe, which is a really big deal, considering how important having depth and subtext are when you’re trying to make a movie that’s not just a disposable cash grab. While GoldenEye might have gotten some mileage out of showing how different the world of spycraft had become in the aftermath of the Cold War, it pales in comparison to how game Skyfall is to deliver a thesis on history, something that’s usually been the bane of Bond’s existence.
The lack of overarching, or really any immediate point to a Bond movie is what makes his adventures so reproducible. As a man of mystery, and a character defined by rotating scenarios and actors, James Bond can’t grow, change, or be anything more meaningful than a guy with a cool job, a love for well-shook martinis, and a little black book that’s looking more like the Yellow Pages these days. To create any sort of lasting arc for 007 would be pointless, but also potentially damaging to the series, given that its survival depends on a looseness with chronology, and an always available reset button. Memory is anathema to what makes Bond a lasting icon, so to create a personal journey for him based upon his extensive, goofy history as a screen legend, would initially seem like a fool’s errand, but turns out to be the only way of wedding a proper Bond movie with a message of any substance.
Skyfall opens in uncharacteristic fashion. Instead of an immaculate, mood setting gun barrel sequence, the first thing we see is an unfocused shot down a long hallway, into which enters a dark figure. Two blaring notes from Britain’s other national anthem tell us the man is Bond, but this is an awkward, rather comical introduction for the king of cool, and as he walks toward the camera, you can tell that something’s not right. With no time spared, a breathless opening chase sequence starts up, and would have you believe things are back on track, until the unthinkable happens, and Bond gets shot. Bare in mind, this is only the second time that movie James Bond has ever suffered a gunshot wound, with the first happening more than 45 years ago, in Thunderball. Not only is Bond shot by the thug that he’s pursuing, but he’s eventually blown off a bridge and left for dead, after a fellow agent accidentally slugs him again, following orders from M to stop the target and recover his sensitive cargo at any cost.
The literal sky fall into a river segues into the opening credit sequence, with Bond being pulled deep beneath the waters in what can best be described as a trip to hell, the afterlife being as good a place as any to do a little rumination. Eschewing the heavy guitar riffs of the previous two title sequences, Adele’s titular song for Skyfall recalls the soulful virtuosity of classic themes like Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” or Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” and is more directly linked to the events of the film than the serviceable intros from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. “Skyfall” is both a farewell, and an introduction, as Adele mourns that, “this is the end,” only to let us know that “Skyfall is where we start.” She sings of a demise by drowning, one that’s overdue, and given the circumstances, it’s pretty clear that the death she’s anticipating is Bond’s.
No, I’m not suggesting the whole rest of the film is some sort of a dream sequence (though there is one, more on that later), but rest assured, this film is about the death of our current 007, one that had to happen. The brutal punishment Craig’s Bond nonchalantly subjects himself to is a stark contrast to the methods of his slick predecessors, who could take down an entire evil lair without letting a single hair slip out of place. As the film’s villain points out, all the running around and physical exertion Bond no. 6 does just winds up wearing him out quicker over the long haul. Bad knees are nothing compared to the bullet wounds, broken ribs, and testicular damage added to Bond’s medical history after being played by Craig for 260 minutes. Craig’s Bond going to an early grave was inevitable at this rate, and unlike the fake out at the beginning of You Only Live Twice, Bond really does suffer a death of sorts early in Skyfall, which lets him try a new spin on an old hobby: resurrection.
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