Sunday, 25 November 2012

You only live twice: SKYFALL and the resurrection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond


Spoiler warning for the entire Bond franchise - books and films, but specifically for Skyfall. See it before you read this review!

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I’ve been a big fan of James Bond since high school, back in a time when the only way to see the movies was when they appeared on television; for some reason, they were never all available on VHS to hire and never to buy. In between seeing the movies on TV and waiting for the next ones to be released (the first Bond film I saw on the big screen was The Living Daylights), I read the original Ian Fleming novels, most of which I bought from second hand book stores.

So, as much as I see problems with both the books and the films, each iteration is of its time and I’m still drawn to the character in a similar way to when I was twelve years old. I just have so much fun with them. But I also adore the character and the world Fleming created. And it’s nice to see his original vision respected, while James Bond continues to grow in the twenty-first century.



Ian Fleming killed James Bond twice. The first time, in the fifth Bond novel, “From Russia With Love”; struck down by Rosa Klebb’s poisoned knitting needles. James Bond falls “head long into the wine-red floor”. End of novel. Fleming didn’t want to write 007 novels forever, so the agent was dead.

But his popularity flourished after President Kennedy put the latest Bond book on his reading list. 007 didn’t stay dead, and in “Doctor No”, Bond is recovering from tetrodotoxin poisoning and sent, by M, to Jamaica to recover. Then he gets pulled into the story of the villainous titular character.

Bond dies for a second time in “You Only Live Twice”, the eleventh Bond novel. The book is about 007 taking revenge on Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE and the villain behind the death of his wife Tracy, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. Fleming didn’t leave the reader in suspense this time, though. Bond was still alive, but without his memory, living in Japan with Kissy Suzuki.

But MI6 thinks he’s dead and M writes a three page obituary for him. Much of James Bond’s pre-007 history is first referenced in this ode to an agent by his boss. And just as M did in that 1964 novel, so must Judi Dench’s M pen an obituary for Daniel Craig’s James Bond in the latest film of the fifty-year-old franchise.

Bond, after a thrilling chase through Istanbul, is fighting a man who is in possession of a harddrive stolen from MI6. They are on top of a train, and another agent – Eve, watches on. M, back in Britain, but listening to everything on her headset, urges Eve to shoot the man Bond is fighting – even though Bond is at risk of being shot himself.

Bond is hit. And he falls from the train and into the river under the bridge the train is now passing over. 007 is dead. Cue the opening credits and the stunning title song by Adele.


In some ways, Skyfall feels like another reinvention of the franchise, after the successful reboot of the series in 2006’s Casino Royale, followed by the unfairly maligned Quantum of Solace. But, for me, Skyfall fulfills a kind of promise – both through the evolution of the character, as well as in re-establishing the icon. With each of the Daniel Craig films, more and more of classic Bond iconography appears and by the end of this latest film, it feels like we’ve stepped back in time. But not in a regressive way.

After the first twenty films and forty years of the franchise, culminating in Die Another Day – a terrible film that highlighted the absolute excesses of Bond films (and action movies in general), EON Productions and MGM were fortunate enough to finally get the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale”. That novel had already been adapted twice – once as a TV special in the 1950s and once as a spoof of Bond films in the 1960s.

After all this time, the character could be introduced to audiences properly, through his first full mission as a Double-0 agent.

Every time a new James Bond is cast, the producers look back to Fleming to remind themselves of the essence of the character:

-          George Lazenby’s completely-faithful-to-the-novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after You Only Live Twice’s villain’s volcano lair
-          Roger Moore’s Live and Let Die, one of Moore’s more faithful offerings, after the camp silliness of Connery’s quick return in Diamonds Are Forever
-          Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights, which uses a Fleming short story as a jumping off point, after Moore’s stint turned the character and the franchise into a joke factory
-          Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye had to relaunch the franchise, after the disappointing box office of Licence to Kill and a six year hiatus, so it didn’t need to get back to Fleming so much as remind the world that Bond existed. It did just that and became one of the highest grossing Bond films to that point

Finding the essence of the character seems key, but it’s not always what a film audience expects. Dalton’s Bond was probably closest to Fleming’s character since Connery’s first two films and, perhaps, Lazenby’s one-shot. But the brutality of Licence to Kill seemed to put people off. What a difference another two decades would make. Fleming’s Bond is a brutal, humourless government agent – a “blunt instrument” and killer with a sense of style. I don’t think any of the actors fully embraced that or were allowed to until Daniel Craig and Casino Royale.

James Bond:
a sketch commissioned by Ian Fleming
Over the years, Fleming’s entire Bond canon has been plundered for titles, plots, characters – sometimes mixed up in a blender before the finished product is served. The Roger Moore films were less and less concerned with being faithful to the source material, so there were elements of the novels which could be picked up and used later. The “He Disagreed With Something That Ate Him...” subplot about CIA ally Felix Leiter being fed to sharks in Fleming’s “Live and Let Die” did not appear in the film version of that book, but was later used in Dalton’s Licence to Kill, as the impetus for a revenge film.

By the time Brosnan was on the scene, the 1990s neutered the character and there was practically no Fleming left to use. Goldeneye was the name of Fleming’s home in Jamaica, where he wrote the Bond novels. The World is Not Enough is the phrase Fleming put on the Bond family Coat of Arms in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. The man was long since an icon, though there are occasional whiffs of Fleming’s hard-man character in the Brosnan movies; an injured Bond in The World Is Not Enough and pointed exchanges like one from Goldeneye:
Natalya: “How can you act like this? How can you be so cold?
Bond: “It’s what keeps me alive.”
Natalya: “No. It’s what keeps you alone.”
Casino Royale is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Fleming novel, with a few action set pieces thrown in for modern day audiences. But the relationship between Bond and Vesper is key to the book and to the 2006 film, building a foundation for this new-but-old direction for the franchise to take. Asked if he wants his maritini shaken not stirred, Craig’s Bond says he doesn’t care. But even his love of martinis evolves in the three Craig films: from inventing the Vesper martini, to getting hammered on them in Quantum of Solace, to leaving them behind for the classic shaken-not-stirred in Skyfall.

Vesper's betrayal of Bond is key to understanding the hardened-heart of this mostly mysterious character. Fleming's novel finishes with the line, "The bitch is dead." The film challenges Bond's simplistic summation of Vesper's motivations, leading directly to Quantum of Solace. It's Fleming for another era.

Casino Royale allows a moment to appreciate Bond in a tux, throws in both the modern Aston Martin DBS as well as the classic DB5, which debuted in Goldfinger forty years earlier. Quantum of Solace allows for several threads of continuity, making it the first cinematic sequel in the franchise’s history. But Fleming’s novels were filled with continuity – Bond is often recovering from one novel in the next, or a “Bond girl” might be hanging around in the next book, before he moves on to the next. And Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” is a direct sequel to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Skyfall ups the ante by introducing Q branch, Q and Miss Moneypenny – as well as an office for M, which I don’t think we’ve seen since the Brosnan movies.

The film also uses tidbits from Fleming’s obituary for James Bond to finally explore the character’s backstory – the death of Bond’s parents and an allusion to his troubled childhood and why orphans make the best agents. Writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – long time Bond writers and big Fleming fans – have dropped in just the right amount of classic Bond, while John Logan – new to the series – sculpts another revenge film. Yet unlike Bond seeking revenge in Quantum of Solace (or Licence to Kill or “You Only Live Twice”), this time it’s an ex-MI6 agent, the villainous Silva, seeking revenge for how he was so callously treated by Judi Dench’s M years earlier.

(Note: CR gave us Mr White; QOS gave us Dominic Greene; Skyfall gives us Raoul Silva. Fans have long talked about a return of Blofeld to the series, but are we being led along a colourful path to the return of Auric Goldfinger?)

After fifty years, there’s no doubt the James Bond series of films will outlive us all. The character is too iconic to fade away – and the audience seems to have as much fun with Skyfall’s allusions to the past, as it did with the brand new elements. The return of the classic DB5 and the joke about exploding pens seemed to excite as much as anything else in the film. 

The roles played by Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris are fully-fleshed out, bringing some extra resonance to the story right at the very end. And villain Raoul Silva is Fleming-esque for many reasons; firstly, the homoerotic tension with Bond and, later, the moment where he exposes his physical scars - as memorable as Doctor No's metal hands or Blofeld's syphilitic scars. Javier Bardem does an amazing job, especially as he faces off with Judi Dench's M.

And the film looks unlike any Bond film. Even Quantum of Solace, so gorgeously shot by director Marc Forster and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, isn’t quite as stunning as a film under the auspices of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins. The fight in Shanghai is beautifully choreographed and filmed. But the desolate moors of Scotland and the flame-filled finale are also exquisite.

The score is also a lovely combination of Thomas Newman and Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, as well as riffs from the Skyfall title song.

This is the third act in the re-imagining of James Bond, without forgetting about the past. The producers are being bold in their choices, much like Fleming often was. While the classic pieces have fallen into place, the film doesn’t quite fall into the formula of the pre-Craig films. In some ways, this story is more about M than Bond – and the villain gets a plausible revenge motive. Judi Dench gets to really sink her teeth into a role she's been playing for nearly twenty years - the last holdover from the Brosnan era.

Fleming’s novels didn’t always adhere to formula. “From Russia With Love” doesn’t feature Bond until halfway through the novel. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is told in first person, from the Bond girl’s point-of-view. And his short stories were often character studies, digging deeper into the Bond persona. While his family life was established in “You Only Live Twice,” his professional backstory comes out in the “For Your Eyes Only” and collection of shorts.

Skyfall deals a lot with death and resurrection. It looks unflinchingly at the past and reminds us that even though Bond is getting on (Craig is all of 45, but they’ve made him look older here), suffering from his time in the service and his premature death, that sometimes older and wiser is better. It’s hard not to see that as a comment on this series of films themselves; where the bold reboot injected a youth and vigour into the franchise, the regaining of classic iconography and elements has finally resurrected the Bond that has not only existed on the big screen for fifty years, but in print for nearly sixty.

The title song opens with the line, "This is the end..." But James Bond Will Return.

1 comment:

Mathew Guglielmi said...

Hi Keith, I really liked your analysis of Skyfall and the Bond franchise. It's made me want to read the Ian Fleming books and rewatch the Bond films (though I have not seen them all). I thought that the Connery and Lazenby films were great, the Roger Moore films were high camp (except for For Your Eyes Only), I liked the first Timothy Dalton film and the Pierce Brosnan films gradually declined in quality after GoldenEye. Bond's invisible car was the lowest point in the franchise. The Bond films have gone from strength to strength during the Daniel Craig era.