BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Hard to believe such a specific fantasy can maintain itself for 50 years, but secret agent “Bond, James Bond” returns, Aston Martin, shaken-not-stirred, twangy theme song and all. Skyfall, the 23rd official Bond film, makes a point of hitting every little cliché from the original series but this time it seems oddly fitting. With its apocalyptic showdown with the MI6 and an unexpected look at the roots of our trained killer, Skyfall feels like a final farewell to the character who has defined blockbuster action films over the last half century.
Bond comes back from the dead in this chapter (shades of You Only Live Twice) to help the MI6 track down an evil blond sissy hacker who is revealing the names of undercover agents (Bond versus Julian Assange!) It’s an hour before we meet the main villain Silva, but the mighty Javier Bardem quickly precedes to get all pervy, coming on sexually to the bound-up Bond. But Bond is not the prey Silva is after, he’s actually fixated on spymaster M (Judy Dench, who has been in the role since the Brosnan-era Goldeneye.) Silva is a classic “shadow character” of Bond; both Bond and the former agent Silva have reasons to mistrust the calculating M, a character that now more than ever seems to be a stand in for the United Kingdom. Bond refers to the Tennyson-quoting M as “Mum” and in this episode the Union Jack-clad British bulldog on M’s desk becomes an important totem between the two. In Bond’s battle with Silva, Bond is fighting his own feelings of distrust and doubt in the former empire he represents, a government that took him as an orphan and made him a hired assassin.
After the Sean Connery era, the Bond franchise has survived by incorporating the latest action film trends and blending them with contemporary politics. It seems like the Bourne series in particular continues its influence on the somewhat grittier action and hi-tech communication that is a part of the Craig trilogy. Bond is no longer winging it out there alone, through his headpiece he is often in conversation with the furrowed brows at MI6 headquarters, involving them in the moment-to-moment progress of his chase. This alone strips the role of some of its wish-fulfillment properties: who wants to be constantly surveilled by the Boss? Skyfall works in some other odd references too, including seeming nods to Silence of the Lambs and Jackie Chan’s Supercop. Yet despite the new trappings, Bond seems to end up in many of the same places: in posh black tie casinos, in toppling outdoor market stands, and of course, in coitus with beautiful strangers. (One icky moment has a woman admitting to Bond her past as a child sex slave. She next discovers the randy secret agent entering her shower while nude.) Skyfall may have Bond joining depressive and mopey heroes like The Dark Knight but he does it while still hitting all the beats one expects from the Bond franchise.
In fact, Daniel Craig has made noises that he might be through playing Bond and it is hard to over-estimate how much he is responsible for the surprising resurrection of what at the rime was an evermore lifeless character. Much like the Dr. Who reboot, Bond has stopped treating the casting of the series as a lark and instead boasts a cast worthy of performing Shakespeare. Skyfall feels like Craig’s valediction; after the slam-bang opening, we’re left with the craggy Craig playing Bond as an increasingly vulnerable old man in a young man’s game. Over the course of the film we see Bond past his prime and unfit for duty and by the film’s end we’ve delved deep into Bond’s origin story to find the root of his violent nature — and realize we’ve known surprisingly little about his past up to now . At the close of the film, the credits (as always) promise that “James Bond Will Return” but the character of Bond that Craig has created does seem to be at the end of his narrative thread. With Bond himself long being as unchanging as a sitcom premise, the Craig trilogy has done a fantastic job of bringing to life Bond adventures where the character actually has some skin in the game. As much as the public has embraced Craig, I’d love to see a new actor take over the character because one of Skyfall major strengths is it’s sense of closure; despite being presented an unnamed new case at the close, Bond’s character has seemed to arrive at a resolution. Maybe it is time to take seriously those test balloons that went up before hiring Craig, maybe it is finally time that we get shaken and stirred by a female or black Bond.