[SPOILER ALERT: There are details from the most recent Bond film and from many of the others in the following essay]
To say I a fan of the James Bond film franchise would be an understatement of monumental proportions. I LOVE this series, which I think surpasses the Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings series and rivals the Godfather series for cinematic panache and style.
This weekend I saw the third best Bond film ever made. This may seem like faint praise at first but you need to remember that the series spans 50 years (JFK was President when Dr. No came out!) and 23 installments. There have been 6 actors who have portrayed Commander James Bond of Her Majesty’s Secret Service agency MI6 and all of them have had their good points and their bad. I will spare you an assessment of all the men and their particular failings and accomplishments, but I can safely say that the three best Bonds were played by Pierce Brosnan, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, in that order. Each man has a film in the franchise that defines Bond and their take on the character. This series of Blogs will be a countdown of sorts and I will reveal the Best Bond Film of all time this time next week. Tonight I’ll start with the most recent and the freshest in my mind, at #3 on my list but number 23 in the series:
Daniel Craig has never been the sort of Bond one could easily imagine cracking wise or playing around with Q’s inane and awesome gadgets, but as Bond Craig brings a dignity and a professionalism that makes him the most believable of all the Bonds as an actual intelligence agent. If there is sometime too much Bourne in this Bond it is because Craig is so naturally gifted physically and his dynamic power comes out most remarkable when he is in action.
Take the scene at the secret casino island in Macau. Bond arrives by boat but he is far to wired up and on edge to even take a seat on the small boat. When he hops onto the dock he is immediately all business and makes sure he has all his escape routes planned with his fellow agent Eve. With this done a self-assured smirk appears on his face, Craig’s physical trademark as the character of Bond. The night’s events lead to a drink with a beautiful and haunted prostitute, a vodka martini, and a fight with three henchmen that descends into a pit of Komodo Dragons. It is to the credit of the director, Sam Mendes and of Craig himself that the scene is never at any point over the top in a distracting way. As with the scenes later with the famous Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5, there is a endearing kitsch to the Komodo sequence that both reminds us of the Bond heritage and embraces that heritage as part of the “new look” of Bond. Back to the Future indeed.
A great Bond film often has a great Bond villein and Javier Bardem could not be better as Silva. He chews the scenery politely and with a napkin placed on his lap. The best Bind villeins steal every scene they are in and Silva is no exception to that rule. In one scene we find the former British agent turned hacker attacking Bond’s compound with a helicopter that is blaring a song I will not spoil for you here. Needless to say it is both hilarious and chilling. Bardem is constantly grinning throughout the film but not in a patronizing way: he is having a blast and wants the audience to know it every step of the way. And on an awesome side-note no one has more convincingly pulled off a homoerotic sequence with Bond then does Bardem here. All of their scenes together crackling with kinetic, erotic, and dramatic tension.
All of the supporting actors here are brilliant and well cast (I especially liked the gorgeous and compelling Naimie Harris as Eve and the always superlative Ralph Fiennes as Intelligence Director Mallory) but Judi Dench is far and away the best acted character in the entire film. M has always been an under-explored character but this time we finally get some insight into what it is like to be the only person given the power and the burden of controlling Great Britain’s greatest intelligent asset: James Bond. Dench as M is no nonsense but she is not above letting Bond do what he needs to to get the job done. She is by far the least squeamish character in the film and the most pragmatic. We find this out when it is revealed that Silva is actually the “old Bond” i.e. the agent who came before the current 007. M sold him out to the Chinese in exchange for 6 valuable intelligence assets. It was a good trade in a national security sense, and secured her promotion to the head of M16, but it lead to Silva’s festering hatred and macabre almost Oedipal obsession with her. Their last scene together is the stuff of film legend and is a fitting culmination of M’s character arc. Dame Dench deserves yet another nomination for this role.
The film making on display in Skyfall is perhaps the best reason why this film works the way it does. Casino Royale was a good outing, but it was slow in parts and featured too many scenes in the Casino and the hotel and not nearly enough of the compelling and tragic villein Le Chiffre. The real problem with the Craig films up until Skyfall has been the editing and direction. Casino Royale looked gorgeous and could be amazingly exciting at time but it had a far to static and cosmetic a look most of the time and one got the feeling that the characters were walking about on a giant Grande Tour of Europe administered by PBS’ Rick Steves. There are scenes in the film where the camera does not move except to cut from one character to the next for nearly 5 minutes at a time. That is just a failing of screenplay writing and cinematographic imagination: with so much to use and so many great actors to use it Casiono Royale is often filled with moments when you catch yourself saying “is this really worth all the trouble?”.
Quantum of Solace is another problem entirely. It is almost as though the cinematography was done by a commercial photographer for SAAB and the editing by a caffeinated 19 year old film student. The beginning car chase sequence is the worst opening of any Bond film, and that is saying something for a franchise that prides itself on opening sequences. I honestly did not know where to look on the screen and around the 6th hairpin suicide turn on the cliff I had lost interest and had taken a handful of aspirin for the visual whiplash I was suffering. Fortunately the film did get a bit better: Olga Kurylenko is fun and interesting and drop dead gorgeous as a Bond girl with a really twisted past but the film goes nowhere with her story and ends up with a cliched conclusion to her arc. Craig is almost nowhere to be seen in this film: he is wasted in action sequence upon action sequence and he never really gets to have a break. The one scene that works in the film is where 007 is being tracked by his own MI6 employers and he must escape a hotel while also carrying on a conversation with M. It is Craig and Dench’s acting chops that make this scene work and it is the only time in the film where it seems like the director and his cameramen seemed to know what they were trying to communicate.
I admit to being a skeptic about Daniel Craig when it was first announced he would be taking over from my favorite Bond, Pierce Brosnan. That skepticism has now abated but I stand by my assertion that Brosnan was the best Bond. Not the best actor or the best looking, but the best Bond. Craig is often too serious and a trifle too good-looking: he on occasion upstages the amazingly sexy women he is with! He also does not quite look the part of Bond either. Say what you will but James Bond is NOT a blonde. All that being said Daniel Craig is much better than the non-entity George Lazenby, the almost-but-not-quite Timothy Dalton and the utter embarrassment of Roger Moore (with the exception of Live and Let Die). Craig may not be the best Bond, but he is certainly talented and charming enough to bring Bond into the 21st Century. Skyfall is easily the best Bond film of the past 20 years or so and I do not think it will be topped until the next actor takes over for Bond presumably in the early 2020’s.
NEXT WEEK: The 2nd Best Bond Film of All Time and my discussion of the Greatest Bond: Pierce Brosnan.