The two main problems with Casino Royale were that it's damn difficult to make an accessible thriller about the unavoidably static environment of a card game, and also that the writers of had the wrong idea of how to make Bond "serious" in the first place. After twenty films of varying levels of quality and ridiculousness, I understand the reasoning behind trying to make a grittier 007, especially since the genre has been parodied so often already. But in the case of Casino Royale, the filmmakers' idea of how to make Bond more realistic was to excise much of the humour of the old-school films, and add more angst. As an origin story for the character we see in Skyfall, it works. As a Bond film, it was slick but not very much fun.
I'm honestly surprised by how excellent Skyfall turned out to be. I'd heard good things, but the concept of a well-written Bond film with nuanced characterisation hadn't even occurred to me. The phrase "best Bond ever" comes to mind, although it's probably unfair to compare a lightweight post-war spy movie with a big-budget thriller made in 2012. This was a smarter, more modern Bond that still gelled perfectly with the legacy of the series as a whole. Rather than going for the "any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic" gadgetry of the Pierce Brosnan era, the cyber-terrorism plot of Skyfall forced Bond back into his original role as a blunt instrument. And yes, Skyfall is a movie that manages to use the term "cyber-terrorism" in a non-embarrassing fashion. Who even knew that was possible?
Low-tech Bond was an inspired idea, with 007 being handed a gun and a radio at the beginning of the movie and resorting to DIY seige warfare by the end. It all fit together impressively well with the cerebral nature of Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva, a villain whose power lies in his ability to hack into spy satellites but who is eventually defeated by the deliciously medieval method of a knife to the back. Not only did this brutal, low-tech theme make for entertaining viewing, but it made the character of James Bond necessary.
There's always a certain level of disbelief-suspension required when you're watching a Bond movie, because what the hell is up with a secret agent who walks directly up to the enemy and introduces himself with his real name on every single mission? But in the case of Skyfall, we have a story that's all about the importance of real, ground-level agents -- both in the sense that MI6 is fighting against growing popular opinion that they're an outdated force in a world of ephemeral cyber-terrorism, and in the more specific sense of Bond proving his worth as a field agent.
In many ways, Daniel Craig is the closest we've got to Ian Fleming's Bond since the 1960s. Fleming's Bond was ruthless and very much a product of WWII, and I'm fascinated by the way he's changed and evolved over the decades. Sean Connery is the most canonically similar, primarily because his films had some chronological overlap with the novels. Roger Moore was the silly, lightweight Bond, George Lazenby never really got a chance, and Timothy Dalton was darker and more introspective. Then came Pierce Brosnan, a slick '90s charmer who specialised in industrial espionage and dressed like a businessman.
It seems weird to say that Skyfall has given us the "best" characterisation of Bond since the character is so malleable and often superficial, but while watching Skyfall I couldn't help but feel that this was a film that had really thought about who Bond would be in the world we live in today.
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time you've probably noticed that my #1 goal in life is to ruin everyone's fun by complaining about poor female representation in movies. Well, James Bond is the one instance where you'll actually hear me express a desire to restrict the role of female characters. More specifically, I don't want a Bond Girl to come within ten miles of making 007 "fall in love".
The Bond franchise is notorious for its treatment of women as disposable sex-objects, but Casino Royale's solution to this problem never really sat right with me. As a semi-reboot of the series, Casino Royale began with a softer Bond, allowing him to develop deeper feelings for Vesper Lynd than earlier Bonds had for their love interests. But although Vesper was considerably more three-dimensional than most previous Bond Girls, I could never really get onboard with her and Bond's relationship. Rather than making Bond more interesting by showing that he's emotionally vulnerable, Casino Royale just reminded me of all the annoying movies I'd seen (I'm looking at you, Christopher Nolan Batman franchise) where female characters are only there to be killed off so the male lead can feel some feelings
Skyfall is the first time I've been satisfied by a Bond movie both as a feminist, and as a fan. The female characters are more interesting and well-written than ever before, and when it comes to Bond's attitude to women, Daniel Craig's characterisation is impeccable. He may be sexist, but the movie itself isn't, which is always an important distinction to make.
I'll go into more detail about the female characters themselves in a separate post, but for now I'll just say the way Daniel Craig's Bond treated Eve and Sévérine was a very clever mixture of old-school Ian Fleming 007, and a realistic portrayal of how a professional of Bond's calibre would act in 2012. One thing I really enjoyed was the flirty back-and-forth between Eve and Bond, which was a great modernisation of Cold War-era Bond's interactions with the many female agents he encountered. Eve is demonstrably a cool and fun person, and Bond clearly respects her and recognises her as a kindred spirit while still being very subtly protective of her. One thing all the iterations of 007 have in common is their rather condescending attitude towards their love interests, but in this case it really worked for me.
I doubt that Bond would ever say to a male agent: "Being out in the field; it's not for everyone," because even in the 21st century he still secretly thinks that women need protecting more than men do, and he's generally just more emotionally open to women. But at the same time, he knew that Eve would be better off as a desk agent in the long run because although she's adventurous and tough and capable, she isn't a fucked-up murderer like Bond.
Ten years ago, Eve's transition from badass field agent to Miss Moneypenny would have come across as a sexist tale of Bond safely putting a woman back in the office and out of harm's way, but in Skyfall this was her choice. Eve Moneypenny is awesome, but Daniel Craig's Bond is a stone cold bastard, and he knows it. The reason why Skyfall succeeded where Casino Royale failed is because rather than going out of its way to be "gritty", Skyfall shows the balance between the danger and importance of Bond's job, and how much enjoys it. Daniel Craig's Bond, like the original Ian Fleming character, is an alcoholic womaniser who will cheerfully headbutt you in the face, laugh, and then murder a room full of people for queen and country. And the writers of Skyfall managed to put that character in an incredibly high-stakes situation and allow him some believably humanising emotional leeway in the form of his relationship with M.
Part 2: The new Bond Girls.
Part 3: The Costumes.