Spies and Superspies and SKYFALL

The latest entry into the longest running film series is history was superb.  I strongly recommend SKYFALL to anyone who shares my tastes in Bond films.

Being a penurious writer, and having four kids and zero babysitters, and being able to entertain myself much more cheaply with books, role-playing games, or any number of public domain books or films on the Internet, or stream content on Netflicks, it takes an extraordinary film to crowbar me out of my house and into the local gigamegahyperplex for the big screen experience, and to call the experience worth it.

SKYFALL was worth it.

That said, I cannot recommend the film to all James Bond fans. I can, however, recommend it to all fans of spy films and action films, and all those who are fans of any well-told story of any genre.

There was also a rather attractive Bond Girl in this episode, or two. I am a guy, and more shallow most, so to me, this is a selling point.

Let us stipulate that there are two threads or themes running through the James Bond films: one is the superspy film, and the other is the spy film.

On the one side is GOLDFINGER (the quintessential Bond film), THUNDERBALL, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER and DIE ANOTHER DAY, which, as I recall, starred an invisible spymobile which raced through a palace made of ice being melted by a spacebourn death ray operated by a Fu Manchu disguised as an Englishman.

But let us not allow the excesses of MOONRAKER or other lighthearted absurdities of the dark days of Roger Moore detract from the essential glamour of the formula defined by and perfected in GOLDFINGER: Bond is a superhero in a tux with a redhead on one elbow, a Vodka martini in his left hand, a Walther PPK in his right, and the accelerator pedal of an Aston-Martin sportscar tricked out with machinegun headlamps under his impeccably polished shoe, which either contains a switchblade or a telephone. This is the first thread: the superspy found in high class gambling casinos or exotic locations with a dead blonde found on his silk sheets fighting the sinister agents of SPECTRE, and international terrorist agency about as realistic as COBRA or KAOS or THRUSH.

This is the superspy film.

On the other side is FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, LICENSE TO KILL and the non-satirical remake of CASINO ROYALE. These have more in common with Jason Bourne than Napoleon Solo. Bond is a spy who is trapped in a rail carriage with a bigger, stronger enemy agent, both men awkwardly struggling to kill the other. The plot revolves not around masterminds planning to obliterate the earth with neurotoxins, but about something like a defecting agent, or a missing decryption box, or an embezzler desperate to restore the missing funds to his Soviet masters before they kill him.

The enemy is SMERSH (a real counterintelligence agency of the Red Army from 1943-1946) or some other more realistic villain, such as an international drug smuggler or arms dealer.

This is the spy film.

SKYFALL is a spy film. I cannot give even the briefest description of the plot without spoiling at least some surprises.

Nor will I say it is as good as GOLDFINGER, which, to my mind, is the definition of a Bond film, the yardstick to which the rest are compared. But I will say it is better than any film before or since.

A reviewer is beholden to mention his own preferences and prejudices when he gives his judgment. Forgive a short digression:

I am a fan of spy films and not as impressed with superspy films. In particular, I disliked MOONRAKER. Part of the danger of being a science fiction writer is that one becomes over-sensitive to  even minor scientific mistakes, such as, in MOONRAKER, a space shuttle being able to take off from the back of its jumbo jet carrier with dry tanks, eluding air traffic control, or all the troopers assaulting the space station just so happened, in zero-gee, all to have their heads pointing the same way, but they do not tilt their bodies to minimize the target presented the enemy fire (which considered of laser that were somehow visible in the vacuum.) And the plotline was some silly variation of Dr. Noah’s bacillus, a highly contagious germ, which, when distributed in the atmosphere, would make all women beautiful and destroy all men over 4’6″. Dr Noah (his name was actually Hugo Drax, which is just as bad) planned to wipe out all surface life. Jaws, the single most impressive henchmen of all Jamesbonddom returned in this film as a Herman Munster comedy relief character. I hated it.

Because of this, I was delighted when I saw it, lo, these many years ago, with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY,  the next film in the franchise, which concerned Russians and British spies hunting for a lost decryption machine from a down submarine, while dodging Greek Mafia. I still recall with awe the slow, but unromanticized  underwater fight scene between a bathysphere and a man in deep-sea diving armor, which ended suddenly (and horribly) when James Bond used a core sampling drill to piece the enemy’s faceplate. I also loved the car chase scene near the beginning of the film down the narrow and twisted mountain roads of Attica, and Bond is not in his tricked-out Triphibian Atomicar with laser periscope and folding Chitty-chitty-bang-bang style wings, but in some dinky VW Bug or something. He had to rely on his native wit and courage to escape.

I will also admit to a fondness for ON HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, staring the actor whose name is an instant trivia question, George Lazenby. This is because the Countess played by Diana Rigg was, in my opinion, the best of the Bond women and the only one who could hold her own with him, and could win his heart. That underrated film not only had the best outdoor chase scene that the film making technology of the time could perform, it is perhaps the only one which had plot that changed something permanent about the character of James Bond.

Now you know my likes and dislikes. End of digression. Back to talking about SKYFALL.

I can say without spoilers that James Bond is given more depth, more past, and a greater range of emotion to his character, similar to what was done in LICENSE TO KILL or ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. The action is not romanticized, and the unforgiving harshness of the war in the shadows played out by spies is emphasized.

Nonetheless, all the old and familiar elements of the James Bond formula make an appearance, even if only in cameo: in one scene Bond is in a tux, in a casino, seducing an absurdly gorgeous femme fatale to leading him to her mysterious boss, for example, and there is a komodo dragon in a pit underfoot.

But every element is given a slight twist, a new approach, a new take on the old material, which was clever and engaging.

More than one of the themes repeated in the film questioned the role that characters like Bond and M are supposed to play in the modern postcoldwar world. I was reminded of the second STAR TREK movie, the good one, where the theme of Captain Kirk’s encroaching age in his fitness for command was brought up.

The question is brought up more than once why, in the information age, when computers are practically omniscient, men are still needed in the field?

The film also gave Dame Judi Dench something to do as ‘M’ above and beyond the exposition monologue, which, in the television show MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was performed by a tape recorder.

SPOILERS BELOW! STOP READING NOW! GO SEE THE FILM FIRST! THEN COME BACK!

At the risk of spoiling your surprise, I’d like to describe the opening scene in the film, and make a comment about the last.

I will say first that the last scene in the film, the final confrontation between James Bond and the enemy agent reminded me strongly of Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS. Bond has no fancy array of gadgets at his command when the lonely old house on the moors of Scotland where he has been run to ground is approached by the enemy. He is outgunned and outnumbered and has to rely on improvised weapons, mother wit, and a crusty old groundskeeper with a hunting rifle. The scene is awesome. If you are expecting a big-budget spectacle fight scene between two men in atomic iceskates atop a melting glacier during the launch of a spacerocket, this is not it. If you want to see Bond fight his foe to the last grain of gunpowder, the last bullet, the last knife, this is it.

The firs t scene I want to describe merely as a teaser, to let you know what kind of film this is, and in what unexpected directions the plot goes.

The film opens without the expected view through a gunbarrel  of Bond turning and shooting the gunman, which I missed.

It does open with Bond entering a darkened room where two men are dead and the third is dying, his blood leaking out. Bond sees that the McGuffin, a disk drive containing the names of all operatives of all England’s NATO allies, is missing. Bond applies pressure to the wound of the dying man, hoping to stop the bleeding, and calls over the radio for backup. M orders him to leave the dying man and pursue the enemy. Reluctantly  Bond hands his hanky to the dying man, and puts the man’s hand over the wound as if in hopes that the semiconscious man can save his own life without help. Then Bond walks out. Without a word.

There, in the first ninety seconds of the film, is the gripping yet horrible theme of the spy business in miniature.

There follows the typical (and typically extraordinarily well filmed) car chases over the rooftops of Istanbul and fight on top of a speeding train in a tunnel with a steamshovel we might expect in a Bond film.

Then the unexpected happens. Bond’s fellow agent, Eve, is stationed on a hilltop overlooking the train tunnel with a sniper rifle in hand, waiting for Bond and the enemy agent to emerge from a tunnel onto a trestle. The train roars into view out of the tunnel mouth. Bond and the enemy are locked in a wrestling embrace. Eve reports to M that she does not have a clear shot. We see the sniper’s crosshairs slide shakily across the struggling faces of Bond and the foe. M tells the sniper to take the shot. The sniper hesitates. She was flirting with James a moment earlier, so maybe she is a little sweet on him, over and above the natural reluctance to put a fellow agent’s life in danger. This is also Eve’s first time in the field. M says in a voice like steel: “Take the bloody shot!”

Eve’s finger tightens on the trigger. Bang! A shot rings out.

And it is James Bond, not the enemy, who goes over the side of the train, off the trestle, and into the Bosporus.

M demands to know what happened. Dead silence hangs in the air a moment. Then Eve’s voice comes over the radio, only slightly shaky. “Agent down.”

Back in London, the day after M is typing up James Bond’s obituary, she is called before her civilian superior in the Ministry, told that the Prime Minister is very concerned about the recent lapses in her department, and ordered to put her affairs in order. “You’re firing me?!” M asks in cold incredulity.

With perfect (and perfectly English) icy geniality,  the Minister replies: “Not at all. You are going to volunteer to resign in two month’s time, whereupon you will be awarded the CMG*.”

To which he adds, without turning a hair, “Congratulations.”

He then tells her that she is to appear before a Parliamentary committee to answer for her lapse of judgment and mismanagement. The failure in Istanbul, the death of an agent, has consequences.

I lack the superlatives of even my overabundant vocabulary to describe this film. I will settle by calling it fantastic.

If that word does not do, you tell me the last time you saw a Bond film where 007 was shot to death in the opening intro, not a duplicate like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE or a deception like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, but because a fellow agent was inexperienced and missed the moving target, the mission is botched, and M gets told she is being fired when the political fallout hits the fan.

You tell me the last time you saw a Bond film with a real honest-to-Bond plot, and the plot kept you engaged and kept you guessing. Got a Bond film in mind? This one does it better.

*FOOTNOTE: Not being English, nor familiar with their acronyms, I misremembered this line of dialog. It was not the MNOG, the Most Noble Order of the Garter, M was being offered. It was the CMG, the Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, the highest honor given to civil servants after a long and distinguished career. A reader has brought the error to my attention.

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