About ten minutes into the new James Bond film, I was already in love. Not because of the long, opening chase scene, which among its obligatory demolishment of fruit carts and motor vehicles, did feature one brilliantly iconic moment when Bond smartly straightens his cuffs after the narrowest of escapes. No, the moment I succumbed came shortly after the chase ended, during Daniel Kleinman’s splendid opening titles, as Adele sang the film’s title song. As the female sihouettes swirled into one another and Adele’s big, brassy, bravura voice asserted itself over the soaring strings and propulsive beat, I was transported into the heart of Bondlandia, where I was once again a 13-year-old fanboy, watching Maurice Binder’s sensuous opening titles, listening to Shirley Bassey’s dramatic, dominant voice, and waiting for Sean Connery to prowl onto the screen like a tuxedo-clad panther. From Skyfall’s early moments, director Sam Mendes showed that he had captured the essence of the signature Bond movies, and happily, for the next two hours plus, he never relinquished it.
The opening chase, the elaborate titles, the anthem—Mendes keeps these Bond movie traditions, and cannily lets others go. Unlike the films of the Connery and Roger Moore eras, the number of women in the film falls below regulation harem levels, and the most important female character is Bond’s boss, a stout, sharp-tongued civil servant who probably hasn’t been seduced since Brezhnev was in his heyday. Q is back, but Mendes shrewdly reinvents him as a young computer nerd who disdains the Hammacher Schlemmer-style exploding gadgets that were a signature feature of Desmond Llewelyn’s long, fusty tenure as Q. Other Bond indicia are firmly in place. The scriptural “Bond, James Bond’’ signature introduction flows in naturally, and the essential “shaken, not stirred’’ instruction receives a clever twist. The fanfare of John Barry’s “James Bond Theme", a brilliant brass and bass guitar-based totem of Swinging London, nudges into the picture a couple of times, but isn’t deployed in its entirety until fairly late in the film, when 007 takes the tarp off his still gleaming Aston-Martin and roars into the night.
Beyond these revisions, though, the film’s outright abandonment of certain 007 traditions is key to its success, giving us a New Model Bond that can endure into the future. In the early movies, Bond is suave, droll, unsentimental, a hedonistic assassin on her majesty’s secret service. He is, for the sixties, a thoroughly modern postwar man, more a product of meritocracy than aristocracy, more a connoisseur than a patriot, a globetrotting jet-setting executive efficiently servicing his accounts. In those early films, Bond was above all else supremely, unshakably confident. He was too confident in his abilities to ever really feel threatened, too confident in his sex appeal to really feel love, too confident in the superiority of his values to concern himself with murder and morality.
Daniel Craig’s Bond is different: He’s a tool, not a style. He is very confident, but mostly just about being able to stop the bad guy and then to kill him. In Casino Royale, he showed enough skill at poker to defeat a table of champion gamblers, but the range of his knowledge seems far more limited than that of some of his predecessors. It would be jarring, for example, if Craig’s Bond was to say, as Connery did in Goldfinger, that a certain brandy was a “thirty-year-old fins indifferently blended, sir, with an overdose of bons bois.” He is blanker slate, more laconic. On two occasions in Skyfall the filmmakers try to fill in his character by placing the Bond enterprise squarely in line with Crimea and Roarke’s Drift and the Somme and the Blitz, which evoke earlier traditions of loyalty and courage. As it happens, these are the virtues people call upon when confidence isn’t quite enough to carry the day.
The first of these moments comes in the scene where Bond meets Q in the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square in London. They are sitting on a bench, looking at a painting by J.M.W. Turner titled (perhaps by someone who was paid by the word) The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838. Fittingly, in a film in which the hero is depicted as wounded, aging and no longer up to the demands of his job, the painting captures the last short journey of the warship Temeraire, which as part of Nelson’s victorious fleet at Trafalgar, lashed itself to two French battleships and broadsided them to smithereens. It’s a melancholy painting, sad and definitely backward-looking, contemplating a moment of unrecoverable triumph. But Bond, still confident, doesn’t buy into the sentiment. In the scene, Q explicates the painting’s gloomy themes, then asks Bond what he sees. Bond, like a fist, points neither to long ago triumph or decay but to power, and replies, “A bloody big ship.” Young Q sees decrepitude; Bond sees 98 guns.
But as the movie progresses, we see that the reference to Temeraire may be directed less at Bond than at his boss, M, who has suffered some costly and embarrassing losses of agents and information. During a Parliamentary hearing, being second-guessed by a minister about her poor record, the stalwart M summons in her defense no less a personage than Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of the Victorian empire, bard of the Light Brigade. She quotes the immortal lines from his poem Ulysses:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
At that moment, it’s clear that Bond and M are in the same boat; one has a license to kill, the other gave it to him, and both are expendable. As a practical matter, this has not always worked out well. Bond, remember, began as a creature of the Cold War: the product of the under-gunned Britain holding out against the Nazi machine, an agent for the poor, post-imperial Britain that chose in its diminished state to stand against global communism. Confidence was virtually his only asset.
While he never stopped being British, Bond, like the Beatles and the miniskirt, became absorbed into American culture during the British invasion. Things got kind of mixed up. What is Dr. No, with its Caribbean Island studded with bikinied women and missile-backed madmen, if not a fevered projection of the American psyche circa 1962? And if the British Bond smashed the plans of Smersh, Blofeld and Goldfinger, there was a fair division of labor in which the CIA got to topple Mossadegh, Lumumba, Diem, Allende, and to put explosives in Castro’s cigars. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI-6 might have been speaking of the CIA when she said that “Bond is extremely well-trained but . . . he doesn’t seem to know where the boundaries lie.” Eventually it became clear that while the spooks still may have had confidence in themselves, nobody else did. Somewhere in there, in the midst of the Roger Moore era, after the sixties had stopped swinging and the Senate select committee hearings had adjourned, Bond stopped being an action hero and turned into a joke—winking, nudging, and out of date.
Standing in for the security establishment of two countries and four decades, M and Bond are aware of its failures and excesses. The setbacks they are suffering are the work of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a vengeful former agent who came to ruin in one of M’s necessarily cold-hearted business transactions. But M, and Bond, are unapologetic. There are bad people in the world—soon they’ll descend on that hearing room in Westminster—and somebody has to stand against them. Mistakes were made and will be made again, but that fear of failure, that risk of opportunistic criticism, cannot cause us to yield. This becomes the cause Bond serves, as a “fine example of British fortitude”, as M calls him.
The transformation in the character is amazing: Bond was once so confident that ethics were beside the point, because in the end the villain was dead, his secret base was burning and Bond was celebrating victory with an international sex symbol in some futuristic vehicle that comes equipped with champagne. But now in Skyfall, Bond is neither confident that he will win nor that the violence he’s paid to do is justified. It’s enough to know that the bad guy is pretty damn bad, and that stopping him, or at least trying to, can’t be wrong.
This brings Bond into the orbit of another tradition, this time a cinematic one. Recall that Dr. No debuted in 1962, the same year as the John Wayne western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Wayne played a version of the character he almost always played, a strong, silent hero who never looks for trouble until trouble looks for him. Such men were always capable of violence (with the motto, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead”, the Davy Crockett that Wayne played in The Alamo would have no trouble talking shop with 007), but were almost always slow to resort to violence. The Wayne heroes knew that starting violence is easy and that stopping it is hard, and that it always has a cost—on those who bear it, those who deliver it, and those innocents who are sucked into its orbit. Wayne played men who knew loss—frontiersmen who had lost family, cowboys who had lost sweethearts, soldiers who had lost comrades, men who had lost some of themselves. This gave them gravity, a heaviness that made them slow to react and more powerful once they punched. But early Bond was immune to the costs of violence; except in the underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he had no one he cared about, and it never bothered him to kill. And thus he had no gravity: style, yes, but no moral heft. With puns and bon mots he breezily punctuated one killing after another, and as Bond’s dapper assassin nudged aside Wayne’s somber heroes, his jocular style became the norm for action films, from the sardonic Dirty Harry, to fast-talking Beverly Hills cops, to the deadpan Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Bruce “Yippee-ki-yay, Motherf----r” Willis.
But the James Bond of Skyfall is no quipster. Before the opening credits roll, a brush with death delivers him a steel-jacketed message that violence has a cost, which for a while he ponders in drunken isolation. He is not looking for any more trouble, but when trouble comes looking for him, or at least someone he cares about, he returns. That early lesson about the costs of violence is regularly repeated, however, all the way to the climax of the film, when Bond, paralyzed by sorrow at the loss of someone important to him, silently confronts his own deep vulnerability. Fifty years after displacing John Wayne, Bond takes up a key element of Wayne’s persona. At the end of the film, 007 is sorrowful, wiser, but still a big bloody ship, still a-sail, resolved to strive and not to yield.