Though 007 himself tends to travel sans luggage, the cultural entity known as James Bond comes with a lot of baggage. Since Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s James Bond has been trying to grow up. With such a juvenile core concept, however, it’s almost impossible: asking Bond not to be a skirt-chasing, hard-drinking jerk is like pretending a wolf isn’t dangerous. But director Sam Mendes might have changed that forever, because this Bond outing feels like a real movie. James has been humanized again, because Mendes turns the world of 007 into a family drama.
Skyfall opens with Bond hot on the trail of some bad guys who have stolen a hard drive containing the identities of certain NATO agents. Bond and his partner, Eve, are tearing through the streets of Istanbul, resulting in a completely bonkers chase scene, complete with Bond riding his non-CG motorcycle over various rooftops. The chase eventually moves to a train, which of course has a backhoe/tractor thing attached to it, allowing Bond to drive it into the part of the train and tells the passengers he’s “just changing carriages.” Eventually the fight for the hard drive leads the combatants to the roof of the train, while Eve looks on with a sniper rifle. She can’t get a “clean shot” and worries she “might hit Bond.” From headquarters, M tells her to “take the bloody shot.” Eve shoots James by accident, sending 007 tumbling from the train and into a nearby river as Adele starts singing the opening theme song....
From this point forward, Skyfall begins messing with our conceptions of what a Bond movie could or should be. MI6 gets bombed. Bond is declared dead. M (Dame Judi Dench) is asked by government official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to retire. Adele sings, “this is the end” at the beginning of “Skyfall,” and it certainly feels like it.
Then the family drama begins: Bond is not dead, and shows up in England as if returning from a several-weeks-long drinking bender. As though a parent has betrayed him, Bond bitches M out a little bit about ordering Eve to take the shot which nearly killed him. Echoing the time he broke into M’s apartment in Casino Royale, the conversation between boss and agent is tersely maternal, from her end. M tells 007 he could use a shower and that he needs to find his own place to sleep because he’s “certainly not staying here.” The smoothest of secret agents looks terrible: he’s not clean-shaven, his eyes are bloodshot and his face is gaunt and hollow. His trigger finger isn’t so hot either, but M passes Bond on all of his tests despite the fact he’s technically not fit for active service. And then there's the odd fact that, during a word association exercise with an agency shrink, Bond becomes visibly furious over the mention of the word “skyfall.”
Eventually, Bond finds the mastermind at the center of a plot, which seems to be all about taking down the entire system of secret government bureaucracies and those employed by such shadowy organizations. While M is being informed that she’s obsolete by the British government, Bond’s new nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) is telling him the same thing. In a twist, which heightens the small family drama at the core of Skyfall, Silva is revealed to be a former agent of M’s, back when she used to manage intelligence in Hong Kong. But, at some point M sacrificed Silva in a deal in which she obtained the defection of different agents. Silva attempted to kill himself with a government-issued chemical compound, but didn’t die. After that, he became a super-bad guy. Strangely, Bond (using a basic radio given to him by a new Q) is able to have Silva captured pretty easily.
So, Silva is suddenly under MI6 custody, and any audience member who's even remotely paying attention knows that something's up. It’s not long until Q (Ben Whishaw) figures out that Silva had been planning to be caught and the entire plot is an elaborate way of allowing Silva to publicly kill M. As the plot becomes clear, M is standing before a board of inquiry defending the right of her and her organization to exist. There’s a nice meta-fictional aspect to the speech, as M is not only fighting for her and Bond’s jobs, but also sticking up for why a spy movie can still matter. Bond manages to find Silva just before he’s about to shoot M, though Mallory takes a bullet in the arm for her. At this point Bond is the good son, standing by M, while Silva is the fallen, abandoned child, out for revenge against his “mother.” (It doesn’t hurt that Javier Bardem refers to M as “mommy” over and over again.) James Bond decides that the solution to their current quandary is to take M under his personal protection, and they drive out in his classic Aston Martin. Bond tells M they’re going to go “back in time.”
“Skyfall” is revealed not to be a past mission or code word, but rather a place. Specifically, the estate where James Bond grew up, located somewhere in Scotland. Spooky fog surrounds Bond and M as they drive through the countryside. M refers vaguely to the death of Bond’s parents (in the books and previous movies, they died in a climbing accident, and there are a lot of mountains around this estate.) M muses that “orphans always made for the best agents." They know Silva will come for M, but Bond wants to stage the showdown on his terms, where they will have the advantage. The giant mansion of Bond’s youth is still being looked after by one man: a gamekeeper named Kincade, played by Albert Finney. Clearly, there is an intentional Sean Connery impression/homage going on here, particularly when, after blowing some bad guys away with a shotgun, Kincade says, “Welcome to Shhhcotland!”
The plan is simple: Bond, M, and Kincade will perform a Home Alone-style takedown of the bad guys as they enter the mansion. When Silva’s thugs arrive, the plan seems to work at first: it’s shotgun versus machine gun, home-made nail bombs versus grenades, and the good guys are actually turning the tide. Not to mention that the old Aston Martin still has those awesome machine guns from the Goldfinger-era, which come in handy. However, Silva eventually returns with a helicopter and even more firepower than before. Bond sends Kincade and M into a hidden tunnel that runs under the estate, leading to a chapel a good distance away. Then, in awesome James Bond fashion, he manages to take down the helicopter, causing it to crash into the house. In the middle of all of this M has taken a few shots, though we’re not told how badly she's injured.
Silva eventually catches up with M and Kincade in the chapel, where he holds a gun to his and M’s heads simultaneously, threatening to kill her with his own suicide. At the last second, Bond appears and kills Silva with a throwing knife. M sarcastically chastises Bond for taking too long to show up, and then reveals that she’s been fatally wounded, tragically dying in Bond’s arms.
Bond returns to England again, where his partner Eve reveals she’s taking a desk job, because she doesn’t want to be in the field anymore. She also tells Bond her last name: Moneypenny. Suddenly, James is in a very familiar room, with a coat rack and lacquered door reminiscent of the old MI6 offices from the Connery era. Eve/Moneypenny tells Bond that “he’ll see you now.” Bond enters the office of the new M, now Ralph Finnes, wearing an expression exactly like that of Bernard Lee’s M in the classic films. And just like that, 007 and M are back to saving the world.
Before heading into Skyfall, I made a little checklist for myself of all the things to watch out for in a Bond movie. You could think of it in terms of Bond Bingo, or a 007 drinking game. But briefly, here’s the list:
- Gun Barrel Opening
- Gadgets Introduced Early On/Used Later
- Woman Who Assists Bond Gets Killed
- Weird Fist Fight in Odd Location
- CIA Help
- Meaningless Sex
- Meaningful Sex
- Attempt at Social Commentary
- References to other Bond Movies
- “Bond, James Bond”
- Big setpiece for the big finale
- Crazy chase scene
Despite the sincerely emotional, unexpected dramatic focus this movie adopted, every single one of these Bond clichés was achieved, but mostly in ways I didn’t expect. Even when the Aston Martin was introduced towards the third act of the film, I didn’t expect it to have Sean Connery’s machine guns! Though Felix Leiter didn’t appear in the film, the CIA did help MI6 at one point. The gadgets in this movie are simple: a radio and a gun. But the nifty gun the new Q gives Bond can only be fired by him, which turns out to be a handy modification later on!
I could go on and on and nerd out about the various Bond shout-outs: the hall of mirrors set up by M in the finale references The Man With the Golden Gun. M’s calculating nature is a direct callback to GoldenEye, in which she’s called “the evil queen of numbers.” On and on and on. But the important thing here is that I didn’t see the death of M coming. I didn’t expect to care so much about what she meant to Bond and how, as an audience member, I would react to her death. At this point, Dame Judi Dench has been in seven James Bond films. Now, if you don’t count Never Say Never Again (which you shouldn’t) that’s MORE James Bond movies than Sean Connery appeared in, and makes her tied with Roger Moore! For nearly an entire decade, James Bond wasn’t defined just through Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig, but instead, the continuity provided by Judi Dench.
I think the screenwriters and Sam Mendes realized this with Skyfall. They decided to not only give Bond a strong dramatic story, but to really make the movie about M. There’s a great line towards the end when Bond asks her if she is okay and she quips about her pride because she’s “always been a lousy shot.” I like this because M acknowledges her agents—her children—are better at certain things than her. Her heartbreaking dying words express her happiness that she wasn’t wrong about the faith she placed in James Bond.
When you consider how many Bond films end with sexual innuendo, or bad puns, having this one conclude somberly with a man mourning the loss of a friend, boss, colleague, and quasi-family member makes you realize that you’re dealing with an entirely new kind of movie. And yet, smoothly, Mendes brings it all around to a complete reset of the Bond universe: We’ve got a new M, the old office, a new Moneypenny and a new Q. Just as Judi Dench tells the board of inquiry that she’ll “never yield,” Mendes is letting us know that this brand of espionage heroics will never go away, at least not entirely.
But these kinds of heroes will eventually grow up. And with Skyfall, James Bond has done just that.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com and a blond. He likes Daniel Craig for obvious reasons.