Nov 9 2012 12:30pm

License to Kill, Tenderly: Spoiler Review of Skyfall

License to Kill, Tenderly: A spoiler review of Skyfall

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
  • Poker
  • Drinking
  • CIA Help
  • Meaningless Sex
  • Meaningful Sex
  • Attempt at Social Commentary
  • References to other Bond Movies
  • “Bond, James Bond”
  • Puns/One-Liners
  • 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 and a blond. He likes Daniel Craig for obvious reasons.

1. Hatgirl
Whereas my reaction to the ending was "Ugh. They fridged M"
*sigh* Everything even vaguely interesting about the series has been wiped away. The boss is a serious bloke-in-a-suit again, and those pesky women folk are back to doing lady-appropriate-jobs like typing. Good grief.
Ryan Britt
2. ryancbritt
@1 Hatgirl
Fair point. Though I'm really doubting the new Moneypenny will be stuck behind that desk. She was just too damn awesome.

I suppose I have to agree with you that it SUCKS Judi Dench is gone. If Moneypenny doesn't get in on the action in the next one, I bet I'll find myself agreeing with you more. :-)
Terence Tidler
3. libertariansoldier
Baccarat, maybe, but except for the Texas Hold'em game in the latest Casino Royale, when has he played poker?
alastair chadwin
4. a-j
For me, the best thing about this film was the pacing. From Goldeneye onwards the Bond films have been frenetic, fearing losing audience interest if they pause the action for more than about five minutes. Skyfall remembers that Bond films are thrillers, not action films and returns to that mode. The most suspenseful scene for me was Silva and Bond's first meeting which involves someone walking across a floor while someone else sits in a chair.
According to Mendes, they did briefly consider asking Connery to play Kincaid, but decided it wouldn't work.
Hatgirl@1 - I was more alarmed at the treatment of the Bond girl who gets killed, a character sketched in so lightly that I can't even remember her name with a horrendous personal history but who falls into Bond's arms within a hour or so of meeting him and then dies without anyone particularly noting the fact shortly afterwards.
alastair chadwin
5. a-j
I don't think that M was fridged. As I understand it, fridging is when an established female character is unexpectedly killed off for no other reason than to give a male character something to emote about.
That is not what happens here. M's departure is signposted from early on in the film and is built up to throughout. I liked it as a farewell to the character and a better way to reset the films to the '60s template than having her resign or be sacked. Here she fights.
Agree somewhat with you about Moneypenny though. I suppose it can be argued that she choses a desk job rather than having to do so because of her gender, but it did feel slightly odd.
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
I think that it's a rather nice way to say farewell to Dame Judi Dench's "M". It gives a sense of closure to the character, which the franchise didn't get when Bernard Lee passed on between movies. (Sooner or later Dame Judi would have done that, too.) It sets up some continuity for the next film, too.

The thing that kind of puzzled me a little is how this movie relates to the others in terms of continuity. Between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, Bond seems to have gone from wet-behind-the-ears newbie to aged warhorse ready for retirement. It's like they shoehorned all the other Bond movies in between the two, and Craig suddenly gets Connery's Aston Martin dropped into his backstory. What the heck, it's just a show, I should really just relax.
Chris Meadows
7. Robotech_Master
Oh, and another thought. The whole thing about how Q says they don't do "exploding pen" gadgets anymore. It's kind of an interesting then and now moment. Back in the old days, part of the point of spy movies was the gadgets. But now we all carry gadgets in our pockets that would make any sixties spy green with envy. In the theater before it started, I saw half a dozen smartphones in the hands of the audience, and not being used for making phone calls either.

We're a whole culture of James Bonds now. Small wonder they've de-emphasized the gadgetry. It doesn't have the novelty value anymore.
alastair chadwin
8. a-j
According to an interview, Sam Mendes stated that a decision was made to ignore the last two films. This is essentially another reboot thus the return to the '60s look at the end and the gunbarrel sequence at the end rather than the beginning. Interesting to note that none of the Craig Bonds have had the gunbarrel opening.
Brian R
9. Mayhem

Yeah, Casino Royale & QoS were pretty much a back to basics prequel of the series, starting everyone over again from scratch.
This one can't follow on from that, because that doesn't fit the kind of story they wanted to tell. The story here is one of history, of actions coming back to haunt you and of past sins revisited.
And the reset at the end is perfect - it now means the next film comes with no baggage - it is a clean slate that could slot in anywhere in the series.
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
I like my Bond to have humor, girls, martinis, and baccarat. I know that isn't politically correct. I don't care.
Ian Gazzotti
11. Atrus
This is the first Bond movie I've seen since the days of Sean Connery (I just couldn't take Brosnan seriously in the role) and I loved it. Humour, action sequences, the vaguest of spy plots, and a nod to both the '60s and modern sensibilities. We all chuckled when the super hi-tech gun was chucked away and forgotten after 10 minutes, while the minuscule radio was (apparently) what saved the day. And again, we cheered at the return of the Aston Martin, only to laugh again at M's "Well, I guess that is completely inconspicuous."

There were only two things that made me raise my eyebrows:
- Super young smart genius Q, one of the supposed greatest hackers of the planet, physically connects an enemy laptop to the internal network of the MI6. With two cables. I understand they had to push the plot along but come on, even my non-techie friends noticed it.
- The "I saved her only to watch her die"/"moral victory" trope: it's a perfect fit thematically but I've never been a huge fan of it. If your goal is to save M and M dies, I see little difference whether it was how the killer intended it or not.
Sanctume Spiritstone
12. Sanctume
I'm not a hardcore James Bond fan, but do watch movies, and did watch Skyfall and enjoyed it.

Regarding the old Aston Martin, I vaguely remember that and I think Sean Connery drove it. I did get the reference to the ejector seat, and perhaps have seen such gimmicks from other spy movies / spy comedies. The machine gun too.

That Kinkade guy, I thought it was George R R Martin (author Games of Thrones). That "look," the hat, and beard.

I do like M's speech about enemies are shadows that do not belong to a country anymore.
13. SelaCarsen
DH and I noted that this was a movie in which Bond failed at every mission. He lost the hard drive at the beginning. The nameless Bond girl died. And he failed to save M.
And yet the entire film felt like such a successful *beginning* to a true, deep James Bond character that I'm perfectly happy to accede those losses in the face of a fresh start. Well done!
14. FossMaNo1
The Bond Girl died? I don't recall that. I recal Silva shooting at her, then her flinching and dropping the shot glass, then Silva declaring his victory in the little competition. I then remember Bond going all ninja and wiping the floor with everyonce and capturing Silva with choppers overhead.

The girl died?
16. jdkchem
That was no sniper rifle chief.
Charley McCue
17. Kansan52
For me, it wasn't a failure when M dies, she was out no matter what and goes out her way, fighting.

The big success is the continuation of human agents. A UAV with a rocket destroys intelligence, it doesn't gather it.
18. SKM
@1, unfortunately, Judi Dench has become nearly blind (she has to have others read her lines to her and memorize them that way) and is in the process of retiring from acting. She was going to be gone after this film regardless (although a female replacement for her would have been cool, too), so I give the filmmakers credit for at least giving her one hell of a send-off.
Sol Foster
19. colomon
@FossMaNo1, while the film didn't make it explicit or linger over it, I thought it definitely implied that Silva deliberately shot the girl rather than the shot glass.
Michael Catapano
20. hoping
Nice review, thanks.
In the movie, the stag was standing at the gate and the lawn, not so green.
I saw the movie last night with my wife, a huge bond fan. I thought it was OK but a bit slow in the middle.
Rob Munnelly
21. RobMRobM
@14, 19 - yes, Silva shot the girl in the head, thereby reinforcing the trope that smoking is hazardous to one's health.
22. missallen
Coming into this a bit late: Judi Dench has been a fantastic, flinty M during her tenure, but I had heard about her encroaching blindness and am so very sorry to see her go.
Javier Bardem is one of the best actors on the planet and I loved his psycho creepy Silva. He literally made my skin crawl in a couple of scenes. I'm only sorry Silva died, cause he would have been great as a recurring character ala Blofeld.
Ralph Fiennes as M? Oi. First Hannibel Lecter, then Voldemort and now a good-guy! Looked fine with a gun in his hand though, although I kept wanting him to pull out a wand...
James is a big boy now -- I am personally amazed of how much I have switched from my mild dislike of Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (Blonde Bond?!) to admiring the physicality and subtle acting ability that Craig brings to this role. Well done, all. Well done.
23. Hatgirl
Well, as of this month Judi Dench has no intention of retiring any time soon. And while she does have an eye condition that makes reading scripts tricky (dry macular degeneration) she is not "going blind" as the news reports claimed.

I'm not narked because Judi Dench isn't going to be in the Bond films anymore, I'm narked because her death was written purely to make the main male character sad. If she had died heroically dragging children out of a burning building or, even better, retired to the Caribbean with her husband to live smugly ever after (but of course they bumped him off pre-Skyfall) I'd be OK with it. But she was murdered so that Bond could avenge her death and then shed a manly tear over her corpse.

And if she had been replaced by a woman... or Q replaced by a woman... or anything other than the only female character being a secretary who had Bond mansplain to her that she was a crap shot who should be kept out of the field for the safety of everyone concerned...

No amount of dramatic Scottish scenery can make up for the
institutionalised misogyny in this film.
24. The Unreal One
Hi All,

for me the themes of family, loss, helplessness, being obsolete, fighting or a place in the world, having some value attributed to you and meaning to your efforts were great. I can't think of anymore....but what it meant was that for the first time I was drawn to the characters and story unlike many of the previous films. I love the connery, lazenby and many of the brosnan films but they are more action and knowing that Bond will win. I didn't doubt that bond would live but M's death surprised me. I will genuinely miss her, where I couldn't have cared of Bernard Lee was there or not. Judi Dench's character meant something and wasn't just used to expound the plot. I learned that people diing or the threat of them diing is not what makes a great film (I have the view that they used this device over and over again to build tension in many of the other films - sadly even Sean's - and it is a like a one trick pony). I am not after something new - just something that is meaningful. (I was disappoointed at the Green Lantern film - not because of the special effects or the actors but because it wasn't meaningful. they say the next one will be more gritty and hard hitting and violent. A BIG NO to that, not needed, just make it worth something and make us care about the characters) Anyway, suffering loss, growing, facing deep issues and overcoming, excellent/meaningful dialogue that has purpose, a great plot and characters that are not cookie cutter versions of each other even though they are fighting for a common goal is very satisfying. I would have loved M to live in Skyfall. I hope that they continue to use the other characters fully and not just focus on Bond - I know, I know but in just about all the films we were faced with the same guy - couldn't be beaten in a fight and would always have a gadget and funny line to get out of trouble - ho hum boring mostly. A real guy in a real film = great. I hope Spectre is just as good, here's hoiping as the screenwriters are the same three guys.

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