It’s no wonder Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening show at the London Olympics featured a scene in which Daniel Craig’s James Bond jumped from an airplane along with Queen Elizabeth. For just as those ceremonies finally and for all time sealed Great Britain’s journey from the nation of the stiff upper lip to one that dances in merry lockstep with the rationed beat of its National Health Service, this brand-new Bond movie takes one of the few genuine British cultural icons of the postwar period and turns him into a poor little orphan boy with substance-abuse problems, resistance to authority, and mommy issues.
Skyfall is intermittently a terrific Bond film featuring several key elements from the series’s 50-year history: It has gorgeously crazy chase sequences, a criminal’s island lair, a sexy model who can’t act slinking around a casino, and a querulous relationship between the field agent who won’t play by the rules and the starchy intelligence service that knows it needs him but is annoyed nonetheless. The brooding and authoritative Daniel Craig again proves himself the most compelling Bond since Sean Connery and, in some respects, even Connery’s superior. But because it was directed by an Oscar winner (Sam Mendes of the dreadful American Beauty) and co-written by a Tony Award winner (John Logan of Red), Skyfall cannot simply be wild, outrageous fun as Bond movies are at their best. Instead, it must Tell Us Something about what makes a man like Bond tick.
What makes James Bond tick? Who cares? A psychological backstory was entirely unnecessary when Ian Fleming invented Bond in the 1950s and Sean Connery played him in the ’60s. It was simply assumed that Bond was a man who had been toughened and hardened by unimaginably difficult wartime experiences and by years of fighting the Soviets in a new kind of war with few rules.
I remember being awestruck as a teenager by Fleming’s description of Bond evading torture by holding his breath long enough to make himself pass out. Though I have no idea whether such a thing is even humanly possible, Fleming had come up with an unforgettable way of conveying the kind of supernatural self-discipline that would have to accompany the “license to kill” Bond was granted—with only six others preceding him, as the “007” indicated.
That self-discipline is exactly what made it acceptable, even thrilling, for Bond to indulge himself with women and booze and gambling. In the first place, he was never doing it out of mere sybaritic fancy; there was almost always a mission involved (except at the very end, after he’d saved the world and gotten himself a few days of R&R). In the second, he certainly deserved to indulge himself as others surely did not, given how frequently he was called upon to save the world.
Daniel Craig’s Bond may share the same name as Sean Connery’s, but he is of course far too young to have served in World War II; his only wartime experience would have been the Falklands, and that doesn’t have the same oomph. (If the series lasts another 20 years, maybe Daniel Radcliffe or some other very young British actor could play Bond as a veteran of Basra or Helmand.) Instead, it turns out that he was made for the life of a secret agent because his parents died when he was young. Therefore, he came to see MI6 as a family substitute, and its leader, M, as his mother.
This would have been impossible for Connery or George Lazenby or Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton, of course, as the part of M was played by a man in their pictures. But the Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig movies have featured the great Judi Dench playing M, so there you go: a perfect opportunity for a bit of nonsense that would have seemed risible even back when people still believed in reductive Freudianism.
I hate to say it, but this half-accomplished, half-pretentious movie even concludes (cease reading if you don’t want spoilers about the setting) with Bond essentially returning to the womb—a hidden tunnel, or “priest hole,” at his ancestral Scotland home to which he would retreat for safety as a boy and in which he saves himself by reentering as a man.
The film’s climax isn’t set in a hollowed--out volcano, as in You Only Live Twice, or a hollowed-out mountain, as in Diamonds Are Forever, or a space station, as in Moonraker—fashionable facilities featuring thousands of people in kooky costumes shuffling about while a disembodied voice counts down the seconds until the world is to blow up. It takes place in the middle of the night, in the dark, in the tiny stone chapel where Bond was baptized. And there are only three people present. And Bond cries.