English author Ian Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952. It became an instant hit. Other bestsellers like From Russia, with Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger soon followed. In all, Fleming published 14 full length novels and nine short stories under the series. If the British Empire has lost much of its former glory, then Fleming’s flamboyant spy character promises to restore some of it with his snazzy handguns, tailored suits and wry sense of humor.
In 1961, Fleming sold the film rights to Eon Productions, owned by filmmakers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli. Since then, every Bond film has been made by the same studio. In the past 50 years, the film series has grossed nearly US$13 billion in total box office earnings (inflation adjusted), second only to the Harry Potter franchise. That the Broccolis have kept the film rights within the family and overseen the production of every installment has contributed to the series’ enduring success and lasting relevance.
That brings us to Skyfall, the latest Bond film that opened a month ago. With the memories of the universally scorned Quantum of Solace still fresh in our minds, Eon Productions this time went with a director with more weight: Oscar-winning Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition). And it worked. Skyfall is every bit as compelling as Casino Royale and comes close to Goldfinger, the gold standard of Bond films.
The movie opens with an elaborate chase scene in Istanbul, culminating in a hand-to-hand combat on top of a speeding train and ending in 007 being shot by another MI6 agent. Bond then falls – presumably to his death – into a raging river, which reminds me of the cathartic bridge jump in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. But that’s not the end of our spy hero. Bond soon resurrects to tackle villain Raoul Silva, an ex-MI6 spy who has stolen the names of undercover agents as part of an elaborate scheme to exact revenge on his ex-boss M. The movie is a cross between Mission Impossible (remember the stolen “NOC list”?) and the Batman franchise. Indeed, Mendes borrows heavily from Christopher Nolan who has reinvented the superhero genre by making his villains more contemplative, self-righteous and apocalyptic.
Back in 2005 when Daniel Craig was tapped to be the fifth generation James Bond, many questioned whether he could fill the role. But Craig has proven his critics wrong and is now hailed as the best Bond ever. What he lacks in good looks and hair, he more than makes up for in quiet confidence and depth. In Skyfall, his character shoots with poise, cuts himself up without a wince, and heck, he even walks into a girl’s shower without looking like a fool or a pervert! That alone makes him every man’s hero and every woman’s dream. Craig, now 44, can make at least two or even three more Bond films before he is too old is to do a chin-up. After all, Roger Moore was 57 when he made his last Bond film A View to Kill.
Other than Craig, Skyfall owes much of its success to a star-studded supporting cast. Spanish actor Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), one of the most talented character actors of our time, plays the diabolical and sexually ambiguous villain. His presence is large enough to maintain the tension throughout the movie but not too large to upstage Craig. Shakespearean actor Ben Wishaw (Perfume, Bright Star) plays quartermaster Q brilliantly. He lights up the screen and leaves the audience craving for more. French actress Bérénice Marlohe makes a dark femme fatale, although she isn’t as dynamic as Eva Green and her character dies too early in the movie. Last but not least, there is Dame Judi Dench, who portrays M with equal grit and vulnerability. Dench is one of the handful of actresses who can rival Meryl Streep in versatility and the number of Oscar nominations.
Skyfall is about an aging spy who goes back to the basics. It is about being old-fashioned without being old. It will go down in film history as one of the strongest entries in the Bond canon. My only gripe is that, even in this day and age, Asia is still portrayed by Hollywood with stereotypical exoticism. In Skyfall, Bond arrives in Macau and is taken by a bamboo raft to a floating casino in the middle of a lantern-lit lake before he tackles a pair of sumo wrestler-like hit men in a pit filled with man-eating lizards. That must have given Stanley Ho a few chuckles.