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The countdown concludes: Skyfall

Only a fool fights in a burning house.

Well… was it worth the wait?

I can’t speak for you of course, I can only offer my own opinion.  And if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d encourage you to bookmark this, close the window and come back later.  Skyfall is a movie loaded with surprises, and it would be a shame to spoil any of them for you.  Go on then, go check it out.  I’ll be here when you get back.

When MGM was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2010, it looked for Bond fans as though we might be in for a repeat of the long dark night of the early 90’s.  Those whose appetites were left wanting by Quantum of Solace were forced to grapple with the notion that it could possibly be the last one for a long time.  But as has happened before, events for 007 had a way of working themselves out, and this case, very much for the better.  The most inspired stroke was the hiring of director Sam Mendes, a veteran of the British theatre whose first movie American Beauty had secured Academy Awards for Best Picture, actor Kevin Spacey, screenwriter Alan Ball and of course himself as Best Director.  Mendes had followed up on this achievement with the visually captivating Road to Perdition, which featured in its star-studded cast an up-and-comer at the time named Daniel Craig.  Mendes’ name got the A-list to sit up and take notice, and so for Skyfall, instead of the usual roster of capable if mostly unknown performers, we have the most pedigreed assemblage of genuine movie stars to ever take part in a Bond adventure; actors who would likely have turned up their noses in decades past.  And Mendes gets everyone to give their absolute all – there is no phoning it in, no dodgy line delivery, no short-shorted twenty-year-olds trying to explain nuclear physics phonetically.  It’s critical because Skyfall is a story, like the best of the stage, that depends on great acting.  It is not a battle for the fate of the world – it’s a struggle for the life of one very important person.

As the movie opens, Bond and junior field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are struggling to clean up an operation gone bad in Istanbul, where a gun-for-hire named Patrice (Ola Rapace) has murdered several British agents and made off with a hard drive that contains a list of every embedded NATO agent in every terrorist cell across the entire world.  The mission goes truly awry when on orders from M (Judi Dench), Eve shoots and appears to accidentally kill Bond.  Patrice escapes, and M is hauled on the carpet by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the bureaucratic chairman of the British intelligence service.  His government is convinced that the kind of human intelligence that MI6 represents is no longer needed in the absence of clearly defined enemies like those of the Cold War.  Returning to the office, M receives a mysterious transmission telling her to “think on your sins” and watches helplessly as MI6’s London headquarters explodes, killing several of her operatives.  A very much alive Bond, who has used his presumed death to disappear to a remote part of the world and has become addicted to painkillers and drink, finds out about the attack and decides to return to service, although he is a worn out shell of the specimen he once was.  Despite failing his physical and mental readiness tests, Bond is sent by M to Shanghai to follow up on the location of Patrice.  It’s there that Bond meets the beautiful yet emotionally scarred Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who reluctantly leads him to her employer – Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent (and former “favourite” of M) who was abandoned to torture after his identity was compromised, now living only for vengeance against “mommy.”  Although he cannot save Sévérine, Bond is successful in capturing Silva and returning him to London, thanks to a revolutionary gadget supplied by the young Q (Ben Whishaw) called a “radio.”  However, the capture of Silva seems to be a component of the villain’s master plan, which sees him promptly escape custody and go after M as she is attending a government hearing on her competency as head of MI6.  Bond realizes he needs a home field advantage, and so absconds with M to Skyfall Lodge, his empty childhood home in cold, rural Scotland, which is still being tended by gruff but lovable gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney).  Armed with only a handful of hunting rifles, Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 and a good helping of ingenuity, Bond, M and Kincade stand off against Silva and his men in a final brutal showdown which sees everything Bond believes in tested one final time, and his world changed forever – ironically bringing him back after a three-movie arc to where James Bond 007 as we know him truly begins.

In reviewing the preceding 24 Bond films over the last month, the trend that has emerged most strongly for me is the struggle to maintain balance between spectacle and substance; to ensure that along with the dessert goes a healthy but not too plodding serving of meat and potatoes.  The problem is that the eye candy is diverting, but we need a compelling reason to care about what’s going on in front of us, apart from just thinking that James Bond is cool and we don’t want him to die.  In Skyfall, as befits the CV of Sam Mendes, the stakes have never been more personal or more emotional for James Bond – you know going in you’re not going to get the downright stupid antics of A View to a Kill or even the mind-numbing kill-a-thon of Tomorrow Never Dies.  And the story is crafted by screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (their 007 swan song, apparently) and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Star Trek Nemesis) to move away from mechanics and big machines – the villain as a mere extension of evil technology – to hinging on the consequences of personal choices.  In fact, the McGuffin of the stolen hard drive is more or less forgotten about by the middle of the second act, but by that point we realize it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme, because we care more about the people than the plot.

My own Bond girl observed to me that she was most impressed by the calibre of acting this time around, that there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch, and she’s correct.  Fiennes gets to dial it down a notch after finally escaping from Voldemort purgatory to portray a public servant struggling with the demands of accountability to a public (and a government) that sees the world in black and white and his recognition of the world of shadows within which M and MI6 operate.  Finney, with whom working was apparently an unfulfilled lifelong ambition of the late Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, is wonderful as the cranky old Scotsman who raised Bond after the death of his parents, and his chemistry with Judi Dench provides a gentle human contrast to the pyrotechnics of the final act.  Harris is a flirty and fun companion to Bond, and their relationship, which consists largely of verbal sparring (and one close shave) is clearly never going to progress to Vesper Lynd levels, but the reason why makes perfect sense as the movie draws to a close.  I don’t have the words to capture even a fragment of Bérénice Marlohe’s exotic, soul-shattering looks, but her Sévérine is a classic tragic Bond girl in the tradition of the Ian Fleming novels, her inner wounds elevating her from vampy, dragon-manicured femme fatale to a richly rounded human being, whose only failing is she isn’t on screen long enough for my liking – although perhaps that’s just my hormones talking.  The competing spy series XXX tried to introduce the idea of a young gadget-master in the vein of Q, but wound up with an unfunny scenery-chewing hack; Whishaw shows how to do it right, with low-key self-awareness that never veers into the smug smartassed techno-geekery that would make you want to punch him.  He is, like the other supporting players, the perfect foil for 007.

But Skyfall is the trifecta of performances that form its sad emotional core – the mother and her two sons.  Raoul Silva is perhaps the most unique Bond villain in decades; a former agent, once dedicated to the cause, who has suffered tremendously and is now driven and remorseless – his own kind of blunt instrument.  Yet Silva is also flamboyant and colourful in a way that none of 007’s foes have been in recent memory, prone to fits of tortured laughter as he struggles to hold himself against the insanity that boils beneath the surface, the inner physicality ravaged by a failed cyanide capsule, keeping himself together long enough to complete his mission of vengeance against M, a woman for whom he once held tremendous feelings of loyalty and the love one would have for a mother.  Particularly telling is his final confrontation with her, when he notices that she is wounded and still finds it within himself to care about her pain – seeking, at the end, to free them both from it.  As the audience we too feel sympathy for Silva despite his acts of terrorism; we cannot fully condemn the path he has chosen, as much as we don’t want to see him win.  With his complex and layered performance here, by turns charming and skin-crawlingly creepy, Javier Bardem has set a bar for James Bond villains as high as that achieved by Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and one does not envy the task awaiting the next actor or actress who must don this imposing mantle.

When Judi Dench was first cast as M for Goldeneye, it was a novelty – here was the world’s most famously sexist spy taking orders from a woman for a change.  The filmmakers quickly wised to the capabilities of the actress they had enlisted for this previously inconsequential role and beefed up M’s contributions from film to film.  The World is Not Enough was the first real attempt to expand the role of M, but like the rats so frequently mentioned by Silva in this movie, it only scratched very tenuously at her surface.  Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace recognized the maternal aspect of M and began to subtly play up this new angle, but in Skyfall that metaphor is the crux of the movie:  M is the leading lady this time.  It is Bond’s loyalty to her that brings him back to her side over the cynicism and disillusionment he feels, inasmuch as it is Silva’s loyalty to her that lies at the heart of his feelings of betrayal.  However, M’s loyalty has always been to the mission – the greater good of queen and country – and Bond’s and Silva’s inability to comprehend that the devotion shown to them is not personal leads both men to choose radically different paths; only one on the side of the angels.  Dench is magnificent as this most inscrutable of mothers, who clearly cares about the agents whose careers she has nurtured but fights to keep that sentimentality under control, and is filled with regret for the decisions she’s had to make that have gone against the mother’s instinct to protect her children.  Does M’s gender make her a better intelligence chief or a lesser one?  Skyfall seems to suggest that despite the predictable harsh consequences to a woman’s soul, it favours the former – M’s final confession to Bond being the proof.

Famous actors who have allegedly turned down the role of James Bond have described him by turns as boring, frivolous or simply immoral.  I would argue that Bond is in fact one of the deepest, most fascinatingly ambiguous characters on the silver screen, and with Skyfall, Daniel Craig has finally nailed him.  If in Casino Royale he was figuring himself out, and if in Quantum of Solace he was simply angry, Craig is confident enough here to play Bond torn apart – almost literally by bullets – and reassembled piece by shattered piece, emerging at the end as James Bond in all his classic glory and ready for new adventures bold.  Craig asked for more humour in the script this time, and Bond is much quicker with his wit than he has been for a while, with Craig surprisingly deft with a clever, well-written wisecrack after having seemingly cemented himself as the brooding man’s James Bond.  His Bond is also refreshingly less than superhuman, his strength failing and his marksmanship suffering, with sheer determination and adrenaline making up for what his skills lack.  The “old ways” which come so sharply into focus in the finale are in fact the only way to defeat a techno-genius like Silva, much as one needs a Daniel Craig in comfortable, fighting form to share the screen with a performer like Javier Bardem and not be completely blown off it.  If any doubts yet remained, Daniel Craig is James Bond for our generation, and the last two or three people left in the world who don’t agree can frankly suck it.

Skyfall is such a sumptuous feast of a 007 movie that I could probably go on for paragraphs more in dissecting its every precious component and why it is such a triumph, but rather than risking the old tl;dr, I have to make at least a brief mention of the cinematography of Roger Deakins, which is the most polished and gorgeous photographic work seen in a Bond movie likely ever.  Whether it’s in the neon flash of the lights of Shanghai, the bleak moors of Scotland or simply making Bérénice Marlohe look like a goddess made flesh, Deakins crafts a sublime palette for the story to unfold upon.  It’s been suggested that he should receive an Oscar nomination for his work here and I heartily agree.  I also want to note the welcome return of Daniel Kleinman to the position of main titles designer after the boring one-off that was MK12’s contribution to Quantum of Solace – Kleinman has always treated the titles as a chance to advance the story through abstract, artful imagery instead of just a “commercial break” with random silhouetted women gyrating in shadows, and he backs Adele’s haunting theme song with a sequence that plays almost like a graphic journey into the depth of Bond’s soul.  And last but not least, everlasting gratitude to Sam Mendes and second unit director Alexander Witt for holding the camera still.  My eyeballs thank you, and my stomach thanks you.

So that’s it, and after a month of journeying through the highs and lows of 50 years of movies I’m saying goodbye to James Bond for now.  I may have further reflections at a future time, once the memory of Skyfall has firmly entrenched itself in my brain and whether my opinion evolves upon further viewings.  Since we started this voyage back in the middle of October, the world has tumbled onward and given me plenty of new things to write about, and it’s time to get on with that.  As the new M tells Bond at the end of the movie, there’s plenty of work to do, and as Bond replies in turn, it’s my pleasure.

Cue the explosive horns and electric guitar of the James Bond theme.  Over and out.

The charms of James Bond’s Vesper

“Once you’ve tasted it, it’s all you want to drink.”

“I had never tasted anything so cool and clean.  They made me feel civilized.”  Ernest Hemingway on martinis, in A Farewell to Arms

Sitting here this morning listening to Adele’s new Skyfall theme song – a definite callback to the heady days of Shirley Bassey after the well-meaning but ill-advised collaboration that was Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die” for Quantum of Solace – it’s a struggle to encapsulate in less than several thousand long-winded words exactly the impact James Bond has had on my life, how he has been a reliable friend in darker times and something of a model for far more men than just I as what exactly it is to be a man.  I can admit that Ian Fleming is probably the third in the holy trinity of writers who have helped me forge my own style, along with Gene Roddenberry and Aaron Sorkin – less in the overall philosophical approach of the latter two but more in how to shape narrative, twist one’s plots and compel readers to turn pages.  But enough about all that.  It’s James Bond Day and it’s an occasion to celebrate literature and cinema’s most enduring secret agent.  Today I’m veering away from the usual heavy stuff and talking about drinks.  In particular, James Bond’s drink of choice:  the Vesper martini.  As originally described in the Casino Royale novel, to be served in a deep champagne goblet:

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I love martinis.  They are a drink of sophistication and elegance – with a martini glass in your hand it’s natural to find yourself standing a little straighter, feeling a suaveness surging through your veins.  Perhaps they even brace you with enough confidence to approach the voluptuous brunette in the slinky dress at the end of the bar who might just be a Russian agent.  The effort to prepare the martini just right, as opposed to say, simply pouring a scotch over some ice, only adds to its charm.  Admittedly, the definition has gotten a bit fuzzy as they’ve become more popular, to the point where simply putting anything in the right glass is considered a “martini.”  But even though I might enjoy the diversion of a chocolate or berry martini from time to time, when it comes to the martini experience in its purest form, you have to go back to something like the Vesper. 

Ingredients for the perfect Vesper are not as easily found as you might think, making the experience of one a rare sensory pleasure.  The first wrinkle in the ointment is the Kina Lillet.  Lillet is not vermouth, it is what’s called an aperitif wine.  Kina Lillet, unfortunately, isn’t made anymore.  The substitute is Lillet Blanc, and even that can be tricky, but not impossible to track down.  The fortunate thing about it is unless you are planning on having two or three of these daily, one Lillet bottle should last a good while.  Your choice of gin and vodka matter also – I’ve read that the process of manufacturing them has changed somewhat since Ian Fleming’s time, and that the typical Gordon’s or Smirnoff/Stoli/whatever else available commercially are not as strong as they would have been in 1953.  The impact for me seems to be largely in the vodka.  80 proof is the strongest you can purchase in Canada, so I’ve made it a point to stop in at the duty free whenever we’re vacationing across the border and pick up the 100 proof blue-label Smirnoff.  I have noticed, and those I’ve served it to have commented also, that the stronger vodka seems to cut the intensity of the gin somewhat and make for a smoother drink.  Above all, it’s critical that the mixture remain ice cold – a warm Vesper can taste a little bit like lighter fluid.  I find it helps a little to pre-chill the glasses, then pack the shaker with as much ice as it can reasonably handle before adding the ingredients and shaking away.  If one measure as described above = one shot, you will usually have enough to serve two completed drinks (depending how you pour) and don’t forget the critical slice of lemon peel.  Or, you can try the Felix Leiter variation from the movie:  “Bring me one as well, keep the fruit.”  I find that the citrus oils from the freshly sliced lemon are a nice accent though, and after all, the best way to enjoy a Vesper is just the way Bond ordered it.

The quote accompanying the photo is accurate – the Vesper spoils you, it’s that good.  Next to it, appletinis and crantinis and other varieties of fruitinis might as well be watered-down Kool-Aid.  The Vesper is more than a drink; it’s a statement, a marking of one’s territory as a man of refined taste, someone who can cut through the superficial and home in on the richness of life lurking beneath the surface distractions.  There is a world-weariness to James Bond the character – he is essentially a contradiction of a man who is cynical about civilization but still finds it within himself to fight for his ideals of good versus evil.  In his reflective moments, Vesper in hand, the potent potion trickling through his bloodstream, he may find himself questioning the point of it all – why fight on, why continue posing as St. George, when there will always be another bad guy – another dragon – around the next corner?  It is in the fight itself that the resolve of one’s character is proven, win or lose, and like it or not, Bond is not Bond without that fight.  Nor are we.  (See, I can’t escape the philosophical stuff even when I try.)

Happy 50th James Bond – have a Vesper on me.