Old Dog, New Tricks: Skyfall and the Reconstruction of Bond

Note: this article discusses Skyfall in detail and contains spoilers.

The Daniel Craig James Bond films have yet to include a gunbarrel sequence proper. Casino Royale includes it as part of its pre-credits scene; Quantum of Solace and Skyfall place it at the end of the film. In all three cases, the reconfiguring of this art design-turned-cinematic ritual plays as a comment on the character and, more importantly, the franchise.

Skyfall

In Casino, the gunbarrel is integrated into the story itself – a clever twist where we see the hapless victim of Bond’s attack. It caps a “Bond, pre-double O” prologue, as if to say with this first mission complete, Bond is now James Bond, 007, licensed to kill.

For Quantum, the sequence appears at the end of the film, tweaking the tradition on several layers. First, Quantum can be viewed as an extension of its predecessor, and its gunbarrel-less cold open emphasizes this sense of continuation. More importantly, it acts as a sort of commentary on the film itself; the bulk of the adventure finds 007 working off Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the absence of the gunbarrel at the movie’s opening implies this isn’t an “official” mission. (Never mind that Bond has gone off duty plenty of times before in the franchise.) In this regard, moving the gunbarrel to the makes it a punchline to the epilogue, in which M welcomes back her top agent, to which he replies, “I never left.” Cue the gunbarrel and a wink that says even when he’s off duty, he’s still 007.

With Casino and Quantum acting as a two-part series reboot, the gunbarrel at the end of the latter also suggests Bond isn’t really our Bond, the one we’ve known for decades, until he gets all this first-adventure stuff out of the way. But that’s a reading I prefer to place instead on Skyfall. Assuming the gunbarrel-at-the-end isn’t merely a new standard for the franchise (and I sincerely hope it’s not; the sequence as a film starter is one of cinema’s greatest rituals, on par with the Star Wars crawl and the Hitchcock cameo, and there’s an almost religious aspect to it that feels blasphemous to permanently relocate it), we can read it as a mark of the Craig era finally completing its reboot. Only now, at the end of the film, with all the familiar pieces finally back in place, can we truly welcome Craig as 007.

(I could, of course, be completely overanalyzing everything, and maybe Sam Mendes just moved it for aesthetic reasons. Don’t ruin this for me.)

What’s most fascinating about Skyfall in terms of its place within the franchise is just how hard it works to move us into the past, when the series has spent decades trying to push 007 into the future. This series has always changed with the times in almost all regards, attempting to stay ahead not just in technology and politics but in character and tone, yet here’s a film that effectively strips away so much of what the Brosnan and Craig years have built in order to return us, in a sense, to early Connery, right down to M’s padded door and Moneypenny’s retro dress. (It turns out Bond wasn’t quipping when he tells M they’re going “back in time.”) Indeed, if Quantum is a deconstruction of the Bond genre, Skyfall is its reconstruction.

And so we get a new Moneypenny, a new Q, and eventually a new M, but none of those are brought about casually. Before we can get Moneypenny bantering with Bond outside M’s office, we get to see her hard in action as a worthy field agent, albeit one who “killed” 007. Before we can get Q griping to Bond about returning the equipment in one piece, we get to see him joking about exploding pens being passé. And before we get Ralph Fiennes as an upper crust M of the Bernard Lee variety, we need to kill off the old M, closing a trilogy that went deeper into the Bond/M relationship than the old movies ever dared.

That’s the New Bond, suddenly rich in its character study. Of course you’re going to give M more to do if you’ve cast someone of Judi Dench’s caliber, but the Craig films have elevated the character into something more. With Skyfall exploring the connection M has not only with Bond but with all her agents, past and present, we can now view all three Craig movies as a trilogy in which M struggles to groom Bond – especially in light of her final words (“…at least I got one thing right”). The interplay between Craig and Dench is more than the snarky spy/beleaguered boss routine. There’s something deeper (Silva’s maternal obsession isn’t too far off the mark), more complicated, and the films take their time exploring these corners. (Sure, the baddie may be fabulously over-the-top, but even here we get depth, a genuine sense of a past and a motive beyond the usual Bond villain megalomania.)

Skyfall keeps pulling us back and back, demolishing the modern MI-6, killing the modern M, until we’re in the new/old M’s office, as if everything in the Craig era was a set-up to get us to 1962. The end of Skyfall could very well be the beginning of Dr. No, which is the perfect capper for a movie obsessed with “the old ways.” Skyfall repeatedly goes out of its way to paint Bond as an old man in a young man’s game, which is odd at first, since this is only Craig’s third Bond film and the actor is merely 44 years old, but it ultimately works in the film’s favor. Craig may be young but the character is too much of an institution to be viewed as fresh, even after reboots and stylistic upgrades. So why not celebrate the old-fashioned-ness of 007?

Compare that to the scene in Goldeneye when Dench’s M brings up Bond’s antiquated nature as a means of diffusing criticisms that the franchise is past its prime. That’s a great bit of self-effacing cleverness, to be sure, but it’s also rather defensive, and Skyfall would rather take the offense.

The film eventually strips away everything, even the reinvented sidekicks it just gave us and the Aston Martin it pulled out of storage, until it’s just Bond alone in a dusty old house, no computers, no gadgets, just some old folks and a hunting rifle. Then, in the epilogue, it starts anew, setting us up the chicest of retro chic, as if to remind us times may change, rival franchises may come and go, but Bond will always return, as reliable as a hunting knife in the villain’s spine.

Sometimes the old ways are the best.

Even the theme song is old school.

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