So, I’ll say it, I love Daniel Craig as James Bond.

I really do.  I find his portrayal to be quite good, I like that he started out very vincible, and has shown weakness and diversity of plots against him.  His villains range from excellent (Mr. Bardem, if you’re nasty) to meh (Baron McWater from Quantum of Solace).  He has a great physicality in the role, and although he isn’t the most charming Bond, he is the Bond who is the biggest dick.

Which is important, I think, to the character.  Over the course of the last four movies, he has been with a half dozen women after the “love of his life” was drowned in that elevator in Casino Royale.  The entirety of the series is composed of improbably named women being seduced or having their consent ignored by James Bond.  I like the idea of a Bond who isn’t the hero.  He does heroic things, but he is also a morally ambiguous dick, who invades countries and causes a great deal of havoc.  He’s a human drone strike, causing PR nightmares for MI:6.

I mean, do you remember the two kills to become a 00 agent at the beginning of Casino Royale?  Let’s watch.

That is a hell of an introduction for a character.  Casino Royale re-imagined the context of the character as well, with international media and constant surveillance revealing that he invaded an embassy in the fight directly following that, not to mention executing a bomb maker on camera.

So, I really like his portrayal of the character, but interestingly, I found the last two movies to be an amazing contrast, creating a weird tension.  I want to analyze why I think Skyfall works, and Spectre doesn’t.

Let’s talk about formula, Bond Style

Opening Scene, sort of related to the main plot.  Usually takes place in a foreign country, starts quiet, someone meeting someone, transfer of information, something goes wrong, Badumbabah, Bond shows up, recovers the Macguffin or watches it slip away.

Sexy opening credits, involving whatever photoshop filters are currently in vouge.

M meets with Bond, tells him that he screwed something up, assigns him to figure out what is going on.

(Older Films) Q!  Let’s watch a guy with a bagpipe machine gun shoot a dummy!

(Newer Films) Q! Let’s show off the car and any critical plot armor needed for getting through this thing.

Villian introduction.  Bond, James Bond.  Meet the muscle. Introduction of main plot, but through ancillary conversation topic or clue.

Somebody tries to off Bond. Mini action scene.

Bond captured, “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, I expect you to die.” Escape, usually using Q gadget.

Big action scene.  Downloading bar ticking down or Bomb Countdown.  Last minute save. Bond gets the girl.

James Bond will Return.

Skyfall and the Adaptation of Formula

Formula is important.  It’s maybe the most important feature of a James Bond movie, because the only reason that it is a James Bond movie is because of the formula.  Here’s a fun game.  Tell me one thing about James Bond, the character, that isn’t about clothing, wealth, or material goods.

He’s an orphan?  He… kills people?  He… likes having sex with married women?

See, James isn’t a character.  He’s a suit.  The point is to not have someone specific to fill the suit.  An actor could play literally any version of James Bond and it would be an appropriate James Bond, because the formula is rock solid.  Roger Moore spent his entire run playing him as a goofy clown, and that’s a totally legitimate acting choice.  You could have a sociopath James Bond, a charming James Bond, or anything in between.  There is probably a really good James Bond as villain interpretation, where he’s the agent of oppression for the government.

This is why the trappings of James Bond are so important.  We name them as Bond nouns.  Bond Girl, Bond Car, Bond Watch, Bond Gun, or Bond Suit. These are elements of the formula.

Skyfall messes with the formula in an interesting way.  We start off with our initial action scene.  James Bond is chasing a list of every embedded agent in the world.  It’s being stolen by a guy.  Bond and a female agent discover their source dead, and run into the chase. James seems to be doing his thing, until he and the guy with the list end up on top of a train, where M orders the female agent to shoot at Bond to try to recover the disk.

That’s crazy! James is already out of pocket, he’s been shot, and he’s not going to pop back up to talk to the woman who ordered him shot, over the radio he could hear.  We have paid off a deeply held relationship, and Judi Dench has betrayed him.  Our next picture of Bond is out of pocket, in some kind of expat island paradise, and he only gets involved in the plot after MI6 comes under direct attack.  Instead of showing up for a briefing at the office, he breaks into her house, and confronts her directly.

M is also off balance, being put through the ringer by Ralph Fiennes, and getting a threatening message directed at her personally.  The message directly refers to her sins, and using the shrapnel in Bond’s shoulder, they figure out together that there is a connection to the guy in the cold open in Shanghai. Q gives him a gun and a radio, talking about how they don’t believe in exploding pens anymore.

Subversion of formula.  We’re given straightforward devices for the escape.  We’re given a clear goal, find this guy and see who he sold the disk to. M is not all powerful, she has superiors who are worried about her department, and it requires her direct intervention for Bond to be allowed to get involved. The shape is the same, but the details are very different.

We go to Shanghai, get a cool ascent of the elevators, implying more weakness and damage to Bond, and Bond watches as the assassin kills his target, before fighting the assassin.  Bond messes up and throws the guy off the roof, but gets lucky when he sees a chip that leads him to a casino in Macao.

First, this is a kick ass little way to display the power of the opponent.  The other people in the room are in on the assassination. Bond makes a mistake and almost screws the whole thing up.  He ends up on his last clue, not really knowing who the villain is.  Usually, by this time, they’ve had their first interaction, but Skyfall wants the villain’s main relationship to be with M.

The chip gets him to the casino and gets him a hefty payout, where he approaches the Bond girl of the movie, who was involved in the assassination earlier.  He asks her to lead him to the man who is pulling the strings, and is taken to one of the coolest weirdest villain lairs in the series, a ghost village of completed skyscrapers on an island.  Bond is taken captive and we meet our villain.

Javier Bardem destroys.  He slays.  He plays Silva with the same kind of smarm that comes off James with sexual tension and superiority as a shield.  The whole scene of their interrogation is electric.  They are playing off each other incredibly well, and you just want to see what happens. Bardem takes James outside and kills the Bond Girl, but Bond overpowers his guards and takes him back to the UK.

Bardem confronts M and Bond, revealing that he was an agent for MI:6 and that M abandoned him.  He attempted to use a cyanide capsule to kill himself, but he’s now locked up in the basement of MI:6.  Meanwhile, Q plugs his laptop into the mainframe computer, M goes to a major meeting and Bardem escapes by hacking the gibson.  It’s the fourth time in so many years that the villain got captured so that they can cause havoc from the inside.  This is the weakest part of the movie to me, but it still works because Bardem is so good.  Then, we have an underground chase scene, where Bardem drops a subway train on Bond.  It’s dumb.

Bardem tries to kill M, but Bond saves her, steals his unchipped Aston Martin, and drives it up to his childhood home.  Instead of a big blow out firefight, we’re treated to an outmatched force of three: M, Bond and the groundskeeper of his mansion.  They are against Bardem and his goons.  The stakes keep getting lower and lower through the movie.  We’ve gone all the way down to Bardem’s problems with M.  Eventually, Bardem is killed by Bond and M dies to her wounds.

It is great!  Something changes in the universe! M is dead and Judi Dench is a badass! We get Eve Moneypenny and the new M, and then the movie is over.

The formula is blown up.  Bond didn’t complete his mission, he failed, and yet, his dedication to it was rewarded.  It’s an awesome little conclusion, and it really gives weight to the series, but it’s because the formula was varied from in the slightest ways that it is a really effective movie.

Spectre or Learning the Wrong Lessons

Skyfall was going to be hard to follow up no matter what movie you do.  My personal head canon was filled with an older, wiser Bond.  Putting him into a training capacity to teach M’s style.  When his training group is attacked, he’s called back to action, and MI:5 starts tracing him.  The MI:5 agent who is concerned about Bond’s tendency to get into difficult situations is assigned to work with him, but actually to keep watch over him.  By the end of the movie, the older, slower, wiser Bond has taught a bunch to the MI:5 agent, and gets killed.  The MI:5 agent takes up the mantle of James Bond, becomes 007, and kills the villain.  It’s a pretty great head movie.

That’s not what we got.  Which is okay.  I’m going to spoil this movie a bit, so if you want to see it, here is my review.  It’s okay.  It’s got some cool stuff, and some dumb stuff.  The plot is bananas foster levels of who the fuck knows what is going on, but the action is pretty effective, especially the opening scene, which is visually awesome.

So, SPOILER ALERT for SPECTRE.

Spectre starts with a kick ass action scene.  Bond and a guy in a white suit play cat and mouse in Mexico city during the Day of the Dead.  It’s great, and you should just watch it.  It’s pretty damn effective, and shows how confident Bond is, with some great transitions from place to place.  And a helicopter fight too!

Then, we go right into the formula.  007 was doing his thing in Mexico City against the orders of MI:6 and that makes New M grumpy.  New M is working around Moriarty from the Sherlock series who wants to create a gigantic database for tracking EVERYONE and CANCEL THE DOUBLE 0 PROGRAM, BUT I AM NOT A BAD GUY, EVEN THOUGH MY CASTING, MANNERISMS AND EVERYTHING ELSE SCREAMS BAD GUY WORKING WITH BAD GUYS.  This really is the biggest flaw of the film.

James goes to Q, who injects him with NANOTRACKERS, OF THE FUTURE, and then is convinced to disable them for 48 hours.  He also gets an explosive watch, which directly contradicts the scene from the last movie about exploding pens.  But hey, whatever, right?

Bond then goes to find the widow of the man he killed in the opener at her husbands funeral.  Bond hits on her at his funeral. He then saves her from two assassins and bones her to find out where the largest meeting of the evil organization that he believes is real because M told him to follow the assassin if anything happened to her, from beyond the grave!

So, we go to the conference meeting of the damned, and a shadowy figure shows up.  Drax the Destroyer kills a guy using his metal thumbnails of death, and then head of evil talks over a microphone directly to James Bond.

James runs away, gets in his car and has a car chase exposition scene with Moneypenny, chased by Drax the Destroyer.  He crashes the Aston Martin, and goes to see Mr. White, who was an assassin in another movie.

Mr. White has a daughter who he is protecting, and also cancer, so he gives James her location, leading to a pretty insane plane v car chase, with Bond using the plane to fight cars and save her.  He saves her and they go to a hotel in North Africa, where they find Mr. White’s secret stash of guns and tracking of the villain.

M, Q, and Moneypenny are trying to help him out, but can’t, because ROBERT IAMNOTABADGUY is now in charge. So, Bond and Bond Girl (New Love Of His Life Mix) head down solo style, on a train.  There is an attempted murder, they kill Drax with kegs on a chain, and this gets them all hot and bothered and they bone.

They end up being picked up by a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, in a lovely bit of old English stuff porn, and ride across the desert to a huge crater filled with satellite dishes and observatories.  They freshen up in their seperate rooms, where there are personal pictures inside.

It turns out that the bad guy is Blofeld, who in this movie, is revealed to be JAMES BOND’S BROTHER THROUGH ADOPTION WHO KILLED HIS FATHER FOR LIKING JAMES. Seriously.

I don’t know either.

James is strapped to a chair with a drill bearing down on the parts of his brain that recognizes faces, and because he is in love with the girl after the four days that they have spent together, she freaks out.  He whispers about the watch to her, and they make a break for it.

He kills a bunch of people and destroys the whole place.  Then he steals a helicopter, which he successfully flies away.

They end up back in London, preparing to attack MORIARTY EVIL in the building that reminds me of the Triskelion from The Winter Solider, but they are rammed by a car and James Bond is kidnapped.  He is led to the former MI:6 headquarters which was blown up in the last movie, and he follows a bunch of detonation wires to a room with bulletproof glass where Blofeld is waiting for him.  They have a chat, revealing that the Bond Girl was kidnapped and put into the building, and that bond has 3 minutes to get clear or die while saving her.  M throws MORIARTY VILLAIN off the top of the building and kills him.

Blofeld gets into his chopper and watches as the counter goes down. Bond finds the girl in the office and jumps into a net from like 60 feet up with her, escaping into the basement, where he gets a boat, and with a handgun, shoots down a helicopter.

The Helicopter crashes into a bridge, where the Bond Girl and M are on opposite sides.  Blofeld says some stuff about how Bond will execute him, and Bond says, I have better things to do.  He goes with the girl and then steals a car.  The end.

It’s the formula again.  It’s really blankly the formula.

So, what can we learn from this?

First off, Bond movies are fun as shit. We should be psyched that we have a decades spanning franchise that allows so many different interpretations and ideas.  Sometime, I’ll go back and talk about some of my favorites from the old ones (Spoiler: Goldfinger rules.).

Second, if you’re going to make a sequel, subvert the formula.  Don’t just follow it.  You have the power to tell a different story using the same beats, and it can be effective and different.

Third, have visually interesting fights.  The Day of the Dead sequence in Spectre was awesome, because it evoked culture, color, beauty, and symbolism, without anyone actually saying anything about those things.  Do that more.

Fourth, I really enjoyed both movies.  I found the formulaic one dumber, but both were pretty good.  I’d put my Craig Bond movies as Skyfall, Casino Royale, Spectre, and then Quantum, which isn’t bad, but isn’t that good either.

Fifth, going forward, it would be cool to have something different in the Bond role.  With the fall of the Empire theme, something outside of the box could be really cool.  Personally, Idris Elba calls to me as a Bond figure, but I think that the most important thing is to put them into situations that actually cause damage.

Casino Royale worked because Bond was not the slickest, he was the most brutal.  He charged through problems without regard for his body.  This made him compelling and interesting, as opposed to the Brosnan Bond, who made things look like a breeze.  As the series went on, though, Craig looked more and more invincible.  It’s hard to think of the Spectre Bond trapped on a chair, getting his balls whacked by a guy with a knotted rope.  He does incredible things and looks fine.  I’d like a Bond that gets hurt, and overcomes the limitations, not the invincible force that we’ve seen recently.

And sixth, watch Bond movies more.  They’re like time capsules for the year that they were made. They give you really great insight into the trends in filmmaking and the ideas that scared the people of the time.

Oh, yeah, and seventh.  Fuck computer hacker villains.  It’s too easy now.  Let’s get ourselves a fucking Bane level physical threat.  Somebody who operates at the dirt level, has a huge network of personal relationships, and is a threat all on his own.  Maybe a cult leader type, or someone who has become a warlord in a former English colony. Just so we don’t have to do the computer thing every time.

Anyway, that’s my review of Skyfall and Spectre.  They’re goodish!  Check them out!

 

PS – That Spectre theme is shit though.  This one would have been way better.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Bonds Of Our Lives: Skyfall vs. Spectre

  1. I actually rank my favorite Daniel Craig Bond films as follows: Quantum, Spectre, Casino, Skyfall. I agree that Javier Bardem was great in Skyfall, but I had other problems with that film. Quantum, I think, is criminally underrated, though. It uses action scenes to tell the story of what’s going on inside 007 emotionally, and really subverts what we expect from a Bond film by being an actual sequel. Previous iterations of Bond have given us movies-as-episodes, each one standing alone without any non-superficial connections. Quantum is the first to show us what happens when the events of one of those episodes actually affects James Bond in ways that cannot be shrugged off or forgotten after sport fucking some super model or villain’s trophy wife.

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    1. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Quantum of Solace in a while. I remember enjoying it in theaters and feeling like it was a pretty decent Bond movie, I remember it less well than the other ones. Perhaps I’ll watch it again, and give it another shot.

      Liked by 1 person

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