An argument presented by a sorta-antagonist in Skyfall is that espionage and spying is a relic of the Cold War, of a time when thinking on one’s feet was the most valuable skill. Now, in the world of computers and the Internet where one can shut down an economy without leaving their bedroom, there is no use for agents on the field.
In response, M gives a speech about the relevance of MI6, about how even though technology may march on there will always be a need for boots on the ground. Quoting Tennyson, she extols the necessity of patriotic idealists like James Bond out in the field striving, seeking, finding, and refusing to yield.
It’s all pretty words and a meta answer to a question that’s been floating around in the back of our minds for a while now. In a time when spy/action/thriller movies have steadily gotten darker with stronger takes on violence and the ramifications of their actions, is there still space for an adventure that’s more fun than not?
The Avengers arguably proved it for the superhero movie (as I detailed before), so what of James Bond? Fifty years from Dr. No, is he still relevant?
It’s easy to see why not. James Bond has always been rife with gadgets: exploding pens, ejector seats, laser watches and the like. These tropes have been parodied and played with to the point where it’s really hard to take the concept seriously unless it’s done tongue-in-cheek (and even then it has to be done really well). Spy-cars are spoofed, over-the-top villains and schemes are mocked. These days, that’s just not how you make a movie.
Just compare Taken and Goldeneye. Both arguably fall under the same genre (men singlehandedly going after the bad guy leaving a path of destruction in their wake). But where Goldeneye has Bond driving a tank through St. Petersburg, Taken has Mills travelling much more subtly by foot or car. Mills doesn’t bother with one-liners and is relentless (and quite cruel) in the pursuit of his taken daughter. Bond, on the other hand, positively gushes charm and suavity. It’s old fashioned and romantic, and that’s not how the world works anymore.
Which, pretty much, is one of the central arguments presented to Bond in Skyfall. He’s called a man of the past, an anachronism of an age gone by who has no use in the modern world. Even Q implies that computers have rendered him obsolete.
The makers of Skyfall — and Bond himself — beg to differ. Not only do they claim that there is still a place for action-spies like James Bond, but they still find that there is a place for the typical tropes of the spy/thriller film. No, Q doesn’t walk Bond through a crazy lab with all sorts of fancy gadgets, but he’s still given his gizmos (a radio and a special PPK) and plays the role of command/advisor throughout the film. No, it’s not an exploding pen (which Q points out himself), but it’s still cool.
And cool is where James Bond really thrives. Sure, there’s no bungie jumping off of dams here, but there is running and jumping up under an elevator to catch a ride, or jumping into a newly-opened hole in a train and cuff adjustment. It’s cool and, yeah, still a little over the top, but still Bond-ish.
This is what Skyfall set out to do: establish James Bond’s relevance in the modern era. The result is a sort of gritty romanticism. We have our Bond Girls and a tricked-out Aston Martin. There’s a crazy villain and monologuing. But there’s also a stronger focus on Bond’s character and history than before, making the conflict far more personal for him. He’s also less invincible than before, suffering from an old wound. We’re getting to know the man behind the legend; now he’s human.
But he’s still James Bond.
Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.