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“Oh, ho ho! You sly dog! You got me monologuing! I can't believe it,” Syndrome says to Mr. Incredible in a glorious flash of self-awareness during a funny scene in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, a Pixar feature that riffed on James Bond ethos almost as much as it borrowed from the current superhero template.
The joke was that Bond villains always did themselves in with a ridiculously long, and often pretentious, monologue that gave 007 all the information he needed to foil the malevolent plot. And yet, it’s with a spectacular monologue (shot in one unedited scene) that Javier Bardem introduces his jaw-droppingly brilliant Bond villain in Skyfall. In that one monologue, we learn everything we need to know about Bardem’s character, Raoul Silva: His motivation; his disdain for MI6 (and M, specifically); and his mirror-image similarities to the patriotic Bond, himself.
Beginning with a monologue is one of the many ways Bardem takes the conventional “Bond villain” format and turns it inside out. And by doing so, I think he's created the best James Bond villain we’ve ever seen.
This column contains a few spoilers regarding Skyfall. Not a lot, because I’d rather you see the film with clear eyes. But it’s hard to discuss Bardem’s character without divulging a few things you might not want to know prior to a Skyfall screening. Keep that in mind.
To be fair, Bardem doesn’t have much competition. Quick: Name Pierce Brosnan’s top nemesis. Can’t do it, can you? Bland villains are part of the reason Brosnan’s stint in the 007 tux often gets dismissed as irrelevant.
Sean Connery had Oddjob and Blofeld. Roger Moore had Jaws. But the Bond franchise mostly generated memorable baddies when the producers went out of their way to hire legitimate actors (with a capital “A”) to trade barbs with the secret agent. Christopher Lee as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill and Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale come to mind.
Bardem buries them. Flat-out buries them. His portrayal of a rogue MI6 agent seeking vengeance against the organization makes the mission personal … and deadly. Critics gathered after a Skyfall screening compared Bardem to Heath Ledger’s Joker (for narrative reasons we can’t talk about here). I agree with that comparison for this reason, alone: When he’s on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and when he’s gone, you’re praying he returns. Immediately.
I’m not alone in beating the Bardem drum. Our own Katey Rich argued Bardem should be in the Oscar discussion for his riveting turn. In The UK Observer, Ryan Gilbey writes, “The moments that elevate Skyfall from the efficient to the inspired can be attributed to one man: Javier Bardem, the hulking, 43-year-old Spanish actor whose delicious performance as Raoul Silva, sniggering cyber-terrorist, makes him a convincing contender for best Bond villain of all time.”
The Bond franchise always boils down to taste, and fans immediately begin to rank every time a new chapter reaches theaters: Connery versus Craig; Honor Blackman versus Britt Ekland (or Ursula Andress); Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger theme versus Nobody Does it Better by Carly Simon. And now, when I enter any discussion on the best Bond villains of all time, I’ll have a concrete answer.