Saturday, November 3, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012), dir. Sam Mendes

I’ve been a great fan of the James Bond series of films for as long I can remember.  When I think back to exactly what it was that drew me to them, I think it is their sense of fantasy—what with the marvelous gadgets, the diabolical villains and their absurdist schemes for world domination, and the indestructible figure of James Bond himself, moving both heaven and earth to save the day.  What had made the James Bond films so special and unique in the past is that they really had a monopoly on the genre.  There was the occasional copycat film released here and there, but none really had the propulsion to infiltrate Bond’s territory.  Nowadays however, Hollywood has been inundating us for more than a decade at least with some of the most gratuitous action films imaginable.  The Bond series as a whole, while each film had a modest collection of spectacular stunts, was never really thought of as a high action series, certainly not in the way that we regard high action today, i.e. the Die Hard films.  The series dabbled in this toward the end of Pierce Brosnan’s stint as Bond, and these were some of the absolute worst Bond films made, in my opinion.  When Daniel Craig was selected as the new Bond, it was obvious that they were attempting to give the franchise a makeover.  My recollection of 2006’s Casino Royale is somewhat cloudy, but I do remember thinking to myself, ‘Is this a Bond film I’m watching?’  Daniel Craig is by far the most athletic of the Bonds, possessing an equally as impressionable sense of rebelliousness.  But the most striking feature, and also the most difficult to accept, is the effort made to transform James Bond from what he was in the past, a caricature, into a character—feeling, perceiving, and expounding emotion.  This notion may have been a leap too far from the typical formula that made Bond what he is in the realm of pop culture.  Without the martinis “shaken, not stirred”, the wry one-liners, the fantastic gadgets, and Bond sleeping with an average of 2.36 women per film, Bond has become just yet another typical action hero.  Who cares if he’s now an affected individual?
           The latest Bond film, enigmatically titled, Skyfall, is a very slickly produced film.  And it does a good job of drawing you in, until you come to the realization that the typically overblown plot can actually be reduced down to the most banal of revenge stories.  Not only that, it recycles two plots already used in previous Bond films: one, that of an ex-MI6 grudge-bearing agent as the villain (1995’s Goldeneye); and two, “M” being the target of revenge (1999’s The World Is Not Enough).  I suppose that at some point the decision to develop the character of “M” from the avuncular, pipe-smoking bureaucrat, played by Bernard Lee (who would usually only appear at two points in most films: one, to debrief Bond in his mission at the beginning; and two, to approvingly pat Bond on the back at the end of each film, saying more or less, “a job well done.”), into the at-times highly antagonistic, ultra-feminist “M”, as played by Judi Dench, who at the same time has certain skeletons in her closet that come back to haunt her, seemed natural.  After twenty-three films, it seems inevitable that some effort must be made to expand on the characters, even if it does break the formula.  But then, is it still a Bond film that they’ve made?  Some efforts have been made in the past to give Bond a sense of humanity.  He was married at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, only to have his bride murdered by Blofeld, the quintessential Bond villain of the earlier films.  However, when Sean Connery took over once again in the following film, Diamonds Are Forever, only the opening sequence was devoted to Bond’s revenge, and after that it was back to business as usual. 
In Skyfall, it seems as though the producers are coming to a similar realization, that James Bond must remain a caricature.  The previous film, Quantum Of Solace, was a grave disappointment.  I saw it, but it was a completely vacuous experience, as I have nearly no memory of it.  In Skyfall we are starting to see remnants of the old Bond reemerge—the tuxedos, the martinis, and even Bond’s iconic Aston Martin is utilized.  Now, if they had only given us a story!  Javier Bardem plays what could have been an effective villain.  Sharing a highly provocative first encounter with Bond that made me think that we might be seeing the first homosexual villain in a Bond film (Kidd and Wint from 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever notwithstanding).  But when we learn that his highly elaborate scheme is merely intended to allow him to shoot “M” during a parliamentary hearing, we’re let down.  It really felt as though the film were building toward more.  There are a host of superb British acting talents in Skyfall, including Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, but they too are not given much to do.  This really felt like a write-off from the screenwriters. 
The final minutes reminded me somewhat of the end of the most recent Star Wars film, The Revenge of the Sith, in which preparations are made to segue back to the first film.  At the end of Skyfall, preparations are made to revert back to the Connery days of Bond, it seems.  We’re given a new “M”, male once again, who maintains an office with a similar décor to Bernard Lee’s “M”, complete with a new Moneypenny and all.  The familiar Bond theme, which has been noticeably absent from the Daniel Craig films, is played with very retro orchestrations.  And the iconic opening with Bond shooting toward the camera, also absent from the film, is this time shown right before the credits.  They seem to be preparing us for more Bond films, and I wonder if these future films will be looking more backward than forward in their vision.  For a franchise that had been accused of running out of steam decades ago, I’m not sure if this is a good idea.  But they seem to have hit a brick wall otherwise, and at the same time are not quite willing to let the franchise die off just yet.                

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