Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig and Judi Dench
Showing at Market Fair Stadium 10
It’s important that moviegoers learn to judge James Bond movies for what they are: a spectacle, and moreover a very specific kind of spectacle. Now obviously all action movies are spectacles of one sort or other. The kind we’re most familiar with as Americans involve scruffy-faced men with muscles and guns firing wildly at no one in particular while the audience is treated to an incomprehensible din of explosions and jump cuts – all tinted a curious brownish gray or grayish brown, as if someone decided to leave the camera in an ashtray awhile before filming. But then, these are after all American films – the Rambos and the Die Hards, the Batmans and the Bournes – and thus reflect the American obsession with big men and big booms.
Bond is, as Monty Python would put it, “something completely different” – not least because he is a British creation. And while he is no less a silly power fantasy than Dirty Harry, it is a dream calibrated to different parameters. Where Americans fetishize gigantism, Brits fetishize a kind of superficial cleverness. There is a quintessentially English adoration of wit, both in the colloquial sense of wittiness and in the older sense of an inborn and unpretentious intelligence – though not necessarily, it should be noted, actual intellectualism. This is reflected in everything from their finest puns to the peculiar shape of their little gardens to the worst excesses of their late empire. That last one, you’ll recall, was founded upon a particularly pithy verse of Kipling’s:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need.
That right there is a good enough example of the British character. It’s hard to imagine us justifying our own empire with, say, a passage from Whitman, though it certainly is on second thought something of a barbaric yawp.
Bond, at any rate, reflects the qualities one would expect to comprise a quintessential Britishness. He is effortlessly suave, stoic under pressure, a gentleman nonetheless capable of killing without mercy, a master of repartee, a spinner of classic one-liners (e.g. Sean Connery murders a mook by throwing him and a toaster into a bathtub; “Shocking,” he mutters with a wink to the camera). Whether one likes him or not – and I, for one, have seen just about every movie in which he has appeared – he has long since rarified into an institution one simply cannot get rid of, not unlike the British monarchy.
But institutions decay, and there is a sense among certain James Bond fans that the recent trilogy – in which Daniel Craig plays a Bond of almost brutish violence – is a betrayal of the old values. This is not at all the case in Casino Royale, which is consciously and successfully a deconstruction of the old Bond mythos, and rather truer of Quantum of Solace, a train wreck of a film that one has already half-forgotten by its final act. But what of the third film, whose advertisements have been crowding our billboards and brainwaves since its release just a few weeks ago? After half a century, can this old warship of British spycraft still hold it together? Does Daniel Craig really have a claim on the title of “Bond, James Bond?”
So, Skyfall then. To begin with, it is rather self-conscious of the fact that it is the fiftieth-anniversary film of the Bond franchise. Indeed, at times it beats us over the head with this fact. Bond gets a hold of his classic ride, a souped-up Aston Martin DB5; the movie’s theme song, crooned by the inimitable Adele, is a spot-on throwback to the cabaret stylings of midcentury Bond scores; old characters thus far left untreated by the modern trilogy are introduced; the last scene is a shot-for-shot remake of the first M scene in Dr. No, sans the shot of Bond flinging his fedora perfectly onto a rack (since, regretfully, modern gentlemen no longer wear hats). In the film’s final scenes there is even a character unmistakably written to be played by Sean Connery himself, though the filmmakers seem to have chickened out before actually stunt-casting him, no doubt due to some ridiculous studio politics or concerns about “realism.”
Ah, yes, “realism,” the scourge of modern action films. Let’s talk about realism, shall we? Skyfall begins with Bond getting accidentally shot by his partner (played by the lovely Naomie Harris) and falling off a bridge into a raging river. Naturally he survives, though the film doesn’t bother to explain how. Then again, “James Bond survives” may as well be a tautology. The film abounds with similar preposterous sequences, which would be fine or even delightful in themselves but for the fact that the mood is often one of glum self-seriousness. This has been a problem with all the Daniel Craig Bond films. The first got away with it because it was actually a film that could be taken seriously; the second got away with it by being so deficient in other departments that one hardly noticed. Skyfall, thankfully, largely gets away with it as well, if only because the melodrama is confined to the very beginning and the very end of the movie.
Bond had been chasing a bad guy with a list of all MI6’s undercover agents, which starts appearing bit by bit on YouTube, much to the British government’s horror. Even M herself (Judi Dench) doesn’t seem immune from a bit of drama – the crisis threatens her job security when a seemingly ineffectual parliamentarian (Ralph Fiennes) questions her ability to lead MI6. Speaking of M, Skyfall presents the first time in Dench’s decade or so in the role that she can flex her substantial acting muscles: the script has her writing Bond’s obituary, breaking down before ghosts of the past, and quoting Tennyson’s “Ulysses” to a panel of British legislators, among other things. This she does with the sort of quiet dignity that Shakespearean actors always bring to their roles, though it’s nice that for once she doesn’t seem on the verge of rolling her eyes at her own lines.
And they are rather clever lines. The writing has seen a marked improvement since the last entry in the series, thankfully, and despite the movie’s stabs at seriousness a good chunk of that essential British wit shines through. Once Bond is safely back from the dead, he goes on a typical globetrotting adventure that takes him from Shanghai to the South China Sea to the Scottish highlands. The usual accusation leveled against Craig’s Bond is that he is a blunt instrument with little of the requisite charm; thankfully, this script gives him the opportunity to strut around in a suit and engage in a whole host of clever intrigues. Some, including what is perhaps the sexiest shaving scene in film history, involve women; others involve gambling, rooftop snipers, and, inevitably, men with guns. These Bond dispatches with his typical wry heartlessness. He even gets a one-liner to rival one of Brosnan’s or Connery’s in a fight scene involving a thug and a komodo dragon. Oh, and there’s a Bond girl of course, though she doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose except to strut around in black dresses and stretch her weirdly elongated neck at people flirtatiously.
Of particular note is the villain, a depraved bisexual Latino ex-MI6 superhacker (now there’s a character description!) played with an infectious giddiness by Javier Bardem. Like any good Bond villain he steals the show through what has become a pretty standard formula in the films: a tragic backstory, a physical deformity, an associated eccentricity, and a relentless megalomania. Interestingly, it is through him that the movie almost begins to skirt the border of honest, well-deserved seriousness as opposed to Hollywood “realism.” Half LulzSec and half Julian Assange, the hacker believes – probably rightfully – that MI6 used him as a tool and then betrayed him once he had outlived his usefulness; in a fantastic little speech about rats, he indicates that much the same will happen to Bond in time.
Bardem brings a hysterical charisma to the role which almost makes you sympathize with him – until, of course, he proves himself to be a sociopath. In a way this is disappointing. While watching the movie, I could not help but daydream a little bit about how a more ambitious batch of writers might have manipulated our sympathy for him. In the film he acts as he does in a personal grudge against M – but what if instead he channeled his rage into a hatred of the modern nation-state? It’s not inconceivable. After all, he’s already a resentful ex-spy betrayed by the system he once fought to protect, not to mention a computer genius; why not turn him into a bona fide twenty-first-century techno-anarchist? I mean, think of the dialogue possibilities:
VILLAIN: Why, Mr. Bond, do we allow the state to exist?
VILLAIN: What is good about the state?
BOND: (annoyed) People are lunatics. You let them run loose without someone watching them, there’ll be chaos.
VILLAIN: (delighted) I can see you’ve been reading your Hobbes, Mr. Bond, good, good!
BOND: Governments protect people.
VILLAIN: (caressing Bond’s knee) Oh? From who?
BOND: (quietly) People like us.
VILLAIN: Us? Us? And who created us, Mr. Bond? We are tools of the state. We exist to do nothing but lie for it, steal for it, kill for it. Us! (laughs hysterically) Don’t you see, my friend? The state protects no one. It is people who need to be protected from the state!
And so on.
I suppose the problem with this sort of thing is that, eloquently stated, it begins to make a lot of sense, and perhaps by the end of the film you’d even end up with a villain more sympathetic than Bond and M. And that would just be dangerous – too dangerous for mass-market film, anyway. It was an amusing thought, though, if only because it allowed me to picture the nervous glances of people in the audience.
But of course all you want to know is whether Skyfall is worth blowing money on to watch in a theater. The answer. . .well that probably depends on whether you think anything at all is worth seeing in a theater, considering how hideously overpriced movie tickets have become. Anyway it’s probably at the same level of quality as Casino Royale, making it a solid part of the upper-middle tier of the Bond canon. It has its flaws, but you’d have to be a terrible pedant to avoid watching it out of principle. I am happy to report I had a lovely time, with the single caveat that I found myself hoping at the end that we’ll eventually outgrow the early twenty-first century’s need to make all action movies pretentiously gritty as a matter of course.
And what did the audience think of it? That was harder to gauge, seeing as how people no longer seem to clap at the end of movies. There are still a few indicators, though they probably reveal more about the beloved viewers than the film. At the risk of a minor spoiler, I’ll reveal the overheard musings of a born philosopher outside the theater at my local multiplex: “I mean, they coulda done better with Moneypenny, but they made her black.” Which proves, if nothing else, that wit is not our country’s specialty.