November 6, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


About halfway through Skyfall, James Bond (Daniel Craig) finally meets this installment's villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Per usual, there's plenty of time for 007 and his prey to chat, so Raoul explains his cyberterrorism operations in detail. "Everybody needs a hobby," Bond smirks. "What's yours?" asks Silva. "Resurrection," says Bond, speaking on behalf of an ever-anachronistic series perpetually plagued by production delays.

Skyfall follows a classic three-act structure. In the series' systematically explosive pre-credits sequence, Bond pursues a baddie and falls to his presumable death when MI6 director M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a risky shot rather than letting Bond's quarry get away with the MacGuffin. In anonymous island exile, Bond sulks through the first act, moodily sipping a Heineken while a silent woman sucks at his pectorals, but news of an explosion at MI6 brings him back home: the claims of queen and country can't be denied. The "suspense" of the first act—is Bond finally so desiccated he can't get it together?—is a non-starter, leading to a kinetic second act of pursuit from Shanghai to Macau, then back to the UK. The climax and denouement are all on British soil, making this by far the most time Bond's ever spent at home.


In a word association test, Bond doesn't hesitate to answer "country" with "England." The good old British bulldog spirit that built empires lives on M's desk, in the form of a porcelain canine with the Union Jack on its rump. Skyfall asks viewers to accept reactionary sentiments as eternal verities. M defends MI6's mission asserting that what looks silly and quaint is vital, which extends to limitless counter-terrorist shoot-to-kill activities for the good of all, never subject to review from nattering prime ministers who don't understand what's at stake. Bond's always been a rogue MI6 representative, but the implications of his contempt for authority cut deeper in a time of barely disclosed drone attacks and shadowy international law enforcement. Wrapping this kind of plea for unlimited authority in the British flag makes this plea even more old-school: taken to its logical limit, Skyfall would extend to an argument for recolonizing the Empire in the name of the greater good. (cf. Eldridge Cleaver: "The 'paper tiger' hero, James Bond, offering whites a triumphant image of themselves, is saying what many whites want desperately want to hear reaffirmed: I am still the White Man, lord of the land, licensed to kill, and the world is still an empire at my feet.") The finale finds Bond as lord of the Scottish manor, defending his territory from maniacal foreigners.

Every James Bond film walks a fine line between giving audiences the staple moments they came for and trying to introduce new kinks. You could probably make graphs charting the number of drinks consumed, women casually conquered, goofy gadgets introduced, disgruntled consultations with the home office, the amount of paid advertising present, then crunch those figures into numerical evaluations of a film's formulaic elements vs. freshness. This Bond still gets his martini shaken rather than stirred (though he leaves it half-consumed), picks up female admirers without visible effort, and conducts motorcycle chases wearing a proper formal jacket and tie which never distractingly floats into his eyes. "Sometimes the old ways are the best," Bond asserts in one of many pointed arguments for the series' eternal (ir)relevance. Later, M will recite Tennyson, Lord Alfred's "Ulysses" to a committee questioning her MI6 stewardship: "We are not that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth." Then Bond comes in and shoots some people, administering peace through strength.


The post-Empire angst is of greater interest than the series' attempt to deepen Bond by assigning him a tragic childhood backstory that "explains" why he has an "alcohol and substance abuse" problem. (Do cartoons need backstories?) The script goes cod-Freudian, with M's deferential "mam" becoming a surrogate "Mummy" for Bond and Silva. Attempts at psychological gravity or no, there's never a "new Bond," only some distracting feints in that direction until the time is right to reintroduce the old standbys and the unkillable super-spy makes all right with impossible timing and unwavering aim. The new Q (Ben Whishaw) refuses to give Bond the usual fancy gadgets, but fret not: the Aston Martin with machine guns in its headlights from Goldfinger will be along eventually, complete with a Bond brass blurt.

Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins' shared job is to give old thrills fresh forms. Ever since his cinematic debut with American Beauty, Mendes tends for starchy, heavy-handed drama. Skyfall finds a fleet use for his technical acumen, and Deakins renders the film gorgeous. (One familiar image from their past collaboration on Jarhead: a nighttime field lit only by orange flames, only this time the background for running-and-gunning instead of contemplative staring.) The ostensibly moody touches are but window dressing for the most-muscled Bond on record (who, in 2006's Casino Royale emerged from the ocean like Ursula Andress in Dr. No) to give the audience what they came for. Nearly every Bond film coasts on franchise goodwill while delivering mediocre delights. Skyfall is the unreconstructed ideal, mixing preposterousness and expert stuntwork in perfect proportion.

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Posted by ahillis at November 6, 2012 6:03 PM