M: You know the rules of the game. You've played it long enough. We both have.
BOND: Maybe too long.
BOND: Maybe too long.
M: Speak for yourself!
Played the game too long? It seems strange to have this assertion foisted atop the plough-horse shoulders of Daniel Craig's Bond, considering Skyfall is only his third cinematic outing. Sean Connery and Roger Moore both cantered with deceptive ease through no less than seven James Bond adventures apiece before contentedly trotting out to pasture and leaving younger, less capable mavericks to spraddle-leg the goads of legacy. Time and circumstance were perhaps unkind to Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan, but with Casino Royale there was never any question as to whether Craig had it in him to sustain the franchise. Even Quantum of Solace, which everyone now seems to regard as a colossal turd,* pulled in a king's ransom only a few million shy of the biggest Bond payout. So long as Craig kept away from the pasta table and didn't bitch too poisonously about the job, the role was clearly his for the taking.
But even if it is slow to cross the minds of moviegoers, the question, “Has Bond outlived his usefulness?” is certainly one the filmmakers must ask themselves. Pushing the question to the front and centre of Skyfall's story, however, made for an unsettling experience. Worse yet, events forced me to concede the unhappy affirmative. For the first time in my life, I left the theatre not wanting to be James Bond.
An overfamiliarity with Bond is certainly one formidable challenge to the enjoyment he offers. Critics speak appreciatively, for instance, of Skyfall's motorcycle chase across the rooftops of a Cairo market. But most reviewers aren't aware that Brosnan's Bond has already been there and done that. Are you scratching your head, trying to recall the scene? Then you haven't played 007: Everything Or Nothing. Take it from someone who has, it's even more exciting to successfully manipulate then it is to watch.
Seemingly aware of this divide, the filmmakers conclude their version of the chase by taking slow, deliberate aim at Bond, then firing a sniper's bullet through his chest and dropping him into the drink. Game over. Start again.
So far, so brilliant. The filmmakers had me in the palm of their hand and kept me there, as they hoisted the story high among the glass towers and neon signs of Shanghai, then down into the gambling dens where Bond meets the mysterious Sévérine (the most compelling scene in the movie, to my mind**), and finally onto the deserted industrial island where Anton Chigurgh — wup: Silva — awaits.
And then things fall apart. The scene sets up the rest of the movie, and, depending on where the viewer places value, either succeeds or fails robustly from this point on.
|"What do you think, James: too late to turn around?"|
Sévérine and Bond are in shackles, awaiting who knows what. Sévérine is clearly fearful of her fate, while Bond remains impassive in the face of the unknown. She is taken away, and he is seated in the lair, where he endures yet another, “We have much in common, you and I,” speech, this time from a villain who gives Fleming's implicitly gay subtext a hard nudge closer to the explicit. Bond quips his way out of his shackles, and the two repair to the courtyard, where Sévérine, still tied-up, awaits.
Now Silva forces Bond into a game of William Burroughs-Tell, placing a shot-glass of The MacCallan 50 on Sévérine's head and allowing Bond the first shot. Bond shoots too high (purposely? More later); Silva deliberately kills her. “Waste of good scotch,” says Bond. He then single-handedly defeats Silva's goons and holds him at gunpoint while British helicopters descend to the rescue — too late for Sévérine, alas.
At this point my emotional ties to the story disappeared. All I could see were B-movie tropes older than the pulp mill, and reheated leftovers from other recent blockbusters. Dodging machine-gun crossfire by sprinting in a straight line with head lowered? Check. Running away from, then jumping to the left of, a fiery explosion? Check. Helicopter swooping in on the attack while broadcasting ironically jaunty music? Check.
And how about the script? “He's been one move ahead of us every step of the way. It's time to change the game.” The “game-changer”: head to a familiar, abandoned shack to set up a defence and await the villain's final assault. Say, why not make the shack the hero's childhood home? While you're at it, why not make it a mansion? With a secret tunnel? And a gruff but affable groundskeeper? As M and Bond and Alfred — wup: Kincade — scoured the building for potential weaponry, I half expected them to stumble across a baffled Christian Bale, caught taking a mid-day mope.
But Skyfall is where we get the motherlode, quite literally. M dies within a stone's throw of where Bond's mum and pop have been laid to rest — yet another très tragique loss our increasingly Sisyphean hero must stoically endure. Was he crying as she breathed her last? It could be argued yes, it could be argued no.
As could so much of the movie. Getting back to poor Sévérine, why did he make the quip about the scotch? Was it, to spin it generously, an effort to non-plus the villain into distracted meditation, the better to catch him and his goons off-guard? Then why did he hand Silva over to M, when he'd promised Sévérine he'd avenge her death? Was Bond absolutely certain he could pull off a private vendetta in London? Or maybe he didn't mean what he promised. Maybe (yikes!) he really did feel badly about the scotch.
Or maybe he's grown too weary of women getting killed on him to give a toss one way or the other. Lord knows I have. Watching Sévérine get shot and forgotten I realized what had indeed outlived its usefulness: that dreariest and most predictable of adolescent fantasies, the perfunctory death of a lover who complicates things. Conversely, it also revealed what I had come to value most in Craig's iteration of the character: the patient revelation of unguessed-at depths, brought out solely by the women in whom Bond invests interest — Vesper Lynd, Camille, and once upon a time, M herself.
Sévérine was only given half a chance. Now, with M erased from the scene and Moneypenny corralled into office domesticity, Bond returns to the fustiest old boy's club imaginable. For “the Bond of the new Milennium” to regress any further he'd have to join Promise Keepers.
Feh. Game over. Start again.
*I saw the movie again the other week, and while the story is not as taut as Casino Royale, I'd still rate it as the second-best of the post-Connery Bonds. Even with Jack White's homework-at-the-last-minute theme-song, Quantum is leaps ahead of this movie.
**Nor am I alone: “The short conversation between Craig and Marlohe is perhaps the most realized sequence of the movie: The actress conveys both terror and vulnerability, and Craig comes across as concerned, competent, and empathetic.” Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic.