Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfall: Exactly Who, Or What, Outlived Usefulness? Because Something Sure Did

Word of warning: when this sentence closes I'll be ladeling out spoilers galore, so if that doesn't suit you leave now and come back after you've seen the movie and drawn your own conclusions.

M: You know the rules of the game. You've played it long enough. We both have.
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.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Well, pooh on you, 008.

I liked it! Though, Bardem was just flat weird in the role. And I think he is a better actor than his portrayal of Silva.

To be fair, you are spot on with most of your assessment. However, I just adore Bond, so I'll take what I can get. Craig is a great Bond, almost as good as Connery. And I like Judy Dench.

I found myself watching for all the little "easter egg" moments of old Bond stuff. That was fun.

Kent remarked that there was no naughty named female in this one. Bummer.

Darrell Reimer said...

I surprised all three women of the house with my judgement. They all enjoyed it immensely. Although, when I said, "The air left the tires when Sévérine got shot, and never really returned after that," Beth agreed. And thus a blog post was born.

Quantum didn't have a naughty-named femme, either. Altho 'Strawberry Fields' was cute, in every possible way.

Joel said...

I have not seen the latest Bond film. Nor do I particularly plan to unless I end up watching it purely as a time killer.

I was a big Bond fan in my youth (as was everyone) but the past few movies I saw I had a difficult time distinguishing Bond from any other generic action movie. And though I like action movies as much as the next red-blooded American male, I won't be going out of my way to watch the latest ones.

I think the old Bond movies are fun as cold war kitsch time pieces, and still enjoy re-watching those, but I have stopped following any new Bond movies. I think Hollywood should just retire the Bond franchise and let him stay a Kennedy era icon.

Darrell Reimer said...

"Kennedy era icon" is the Bond I most enjoy (my daughters not so much, though they admitted Goldfinger was occasionally amusing). The pleasure of the expanding franchise, for me, has been in the various attempts to keep him virile. The cartoon 60s and 70s were workable conceits that could not be sustained into the 80s without self-consciousness creeping in (and taking over, with great effect, in Octopussy). It really was "game over" for poor Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, but Craig's appearance and the scripts he was given caught everyone off-guard, and promised great things -- as did Bond's nuanced seduction of Sévérine, which did not play as cynical manipulation until he made that shitty quip. As for his relationship with M, it was on the rails right from the opening shot. The one potential venue for surprise and revelation was dropped in favour of putting the movie on a Batman auto-pilot.

Speaking of whom, the argument could be made that Batman should forever remain the Kennedy-era kitsch artifact as well, no?

Joel said...

Touche. Although maybe not an exact comparison. Batman was 20 years old before the 60s, and there had already been a couple different takes on the character before the cheesy 1960s show came along, so I'm not sure Batman needs to be defined by the 1960s.
Bond, however, is different. His whole concept is much more linked to the world politics of the era in which he was created. When I think of Bond I think of a cold-war era spy seducing woman in East Berlin, or outwitting Russian spies in Istanbul.
In fact the whole concept dates back to when there were two world superpowers who couldn't possibly get in a real war with each other, so enter the world of the spy. You could update Bond to the new world, but what's the point? IMHO, the character is not interesting enough to keep around in the new world order. Better to let him fade away and come up with new heroes instead.

Trent Reimer said...

What I liked most, unexpectedly, was the focus on another character, M.

Apparently I had a little more patience in that I didn't check out until the old mansion and the extremely loyal groundskeeper we've never heard of before.

You left the theatre not wanting to be Bond. I left wanting to be Silva.

Am I the only one here who loved that villain? (Perhaps we have too much in common, oh dear.)

Darrell Reimer said...

I left the theatre wanting to be the new Q -- certainly in proficiency, if not in actual age (don't miss my 20s, for the most part).