Monday, October 29, 2012

BOND-A-THON: Skyfall

Let’s talk about the mythical “third Bond movie”. There is a school of thought which avers that the third outing is where an actor truly settles into the role, the formula really clicks together, God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world. This bunch of hogwash is based on the fact that Connery’s third Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, was when the producers really ramped up the whole “girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting” ethos, while Moore’s – ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ – marked the point at which the filmmakers decided to stop trying to force him into the Connery mould and let him be more, well, Moore-ish. Oh yeah, and they went to town on the girls, guns, gadgets and globetrotting as well.

It’s a rule of thumb you can’t even apply to Lazenby and Dalton because, respectively, they only appeared as Bond once (mercifully) and twice (tragically). And let’s utterly confound the theory by pointing out that number three Brosnan was the god-awful ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Now let’s talk about a couple of things I’ve said on this blog previously apropos of ‘Skyfall’, the expectations attached to it, and its director Sam Mendes. Two years ago, in a rambling review of ‘Quantum of Solace’, I said this: “I came across an article on the net last week speculating whether Sam Mendes was on board to direct the next Bond film or just as a consultant and I groaned inwardly. Don't get me wrong: ‘American Beauty’ - belter; ‘Road to Perdition’ - handsomely mounted; ‘Jarhead’ - moments of brilliance. But nothing in the filmography that says "hey, you know what, that Sam Mendes bloke has got Bond movie director written all over him". I shook my head and thought, Great, first Marc Forster and now Sam Mendes ...

Re-reviewing ‘QoS’ – which is only one letter removed from ‘PoS’ – nine days ago for this very blog-a-thon, I concluded: “ ‘Skyfall’ doesn’t have to do much more than be edited properly and have a coherent script to emerge as infinitely better than its predecessor. But, please EON, please please please, after a four year wait and with only a finite amount of times the now 44-year old Craig can reprise the role, please let ‘Skyfall’ be awesome.”

With regard to that first comment: please accept my apologies, Mr Mendes, you’ve turned in a damn good film. With regard to the second: although ‘Skyfall’ does a lot more than just deliver better editing and a coherent script, it stops just short of awesome. But damn good is more than acceptable, particularly after the shoddy and joyless place Marc Forster had taken the series.

‘Skyfall’ gets off to one hell of a bloody good start with Bond (Daniel Craig) in the middle of a mission that’s swiftly going tits up. He’s in Turkey where a generic bad guy has swiped a hard-drive containing the identities of a fuckton of deep cover MI6 agents. A car chase segues into a motorcycle chase (which pisses all over the motorcycle chase in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’), in turn segueing into a fight on the top of a moving train (which pisses all over the fight on the top of a moving train in ‘Octopussy’), the whole thing concluding with a “wait a minute, this can’t happen in a Bond movie” moment akin to the ostensibly downbeat pre-credits payoffs in ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘Die Another Day’.

Following a pretty effective opening credits sequence (kudos to Adele for delivering the most appropriately Bondian theme song since Tina Turner kicked ass with ‘GoldenEye’), the focus shifts to M (Judi Dench). Notwithstanding that Dench’s M has come to redefine the character, the secret service hasn’t had an easy ride on her watch. Between the bad decisions motivated by personal feelings in ‘The World is Not Enough’, her mistrust of the 14-month imprisoned Bond in ‘Die Another Day’ and the revelation that a long-term member of her personal staff has been working for the enemy in ‘Quantum of Solace’, it’s kind of surprising M’s still has a job. In ‘Skyfall’, she faces some pretty harsh questions from the establishment with new intel chief Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pressuring her to take voluntary retirement. Meanwhile, axe-grinding politician Clair Dowar (Helen McCrory) forces M to give evidence at an enquiry over a series of MI6 debacles culminating in a terrorist attack on HQ.

During all of this upheaval, Bond returns to duty albeit physically unfit, psychologically battered and borderline alcohol dependant. There’s a Metallica song that contains that lines “breaking your life / broken, beat and scarred / we die hard”. A pretty good description of the bad place Bond is in. And it doesn’t get any easier as he sets off in pursuit of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyber-terrorist and an unwelcome blast from M’s past, who is orchestrating a campaign of revenge.

This is about all I can give away in terms of the narrative. ‘Skyfall’ is the most spoiler-laden Bond movie yet made, with a final act sucker punch that gives it real weight. It’ll probably be all over the internet within the next couple of days, but I’m honour bound to keep it under wraps. This also restricts me in terms of discussing the film on any deeper level.

Here’s what I will say: ‘Skyfall’ is at one and the same time a Bond film for the modern age (and manages to be so without the horribly misjudged Bourne-stylee crapola of its immediate predecessor) and the most regressive Bond movie in ages. Its modern age credentials take the form of a debate, which forms the backbone of the movie, of the purpose and relevance of MI6 – and therefore, by extension, of Bond himself – in an era where the geo-political map of the Cold War has long since been blurred and enemies of the state can literally be anywhere.

It’s no coincidence that, of all the Bond movies, ‘Skyfall’ spends the most time on home soil. Of the three major action sequences, one is chase/shoot-out plays out through London’s cavernous and sepulchral Underground system and then erupts into its crowded streets, while the denouement takes place in Scotland.

As to the regressive elements, most of them gel with overall aesthetic. Mendes finds a way to balance the fanboy imperative with his personal vision as a filmmaker. And with ‘Skyfall’ marking 50 years of Bond, he includes some nifty in-jokes to far greater effect than the horrible parade of references in ‘Die Another Day’. The Aston Martin DB is a case in point: brought quite literally out of cold storage and still boasting all the bells and whistles from ‘Goldfinger’, it’s a startling moment of discontinuity since Craig’s Bond won the thing at cards in ‘Casino Royale’ (which, in the current timeline, was essentially Bond #1) and yet its machine guns and ejector seat explicitly recall Connery’s third outing. (We’re back to the mythical Bondian rule of thirds again.)

Elsewhere, ostensible Bond girl Severine (Berenice Marlohe) is written in, bedded and written out even more perfunctorily than Gemma Arterton’s Agent Fields in ‘Quantum of Solace’. Bardem’s characterization of Silva sails very close to outright camp and, sad to say, a borderline homophobic scene reminiscent of the mincing Wynt and Kidd in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ got the biggest laughs at the screening I attended. At least Silva isn’t out for world domination and presents a definite threat to 007, sparing us a return to the flamboyant but laughably ludicrous villains of the Moore era.

Q returns – kudos to Ben Wishaw for sweeping away all thoughts of John Cleese in the last couple of Brosnan movies – as does another staple of the franchise, while the baton is passed on in terms of … but that would be telling. In its concluding scenes, ‘Skyfall’ totally eradicates Bond’s past and joyfully re-establishes the expected tropes, a decision which seems almost contradictory. Indeed, there’s a puppy-doggish eagerness to evoke the Bonds of old in the very last scene that’s tonally at odds with the dark drama that’s occupied the preceding two and a quarter hours. There is, in other words, a sense of transition where I’d expected consolidation.

So, yes, perhaps the “third Bond movie” ethos holds true: just as ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ weren’t necessarily the best that Connery and Moore delivered but rather the clearest distillations of the formula, ditto ‘Skyfall’. Let’s hope that whatever comes next doesn’t relapse into the formulaic.


Michael Grover said...

Thanks for the fine review, Neil. I'm so looking forward to seeing this when it comes out here on November 9th (and it's so unfair that we Yanks have to wait). Now that I've read your review and your warning about the final act twist, I'm going to refrain from reading anything more about the film until I've seen it.

Tim said...

Didn't read very far, since I am in full spoiler lock-down mode, but I will put it to you that The World Is Not Enough does meet the Third Film rule, if we say that it is not where the actor settles into the role and the formula clicks, but if it is where the experiment of two films solidifies into the most fully "typical" of that actor's Bond films.

And surely you'll agree that terrible fucking puns, stupid gadgets, a plot that doesn't work, and Brosnan looking miserable the whole time is quite typical of his overall tenure.

Anyway, looking forward to reading your thoughts, even at the level of a basic opinion, of Skyfall in about two weeks.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for the comments, gents. Re: spoiler avoidance - my best advice is stay off the internet till you've seen it.

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