by Raj Ranade
It’s been fifty years since the release of the first James Bond movie Dr. No, and every filmmaker creating an entry in the series since then has been faced with one central question: “How do we make James Bond relevant for the current era?” This has generally been accomplished by upping the technological ante on the gadgets, having the bad guys hail from whatever political hot-spot is fashionably terrifying at the moment, or, in the case of the recent Daniel Craig movies, draining the camp out of the films in favor of some Christopher Nolan style super-solemnity. Now, faced with the question for the latest entry Skyfall, it seems like director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) has a fairly novel answer – “How about we just don’t make him a very relevant hero for our time at all?”
Skyfall may well be one of the most well-made and entertaining Bond pictures ever made, but it’s not really because it’s trying to renew the grand old myth of Bond. Rather, it seems that the movie tries to torch the myth as thoroughly as the ancestral mansion and iconic car that get blasted in the film’s climax. This is the bizarre blockbuster that seems to thrive on its central character’s failures – Bond superficially wins by the end (spoiler alert!), but even a lot of his small victories seem to just set up larger, more resounding failures. If this Bond is relevant, it’s only because he reminds us of how effective our real world intelligence agencies have been over the past decade – not very.
The ineffectiveness starts at the end of our opening chase sequence, across Turkish train cars being torn apart by a bulldozer, when Bond not only fails to catch his target but catches a bullet himself. Our super-spy is presumed dead until a cyber-terrorist attack against M (Judi Dench, given her most central role in any Bond film to date) stirs him to return out of hiding to England. But it’s clear during warm-up training exercises that Bond (played with plenty of gray-flecked scruff by Craig) isn’t quite the marksman or athlete that he used to be. And yet after failing all his tests, M pushes him out the door to track down this cyber-assassin.
“Every now and then a trigger needs to be pulled,” Bond says to the new Q (Ben Whishaw, basically playing the character as the snooty Mac guy) attempting to justify his importance in a digital world, but it’s not ever really demonstrated that that’s true. Take the stunning set-piece when Bond tracks a mercenary to a Shanghai high-rise and fights him in a hall of glass, the graphics of the neon skyline reflecting strategically between them (that we get plenty of shots of digital reflections obscuring Bond in the image isn’t a coincidence). I won’t spoil anything, but pay attention to what Bond doesn’t do as he’s tracking his prey here – it’s rather surprising.
And throughout the rest of the film, watch how perfectly his actions continually play into the hands of the main baddie here, played by a pretty brilliant Javier Bardem. Bleached blond and clucking his tongue like a disapproving grandmother, Bardem’s Raoul Silva is an outrageous concoction of camp menace. It’s a little unfortunate that Silva fits into the Hollywood archetype that links effeminate characters with evil, but it does at least set up one of the most socially enlightened moments in Bond history (admittedly, not saying much). That’s the scene where Silva attempts to rattle the most heterosexual male in American cinema with some lascivious flirting, and Bond, of all things, flirts right back. And Mendes certainly gives Silva a hell of an entrance – one long, still shot where we see Silva walk out of the distance, emerging into focus as he delivers a flavorful monologue about rats. There’s a power to the stillness here amid the bustle of a globe-hopping action-fest, like an opera orchestra quieting down for a solo aria – the restraint says “Hey! Look! This is important!” more effectively than any pyrotechnics could.
Indeed, one of the reasons the action is so effective in Skyfall is because Mendes gets dynamics – the power of getting quiet for a bit before going loud, instead of the traditional blockbuster approach of constantly screaming (watch for the musical interlude of sorts in the climactic last stand). And he and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins can certainly capture an image – this is easily the best shot Bond film ever, thanks to images like those towards the film’s end, where a fire out in the distance casts an orange haze over an icy tundra. And it’s that kind of stunning filmmaking that keeps you compelled throughout the film. Bond may be an ineffectual, misogynist relic of a bygone era, Mendes seems to be suggesting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with him.
So what if you were looking for an actual, straightforward action film without the complications of meta-critiquing the entire franchise? Well, Skyfall may be kind of lacking in that regard. It seems obvious that Mendes doesn’t particularly care about Silva’s evil plan, for example, which is why it doesn’t really make any sense. And the film often feels more like an abstraction of a typical Bond film, jettisoning a lot of standard elements in an attempt to get at the essential, expressionist cool of the franchise. (I couldn’t help thinking of Drive as I watched the picture.)
But when a franchise has been around for half a century, I think it’s enough a part of the cultural firmament to start getting meta with it. And as much as I love the Bond classics, I’m not going to complain when some filmmakers decide to take an adolescent male fantasia to task. (One of the better jokes in Skyfall is the reveal about the woman who shoots Bond in the opening sequence – in the context of the series, it has a certain cosmic justice.) And Skyfall does have the essentials of what we love about Bond (clever action set-pieces, some simmering scenes of seduction, a healthy dose of humor), while feeling like something fresh and new. And I have real hope for the Bond franchise if its producers allow directors like Mendes to let their artistic personality shine through – continue shaking the foundations of the Bond myth and my interest will be stirred.