(dir. Sam Mendes)
Before hitting shores in America, the word on the 23rd James Bond film, Skyfall, was out: it was very good. In fact, good enough for Roger Ebert to call it the best Bond flick in years and make him finally believe Daniel Craig was James Bond. I may be reacting to a new hyper media hellbent on over-pronouncing every little criticism, but the latest Bond flicks seem too interested in reassigning the identity of James Bond in some fashion. After the Pierce Brosnan entries ended in boring generics, the new order is to continue to find different ways to imagine who James Bond is and what he stands for. Daniel Craig is lucky enough to be our cinematic guinea pig. Like most fans of Bond, a number of changes I am a fan of, some I think are unnecessary, and others are over hyped. Still, word should be assigned the interest in commenting on Bond.
After 20-plus films of following the same chronology along the lines of serials, it wasn’t hard to accept the producers might be interested in restarting the series. Certainly enough time passed. The difference is that the series being re-done now means it is no longer going to be the serial story the way the other Bond films were. After the first two Craig entries, it was difficult to see how that was going to play out. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were continuation pieces on Bond’s early years that was roughly broken into two parts. Revolving around the influence of Vesper Lynd, her relationship to Bond, and their romantic fallout, James Bond went from rough special agent to fully formed super agent. Now we have Skyfall and the training wheels for Bond have to be taken off and asked to proceed without the full assistance of the first two stories. Bond has grown up since then, but the question Skyfall asks, is how?
The first bit of disappointing news is that in Skyfall, Bond has already graduated to elder statesman as an agent and the film has a litany of “past your prime” themes to remind him he has seen better days. It’s the complete opposite of what the first two Bond films were doing. What’s annoying is that documenting themes around the beginning and end of a story seem to be a lot easier. Dramatic implications don’t need to be developed as much. With the idea of a Bond remodeling, I was more interested to see how his middle years would develop, meaning his relationship with Felix Lighter, the new Spectre-type organization in Quantum, and whether Bond ever comes near a real romantic relationship with another woman. The last could happen since in the early films, it wasn’t until the 6th film that Bond fell in love and lost everything. As a gentleman spy, he may not be above finding love again. Implication in Casino Royale is that when he lost Vesper, he lost his soul and ability to care.
Of course, the last bit isn’t so simple. Continuing with Solace, Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) goes more into focus. Still burdened by a hard dedication to his job and seeking it out til the bloody end, Bond seemingly finds a mother-son relationship with M and she with him when she ditches government protocol at late stages in the film and says her alliance (when Bond’s motives are questioned) is with her agent. They have a tempestuous, caring relationship while she seems to be all he has for immediate relations. Skyfall does take advantage of a more natural development of the previous entry by putting M into peril and again having Bond being challenged with potentially losing someone he loves.
As spoilers go, the whole story of Skyfall is a lead up to M dying. In the film, Bond only gets a whiff of life after her. Essentially, it’s cliffhanger drama. The question being what awaits Bond after. Another peg in the development of Craig’s version of Bond is another attachment to his human being cut off. But, even though I said the film is dealing with an aging Bond, the film also re-introduces common characters like Q, Moneypenny, a new M, and a familiar office. All of this is stylistic throwback to how the series used to feel. Some twists happen in that Moneypenny and the new M are former agents and can handle themselves. Bond even has mission history with Moneypenny (detailed in Skyfall) so there is opening for detailed development there. Still, to move forward, it seems the film took a long road back to Connery origins in basic story makeup.
The most interesting thing about the new film is how the story recycles so many elements of Bond’s past in the literal story and film past (well before Casino Royale) and takes some pretty easy license with things. One tidbit in Casino Royale is that a back story is explained to how Bond got his famous BMW car (it’s done through a card game) so instead of remembering Connery’s famous 60s vehicle, the audience could have a new BMW to idolize. In Skyfall, there is a scene where Bond goes through his storage and takes out the very same 1960s car Connery used. M then makes a reference to the time period no longer being the 1960s for him or her. Instead of continue with a new history from previous two efforts, the film is recycling old things from the past 50 years of Bond history and meshing it with new things.
Super hero movies like to play too deep with the genre license and replace lucid storytelling with references which will appease the fan base. For me, it just hogs up time in a story and instead of trying to better develop a story, a film will attempt to be both relevant dramatically and filled with enough quotes to satisfy an audience. One can argue since Skyfall spends a lot of time with using old references to find a way back to the beginning of the series where Bond can finally deal with familiar things like Moneypenny, Q, a similar office space for work, so the film is using the reference points to make them more dramatically in-sync than just continuously providing anecdotal information which mostly helps nothing. There is a point to that, and thankfully, Skyfall isn’t full of dumb 1960s references when there shouldn’t be any.
I always come into any Bond flick as a genre fan. I don’t doubt even the best movies in the series are born out cliches which could not hold up in any sophisticated story. With that, I announce my unlikely and somewhat subjective position I favor Quantum of Solace over Skyfall even if the former doesn’t hold up to much respect with others. It is now easily dismissed for the condition in which it was made. The film was going into production during the writer’s strike and the director had to do some serious pre-production work with no script in hand. Daniel Craig even said he was contributing lines of dialogue during shooting to help out. For a visualist like Marc Forster, it allowed him chance to be more inventive with camera technique while hammering away at a story that was pretty generic. There is artistry in that filmmaking which hasn’t been present in any Bond ever. Sam Mendes is the noted director in Skyfall and why he manages to instill European flavored shots into the sequence, he bows down to more stale action techniques and standard filmmaking. Luc Besson (in his 80s and 90s work) had a better idea how to form technique with story approach and merge the two together. In Bond, Mendes has to have extravagant action sequences and somehow go to over-dramatized scenes just moments later. Just following rules of the series now. Mixing in a well lit shot that focuses on the silhouette of Bond or a bad guy in beautiful coloring is just Mendes poking his head up to remind the audience he is still a director with some independent touch.
Skyfall is middle of the Bond pack for me. It definitely graduates from previous Bond efforts in looking stylish in every modern sense of the word. Previous Bond works tried too hard to look stylish for their respective periods and suffered the fate of staleness. Not sure whether Mendes’s small attempts to go against the grain and make certain shots look cooler or more intriguing will pay off down the road. Bernard Shaw once said a good piece of political or social art should only have a shelf life of 100 years before becoming irrelevant. Bond films looking cool and cutting edge seems to only last 10 years at best. Of course this dig is the least important because it doesn’t matter. Problem is that delving deeper into character doesn’t matter to. We get with Bond films what we get. The surface details are the discussion.