Monday, December 3, 2012

Skyfall

2012, Sam Medes -- in theatre

Should it be a good thing or a bad thing to know what you're going to get from a James Bond film?

The franchise, under the watchful eye of the Broccoli family, has had it's turmoil, it's ups and downs.  The last film was nearly derailed by a writer's strike, this one by the collapse of MGM.  There's been controversial choices for the man in the suit, and some questionable choices made for him.  All the while, the Broccolis have made sure that no matter what, Bond is always Bond, and whenever you step into the theatre, you're going to get a opening action sequence featuring Bond in media res, a dazzling title sequence of naked silhouettes accompanying a theme song from a big name musician, and ultimate an overblown super-espionage plot which requires Bond to use plenty of gadgets, guns, wits, cars (and countless other forms of transportation from skis to space shuttles), women, pithy remarks and a hell of a lot of luck.  You may not know exactly what you're going to get, but if you've seen enough Bond films you know enough.  Therefore a Bond outing may not always be surprising, and it may not always be great, but it's rarely ever dull.

Should it be a good thing or a bad thing to be surprised by a 007 picture?

That, then, is the question.  If a Bond adventure takes you outside of the comfort zone of what you know Bond to be -- a vague mystery man who likes his ladies, liquor and license to kill -- does that make it better or worse?  We've had 22 Bond films prior to this, and, in the first 20, five different actors portraying him with their own individualistic flair, but rarely could we say we knew him, truly knew his character.  Bond isn't a superhero, he's a superspy with a weakness for his vices, but he's always going to win it for the good guys, usually by the skin of his teeth. 

It's quire remarkable, really.  What's his background?  Does he have any family?  What toll does his job have on him?  Does being a Lothario or killer affect him at all?  How fragile is his psyche?  Doesn't he want to have a home life to go to?  The questions that never get asked, and just as often get answered.  For some, it's better off not knowing.  James Bond should be as roughly sketched as possible so that anyone can fit into his tux.  Not an everyman, but every man's fantasy.

Skyfall, and in different ways, Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale have been working hard to flesh James Bond out, putting more focus on Bond as a man, a human being, capable of being hurt both physically and emotionally.  Never before has he seemed so vulnerable, so susceptible to death.  Bond has been put in countless of life-threatening situations, but he's always handled them with a calm detachment.  Daniel Craig's Bond faces his mortality like any reasonable man should, with fear and without a cache of convenient gadgetry to save him.

Skyfall is a daring Bond picture, one that dares to even hint at his lineage, one that dares to make Bond mortal, one that dares to give him age and weakness and limitations.  He's not a super-hero, and barely a super spy. Skyfall's cold open finds Bond in chase of a man carrying a hard drive containing all of Britain's undercover agents.  The chase ends with Bond being shot off the top of a moving train, accidentally by one of his own. 

Dead and buried, Bond tries to enjoy his forced retirement, but when MI6 is directly attacked, moreover when M's life is directly put in danger, Bond responds.  With Casino Royale, Bond fell in love, and had his love taken away, leading to much revenge in Quantum of Solace.  In Skyfall, there's a different kind of love at play.  M and Bond have levels to their relationship, master and handler, boss and employee, and, not so curiously, mother and son.  The film dares to explore that dynamic, calling to attention that Bonds and Ms past are made null in its wake.

Sam Mendes was a curious choice to take up the franchise.  Primarily known as the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, Mendes is hardly renowned for his action prowess (of his half-dozen features, the small dramatic road comedy Away We Go is my favourite) but he's got a competency with characters, which, given the angle that the Craig Bond series is going, couldn't hurt.  For his part, Mendes' action sequences are beautiful, wonderfully composed, brilliantly lit, with a flair for silhouettes and expertly paced.  Skyfall is exciting and terrific to look at.

As far as the Bond mythos goes, Mendes works with what the Craig-starring series has aimed for, a rebirth.  Casino Royal was meant to start from scratch with Bond -- forget the other guys, could they do parkour? -- and with this Mendes wraps the tied and true Bond tropes that had been missing from previous two back in.  Moneypenny, car porn, exotic deadly animals, Q, and more.  It's the most Bond that Bond has been in some time. 

Perhaps the best facet, an honestly charming villain in Javier Bardem as Silva, an ex-MI6 agent and metaphorical brother to Bond.  Love and used by M, Silva was the golden boy agent of his day, a half generation ahead of Bond.  Left for dead with drastic sub-dermal disfiguring, Silva's long plotted destruction and dismembering of M and her arms is at hand.  Of course, Silva would hope Bond would see things his way and join him, but he's also accounted for the opposite to happen.

Silva, unfortunately, only has minimal screen time, and not nearly enough of it shared with Bond (I doubt if he even makes his debut within the first hour of the film) but what time he does have, Bardem doesn't chew the scenery, but savors it like a connoisseur, masticating it slowly, drawing out all its flavours.  Le Chiffre and Dominic Greene are eminently forgettable in comparison.  I was actually hopeful we would have a new Blofeld, multi-film nemesis with this one, alas.

It is a good thing to know what you're getting out of a Bond film, but when it doesn't always deliver, or tries to deliver too much of a good thing (as was the case with most of the Brosnan run), it can be disappointing.  At the same time, there can be surprises along the way, things unexpected from a Bond movie, such as drama and pathos, that don't have to be bad things, unless you want them to be.