27 November 2012

First Impressions: Skyfall, Part II: The Bond Classicims and Iconoclastic Moments

Yesterday we gave a brief rundown of where Skyfall (2012) lands among both the entire Bond Franchise and the Daniel Craig films specifically. Today it's time to dig into just what precisely makes this film one of the greatest Bond adventures of all time, along with how it continues to criticize and deconstruct this great cultural character. SPOILERS once again abound.

The Classic Bond Elements

There are many things that all Bond films are bound to share, no matter how iconoclastic they may be, such as the prolonged trippy opening sequence, alcoholic scenes, flirtatious scenes, and a truly sadistic villain. Skyfall in part gets away with its critique of the Bond character by having some of the greatest of these elements of any film. It sure as hell gets off on the right foot with one of the more perfect Title Tracks in recent memory. Seriously, what other Bond Tune since Tim Dalton can you hum right now? That Madonna one? She can fence all she wants, Adele owns this.

Skyfall just keeps maxing out on awesome. Q is finally reintroduced, really almost as if they were really seeking to lock someone up like Desmond Llewelyn for the next 50 years. I just still feel bad for poor John Cleese's R. I'm sure he was hoping that would last at least one film after Die Another Day (2002). The gadgets are simple (really just the coded gun, which is just uncampy and actually useful enough to be pretty appealing [but then Bond doesn't retrieve it from the Komodo Dragons! What the hell, bro?!]), and the car is instantaneously one of the more gorgeous in recent memory (a pristine silver 1965 Aston Martin DB5, for those keeping track at home).

Then there's Silva. Javier Bardem shows us again that he really makes the greatest villain characters, although this flamboyant, crazy, loquacious incarnation is a far cry from his Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (2007). He's the near-perfect Bond foil. He's an agent treated fairly similarly to Bond by M - lied to, abandoned, and scarred. The main difference of course is that Bond's scar is just a knick in the shoulder while all of Silva's insides basically melted. Sorry, chief.

Bardem just kills it here, though. Literally, he really does kill everything. Like everything in Skyfall, he's perfect because he's such a classic Bond villain while also being a critique of villains. He's properly ruthless and even has an evil Island Fortress. He's distinct though, because he's not bent on world domination or gold or riches or anything. His Island Fortress isn't a paradise filled with shark tanks or luxurious women. He kills the only woman there and instead fills his desolate land (Skyfall seemed to take a big note from the Limbo from Inception (2010) in the design here, by the way) with computer wires and busted statues. In many ways he's actually the evolution of what an Agent should be in the modern world. He doesn't solve his problems with guns, he solves them with computers (and actually, when he does use guns he tends to fail much more miserably - despite apparently awful British Security in guarding half its ministers in a single room). Bond is still this blunt instrument while Silva uses technology and intelligence to succeed. It's no coincidence then, that Bond needs to journey back in time to an isolated age and location that robs him of this advantage in order to defeat him. In a movie that constantly seems to question the place of Bond in a modern world, this seems to assure the audience that Bond actually is a relic, only powerful in a bygone era - outwitted and beaten repeatedly in the Digital Age.

There's another Batman reference here - Silva allows himself to be captured, just as the Joker did in The Dark Knight (2008). It's more and more disheartening to realize how much Skyfall rips off from contemporary films, but at least they work to its advantage rather than the shakycam Bourne-esque hell of Quantum of Solace (2008). Silva is in this because of M and a personal vendetta. This isn't Bond out there dealing with an external threat. Silva's threat arises because of MI6 and he only really seeks to attack MI6. Again, this limits the usefulness of Bond in a modern world, a point of continuous contentious debate by the characters in every level of this film.

Skyfall slowly moves towards fashioning itself into a classic Bond Tale. The last third strips the story down to Bond literally defending his history and his boss against hordes of baddies. All the while he's armed with shotguns and driving that vintage Aston Martins. The only thing that really gives this part of the flick away as contemporary is how he must have obviously been inspired by Home Alone (1990) in setting a few traps. I was just waiting for a red-hot door handle and paint cans flying down the stairs.

Not only does Skyfall take this literal journey back in time with Bond's history, but it honours the legacy of the character. After Sean Connery's turn was so popular, Ian Fleming adjusted the spy's personal history to accommodate the Scottish heritage. Here, for the first time do we see that heritage laid out on the Scottish Moors. Craig's films have always been about pealing back the layers of Bond to see what makes him tick, so it's only natural that this Trilogy (of sorts - Craig has signed up for two more films, but this certainly feels conclusive to the character narrative started by Casino Royale (2006)- see Part I for much more on this idea).

In doing so, we both get another Batman treatment (Bond is a wealthy orphan), including a Butler (Kincaid, here played by Albert Finney. I know I wasn't the only one who thought this may have been Connery, and the role seemed written for him, but Connery's not going near a Bond film anytime soon, and that kind of fan service is best relegated to the Starsky and Hutches of the world anyway) and a man who seems to care less for his family's legacy than the job at hand while causing his mansion to burn down.

Skyfall is doing many things here. It goes where no Bond has gone before in explicating a more thorough backstory, which, depending on the level of purity of your personal Bond beliefs, either articulates or denigrates the character. It has a lush treatment of Bond's Legacy in showing these moments, but also destroys them. It's a service to the character of Bond himself as he initiates the house's destruction - his eyes are full of regret and longing as he looks at the flame-engulfed mansion one last time, yet he's still compelled to dodge his feelings and let out a quick quip. While this is a very classic Bond reaction to similar situations, it's out of place here. This is precisely what Skyfall excels at accomplishing - pointing out the absurdity of many Bond moments by juxtaposing them against unprecedented events. It creates both a critical lens to the character as well as adds tremendous depth.

Breaking Down an Icon

While so much of this movie preserves Bond's Legacy and demonstrates some of the greatest elements in any of the series, it also shatters much of what makes Bond himself tick. As we've said, Bond isn't necessary anymore. Craig plays him much older than many, many actors have actually played him, but also as a reckless nail, a product of an older age when shifty organizations and Russians were lurking behind every corner. The film goes far beyond just this political critique, though.

Bond is really only good, happy, and even competent when performing his duty - killing people. During his time off after his supposed death, he's restless, alcoholic, and ultimately returns due not only to his unwavering love of country, but because he's not really good at anything else. In fact, he doesn't really know how to do anything else. He's exaggerated to the extent that he can't even actually save anyone in this film. Following the tradition of Casino Royale, anyone he's close to dies as he's more and more jaded to it. He doesn't seem to care when his childhood home burns or the chick he just banged is shot in front of him. He can't save her when he needs precise marksmanship, but moments later he's fine killing people with the same required precision. The years of agency have not only made him lose his humanity, but his ability to actually be anything more than a tool for killing. It's also blurred to the extent where it's difficult to tell whether or not Bond is still hiding his broken emotional core or if it's entirely depleted.

The three major tenants of the Bond Character are his violence, his drinking, and his women. While this Bond is stripped down to being capable of nothing but violence, his drinking here, while briefly mentioned in films such as GoldenEye (1995), is far out of control. It's not cheeky or classy anymore. He's not elegantly sipping martinis at High Society functions, he's guzzling booze at beach bars while hiding from the world.

The last really huge element here is how Skyfall toys with sexuality. After a scene of Bond akwardly trying to undress a fellow Agent who later turns out to be Moneypenny and she rebukes him, a similar scene plays out with Silva. I have some problems with this old and tired homosexual villain stereotype, but the manner in which it turns Bond's seductive qualities on its head are revolutionary. Suddenly we find ourselves in the place of all those girls who may not have exactly desired Bond hitting on them, but played anyway. No one wants to bang Mr. Hollow-Mouth, though, right? Is it hypermasculine or egotistical enough, though, to always think that every woman desired Bond? That's certainly the popular image - one that Skyfall again dares to play with.

Finally we have M. Judi Dench's M has become an integral part of the series, and she actually becomes more of a Bond girl here - protected not unlike From Russia With Love (1963), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), or even GoldenEye. It's a tired Bond staple, but the twist here is not only that it's Bond's boss, but it further explores the maternal relationship between her and both Bond and Silva. Silva clearly also had some kind of maternal love for M, made all the more painful by her abandonment of him (perhaps we even see a bit of sibling rivalry of sorts here as Silva fumes over M's new chosen wonderboy). Along the way is really M's largest role in a Bond Film ever.

M becomes the closest thing Bond has to a working relationship with another human being. She dies as does every other human who gets close to him. With each death though, Bond becomes a better agent. With the muddy maternal relationship between her and Bond out of the way by film's end, Bond is truly set to be a true professional, though and to become the Agent we all know him to be. He's set up to no longer display Craig-like depth and emotion, instead able to be as dark as Connery, as ephemeral as Moore, and as irreverent as Brosnan.

Is this the greatest Bond Film? It certainly has the most to say about the entirety of the franchise, and is so a fitting cap to the 50-year mark, if anything. It is able to create nostalgia, montages in memory, cultural reverb, new classic moments, a critique of the character, while simultaneously setting him up for proper execution and portrayals in both past and future installments. One more note - it's certainly the best looking Bond, probably ever, thanks to Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who really deserves an Oscar for this thing. It's a mammoth achievement, really, and a hell of a lot better than The World is Not Enough (1999).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails