Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thoughts after Skyfall

This won't come as a surprise to many of my readers - most of my family and friends know this - when I say that when I was a mere child, I always wanted to be James Bond. Good with the ladies, knows how to be a gentlemen even when plowing a T55 through Moscow, shoots straight while looking cool, retorts with wry humour and even knows how to fly a plane! This last one closed the deal for me. Today, I am of an age where I can finally almost afford my very own Bond Watch, I feel as though my aspirations haven't changed much.
We have a vengeful maniac on the lose, threatening to use new and scary tech against us? Rolex, I mean relax, Bond is on the case to save the western world. Begging the question: "what still threatens the western world?". The curious fact that Bond remains useful even after al this time is aptly commented on by M in Goldeneye, 'a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war'. An affirmation that a character like Bond can only really exist in the outrageous world portrayed in the movies (or also: the testosterone driven past), where secret global threats still exist too. The threats usually take the shape of new technology, or new global phenomena that become super weapons in the hands of super villains.

Not so with the new Bond movies that set a whole new standard for the franchise. The stories are more personal, grittier and a whole lot more painful for Bond. I really enjoyed Casino Royale. Its sequel wasn't quite as phenomenal but in the end I liked this new beginning. Daniel Craig is introduced as a springy athlete doing half an hour of spectacular parcour to catch a bad guy. Quite the contrast to stiff-assed Pierce who was growing a few too many grey hairs.
Daniel Craig's Bond is quite different from all the ones who came before. He has less of a poker face, and from time to time emotions seem to gleam through the cracks of his secret agent mask. My girlfriend described Craig as 'A hideous lump of a man with too much muscle'. Which was a stinging answer to my confession that I really like him in the role, and even wish I could be a bit like him. Including his looks. This is a different Bond, with a few more flaws, which makes him more likeable. A man behind the monster? The new films shine a new light on the character, about what's happening with the man himself. The insinuated infertility of Bond at the end of Casino Royale 'you are still a man, no matter what anyone says' as a particularly personal detail no one saw coming (or even noticed - so let me be the one to point it out). The movie made us see that there was more going on beneath the surface. And it's nice to know that when describing Bond, we can go further than the description of his job. Though we still didn't know too much. As M, writing Bond's obituary at the beginning of Skyfall 'What do you write about a man like Bond?' He also comes over as a much younger bond, with less experience, fitting the theme of an origin story.

Funny that. Because in Skyfall, just 2 movies later, Bond is once again an old warhorse who needs a justification for existing in the present world. A world filled with faceless, nameless terrorists armed with laptops, not guns or nuclear missiles, who post sensitive information on the web - a bit like Julien Assange or Anonymous. Bond isn't much of a hacker himself but there are still a handful of reasons why he should stay. Tracking, catching and/or assassinating bad guys requires an agent in the field. Whether the bad guys are Cold War era Soviets or modern day Terrorists, we need hitman Bond to deal with them.

But right there, I come to a point that makes these new set of films different from the old. Though the threat of cyber terrorism gets enlarged, this time, the antagonist isn't out to destroy, conquer, enslave or sell the world but has a personal vendetta against M. Like the previous two movies, The plot is much smaller in scope so, aside from a destructive romp through downtown London, the world at large and its population stays relatively safe. I think this is what makes the Craig movies so interesting - Bond isn't a superhero set to save the world by single-handedly retrieving the nuclear warhead or preventing a World War. Rather, he's a talented individual who needs to win a poker game... or prevent M from getting assassinated.

Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, is an ex-agent given up by MI6 after capture who took this rather personal and turned rogue. In this he almost serves as the evil twin to 007, because Bond is duty-bound. So much of his self confidence comes from the job, that without it, his drive is sapped.
Silva is, simply put, insane and a monster behind the man. He's quite good as a villain compared to Le Chiffre. Quantum of Solace didn't have a villain worth mentioning. Aside from Silva's colourful characteristics, he is very interesting as an avatar of, presumably, the filmmaker's comments (or even scorn) on the Bond movies of old. He's a destroyer of Worlds (and now I'm talking about M's world, not planet Earth). Silva mocks the old way 'How old fashioned of M to send a spy to catch another spy'. The perceived disrespect for the older bond movies doesn't end there however, because baddy mcBad is on a personal revenge quest to kill the only remaining character from before Craig: M as played by Judi Dench. He also goes out of his way to blow up the classic silver Aston Martin DB5 in a volley of gratitious gunfire as if to say 'That's for ever casting George Lazenby!'. The movie doesn't stop there however, Q chips in by saying, rather disdainfully, that Q-branch doesn't do those silly gadgets anymore. But wait, there is more. product placement is notoriously present in Bond movies. Almost a trademark. Yet, Skyfall has a rather on-the-nose scene in which Bond destroys a bunch of 'VW beetles, I think'. Of course, I rather took that as an extra amusing comment.

The film keeps going as a ritual cleansing of the franchise by reverting back to some of the more familiar Bond tropes. In the final stand at the Bond estate our protagonist, curiously sans backup, hopes to defend M from Silva who comes a-knocking with a small private army including a gunship. This is another little twist on the formula, like a snake eating its tail. Usually it is Bond who can spearhead an assault, aided by king and country, endless ammo clips, shark repellant spray and the US army, to confront the cornered villain.

In the end, and against a backdrop of old school over the top guns, fire and explosions, Bond manages to defeat Silva, but not long before M succumbs to her wounds and dies in the arms of the son she never had: James Bond. Bond in turn looses his surrogate Mother at the very place were his biological parents are buried. Bond seems to be forced to relive the past again (and again). And I stress this because the film then sets up the new Bond universe proper with the reveal of Moneypenny and the transferring of the M title to the new head of MI6: a man, just like the Bond movies of old. The snake has shed its skin, lo and behold the same snake emerges. Only newer.

In the final scene, Bond is encouraged to remain an agent in the field, despite recent hardships, failed medical and psychological tests and worst of all: age. No, I'm not saying Daniel Craig is too old to play Bond in the next film and I hope he stays, rather the film itself when it goes at length to show how Bond's age and physical condition is impeding his efficiency as an agent.
Personally, for the next movie I really hope they keep the smaller scope of the new run and puts Daniel Craig through the wringer once again. More of a thriller than an action movie, more serious and believable than the gadgetry of exploding sandwiches and homing missile ballpoint pens.

1 comment:

Alex Vanden Abeele said...

But I like an exploding sandwich :(