Well, Skyfall is upon us.
It’s done gangbusters at the box office. If positive press is any indication, then one might conclude that nobody does it better than Bond. On her majesty’s secret service, he’s foiled countless villains and bedded only the loveliest ladies in the world (and Denise Richards). But is the latest cinematic adventure truly a feather in the cap of the spy too big to fail?
While most people have raved about Bond’s latest affair, I found it conflicted.
(Note: the following editorial will contain minor spoilers for Skyfall solely for the purpose of discussing the themes of the Bond franchise. I’ve tried to handle it respectfully of the films and the audience, but I thought it apropos to drop in a quick warning for those still intending to catch it in theatres before it drops on home video.)
Oh, it opened grand! One of the elements about the Bond franchise that I’ve always found amazing is that, under the Broccoli family’s leadership, they’ve established a particular ‘cadence’ to the films. For example, audiences are always shown Bond in his Sunday best. We’re always treated to the ooey-gooey opening credit sequence where scantily clad women dance with colored ribbons or porpoises or some such nonsense. The superspy is always given the latest techno-toy for him to use, and the newfangled gadget or the remote controlled bazooka or the invisible car can be counted on to save his life at least once in the picture. Plus – my favorite part – every Bond film opens with a dynamic action sequence that lesser films save for the climax!
To its credit, Skyfall had all of these things. What I meant when I said that I found it conflicted is the fact that, as a franchise, the Bond films under Daniel Craig seem to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis. I can’t help wonder if, maybe, that crisis to too big for MI6 to fix.
Craig rushed onto the Bond scene (with much pomp and circumstance) in 2006’s Casino Royale. Royale also garnered an awful lot of critical praise. Some of that had to do with his infamous swimming trunk scene that had women throwing their underwear at the screen. But substantively what critics loved was the fact that the film deliberately served as a series reboot. The story promised to take us back to the days when Bond was young, less inexperienced, and – dare I say – vulnerable. The focus was on establishing a spy toward the start of his career. Producers never intended to slight the continuity of the other Bond pictures; rather, they wanted to wipe only part of the slate clean – James’s distant past – for the purpose of re-introducing the characters to audiences of the new age.
Royale was a huge success, grossing almost $600M worldwide.
Then came Quantum of Solace, the 22nd film in the series.
Solace promised to follow-up on the character ‘beats’ established in Royale, picking up just moments after the previous flick’s conclusion. Clearly, the producers liked what they did, and why not? Royale made serious money. It enjoyed some massively favorable media attention. Critical success gave the Bond franchise an added measure of respectability – no longer was it just a stable of films about good guys defeating bad guys. It said things – important things – about us and the world we lived in. It was a phenomenon to be reckoned with.
In a narrative sense, however, Solace was a step backward in time. One aircraft used in a flight sequence was a Douglas DC-3, a plane with its heyday in the 1940’s and 50’s. Set design even had the look of some of the earliest Bond films. The story was a touch more political, and audiences learned that there was even an organization, “Quantum,” not all that dissimilar to SPECTRE, another group that plagued MI6 in previous films, behind the dastardly shenanigans.
As for Bond himself, Craig’s second turn focused on the spy’s almost grim dedication to revenge for what happened in the events of Royale; in the franchise’s history, Bond seeking revenge had largely been used thematically against those who’d killed fellow agents. So while clearly continuing the precedent set in Craig’s first film, producers artistically went in the opposite direction, back into territory already explored.
The addition to Skyfall to the Bond mythology arc really presents a dilemma.
Whereas Royale and Solace sought to clearly place Craig’s Bond toward the early days of the spy’s career, Skyfall shows us an older, more grizzled hero. Obviously, this agent comes across as one who’s long in the tooth at MI6 – there are timeframe references provided for Raoul Silva, Bond’s adversary and a former MI6 operative, to establish some relative difference between the two men, but I didn’t find it all that definitive. The story even makes several references to Bond’s history with the agency, and the climax (the real identity to ‘Skyfall’) even further chronologically separates Craig’s third film from the timeframe established by his previous two outings.
What’s the big deal?
Bear with me a moment while I climb up on my high horse.
In the English alphabet, it isn’t just a narrative conceit that C comes after B and B comes after A: rather, it’s just the way it is. A, B, then C. Royale, Solace, then Skyfall. However, Skyfall felt like it wasn’t C. It certainly didn’t follow as closely on the heels of Solace – not the way Solace followed on the heels of Royale. Skyfall was more like the letter F than the letter C. Bond was older. Bond served on more missions, so much so that he was aged and (dare I say it?) couldn’t perform to the levels of his previously established cinematic perfection. Of course, he’d still save the day, but this Bond had considerable mileage on him and (even worse) some emotional baggage.
A critic once likened James Bond to Peter Pan. Bond, like Pan, is ageless. He’s timeless. He’ll always defuse the bomb in the nick of time, he’ll always one-up the villain at the craps table, he’ll always outfight hired thugs, and he does this not because he’s better but because he’s James Bond. It’s just what he does. That’s what his audience expects. He eats better, he drinks better, he shoots better, he drives better, and yes – YES – he ages better than any other cinematic hero. He can be placed in any era of history – past, present, or future – and he always performs the same. What differs is the circumstance of the era he’s placed in … but not Bond.
He’s the constant. He’s the standard-bearer. He’s the archetype.
For all its bluster, Skyfall isn’t a bad picture.
At times, it felt like the Bond pictures of yesterday with its death-defying stunts and exotic locations. At other times, it curiously felt more like an episode of ABC TV’s Alias, a very good show in its own right. It’s weighted down in some ways by some questionable CGI (scorpions and komodo dragons). It’s a bit bombastic with its homo-erotic ‘fallen angel’ villain. Skyfall is novel and entertaining in much the same way Batman Begins was. It establishes a slightly different version of Bond, removing him from the typical noir-ish overtones and the traditional fancy British corridors of MI6. He still walks tall, kicks butt, and takes names. He’s older. He’s wiser.
But he’s also scarred, bruised, broken, and battered. His bikini bod now has scars. Big scars.
Thank goodness chicks dig scars.
So, for the record, this is Craig’s third turn as James Bond … and his second re-invention of the character.
Let’s see where he goes next.