Skyfall

Skyfall is the 23th instalment in the Bond franchise.  Bond is gradually catching up on Carry Ons, of which there were 31, though they declined rapidly towards the end.  Bond movies are far bigger budget enterprises than cheap vulgar comedies, so you wonder how far the series might go yet.  But while it drags in huge audiences further Bond escapades seem inevitable.  Come to think of it, after the first few loose adaptations of Ian Fleming‘s iconic novels, you wondered what mileage there was in continuing, but continue they certainly did – long after the end of the Fleming source material.  But then, plots are essentially variations on the same theme, with the occasional twist here and there.

So how have they achieved this miracle of reanimation and suspended disbelief?  The stunts had to become bigger and better, the “Bond girls” ever more sultry, the locations ever more exotic, the song ever more up to the minute (here sung and co-written by Adele over a title sequence involving fire and water), but within the agreeably retro 007 style, and, with a certain touch of irony, 007 himself has been reinvented at regular intervals to appear eternally young, to become fully acquainted with cutting edge computer technology (which did not exist when Fleming wrote his original novels) and PC in attitudes (compared to the original Bond misogyny.)  The irony about Bond is that as one MI6 operative put it, “in real life Bond would be killed within five seconds,” not least at the climax when he is plunged into deep and freezing water that would kill anybody within 20 seconds… but to coin a phrase – “it’s only a movie”!

The current incumbent, Daniel Craig, eschews the tradition of black Bond hair in favour of blond, wears a six pack in a brawny careworn style more akin with a jug-eared body builder, and an expression of rugged determination – a British Russell Crowe, minus the knowing suaveness required of a Bond, by my estimation anyway, but undoubtedly appealing to the female audience was a substantial criterion, and in that it has worked with aplomb.

This Bond tries to be the cool type, strong but silent.  Bonds always used subtle understatement as a weapon of wit, but Craig ignores the Moore-style send-ups in order to take the action to extremes. He has just one truly delightful moment: after a death-defying chase scene on the roof of a train, he jumps down into the carriage and straightens his cuff; can’t possibly be seen looking less than your best!

Since the Craig era began, the movies have morphed too.  Far less of that understated wit and glamour we know so well, far more a tough, gritty, grainy, all-action style hero movie.  Inevitably the source material of Skyfall had to change too, and in that respect it manages to subvert the formulaic narrative structure more than most.   After all, there are only so many world-domineering baddies knocking about, so why not a baddie targeting MI6 itself, notably spymaster M, played for the seventh and final time, and in surprisingly vulnerable mood, by Dame Judi Dench.

The choice of Javier Bardem as that baddie is interesting.  Bardem is unquestionably a charismatic actor though he conspires with director Sam Mendes to ham up the role beyond the normal limits of what you thought possible in 2012, complete with rolling eyes, manic laugh and sneering glare.  Were it not for his dyed blond hair and pasty complexion, he could have been auditioning for the Black & White Minstrel Show.  He is certainly a contrast to Craig’s Bond, though I wonder if something along the lines of Michael Lonsdale‘s menacingly quiet villain Hugo Drax might have been more effective?

There is actually a fine cast at work here, including other great actors like Rory Kinnear, Ralph Feinnes (note: “Ralph” not “Rafe”, a name which in my humble opinion does not exist), Ben Whishaw and the delectable Naomie Harris (who begins as a field operative and ends somewhat improbably as M’s new PA) and Albert Finney (unrecognisable with a voluminous set of false whiskers as Bond’s gamekeeper Kincaid.)  You can’t go far wrong with a cast like that, though in any action movie driving the plot is what makes the movie tick.

Here, Mendes opts to throw the kitchen sink at Bond in a movie verging on two and a half hours, including a few longeurs that could have been excised with judicious editing.  In fairness to those who don’t know what plot devices are used to try to keep us on the edge of our seats I will avoid spoilers, but it’s fair to say that M is unusually to the fore and that MI6 would say the whole shebang is utterly ludicrous.  There are a few nods to other movies, including the inevitable top-of-train punch-up-with-a-twist, and to the wonderful scene in French Connection as Craig and Bardem climb on and off tube trains (no, I don’t know how the radio system works underground either!)

Also, look out for the return of the infamous Aston Martin DB5, first introduced as a Bond car in Goldfinger, still the most legendary Bond wheels and unquestionably a closer fit to the character than the recent spate of BMWs.  Bearing in mind that in the novels Bond was a wartime Navy Commander and drove a pre-war Bentley, his driving a German car is bizarre and misguided.  Such is the power of sponsorship!

In essence, this is still an action movie, to whit content including shooting, fights, explosions and chases using an assortment of handy vehicles in the usual panoply of exotic locations  (including Istanbul, so I can say I’ve been there), plus a few brooding scenes for added weight and depth.  It probably does outdo some movies, and thankfully excludes the likes of the torture scene included in Casino Royale (which had all men watering at the eye and crossing legs painfully.)  No surprise then that this Bond has, on the whole, been well reviewed (see here and here and here.)

But you still need the basic components right to make a decent movie.  As Hitchcock famously said, “to make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script.”  This script for the most part lacks the wit and warmth of Bonds past.  It makes just enough sense to hang together, but then did Bond scripts ever do more than paste together action sequences?  Yes, there are a couple of scenes that will shock and surprise you, a lot more that will look highly familiar, and several others that stretch plausibility well beyond snapping point – but then, maybe that is what cinema audiences want?

At any rate, the Broccoli household is still doing well, such that the final shot assures us that “James Bond will return” – albeit a few years down the line, once a new idea has been dreamt up on which to hang the tale.  Presumably Craig will come along for the ride and the umpteen million dollars in his bank account, up to the point where he is deemed too old and can be pensioned off to play Shakespeare at the National.  But the franchise will creak along until it passes the Carry On score, whence it will pass into history once and for all and Hollywood will dream up new action heroes on which to hang its hat.

For me, it will never be the same as when my dad first took me to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in about 1969.  From that moment I was hooked and saw all the prior films  as soon as I could.  That’s what Bond is now – comfort eating for the eyes, a reminder of childhood thrills, the excitement that set my blood racing as John Barry‘s iconic Bond theme came on air!

Perhaps it’s time to put Bond out to grass, send him to the home for retired screen heroes, find someone more flawed yet equally rugged to replace him?  In watching Skyfall I was, sadly, more reminded of the BB King song – The Thrill Has Gone.

 

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