Sunday, November 18, 2012

"Skyfall" tests limits of Bond myth


Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney

“Skyfall” is a good-looking, well-crafted Bond movie with a mild identity crisis. Put another way, it’s really two movies in one. Movie A is a classic .007 adventure, replete with car chases and shootouts, exotic locales, disposable babes, and a diabolical super-villain. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find Movie B, a much wryer, more melancholy tale of the passing of an era—the very era that Movie A celebrates.

This tension isn’t exactly new to the franchise: hints of it trace back to Pierce Brosnan’s days, if indeed not earlier, and the reboot casting of Daniel Craig was at least in part a response to it. However, director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road”) may be the first to expand that self-awareness beyond Bond himself to the entity (and nation) he represents. It’s no secret that Bond’s popularity owes much to various flavors of nostalgia, one of them being the fantasy of British supremacy in keeping the world safe—the idea that what Britain could no longer achieve through military power could still be done through intelligence, and specifically through the unflappable, undefeatable .007. “Skyfall” keeps that fantasy going, though not without inflicting some serious dents in it: tellingly, the movie’s opening chase ends with Bond taking a (literal) fall and being written off as dead.

Of course he isn’t dead; Bond will always live to die another day. Perhaps even more tellingly, though, he chooses to remain off the grid until he sees news reports that a bomb has gone off inside MI6 headquarters, leaving the place a smoking, hollowed-out ruin. As the shaken agency retreats literally underground and comes under scathing inquiries from Parliament, while Bond gets a physical and mental evaluation that reveals he’s in sub-par shape for field work, there’s a suggestion in the air that the old order may be on the brink of obsolescence. It's underscored by the introduction of bran new characters like a younger, geek-chic Q (Ben Whishaw) and Gareth Mallory (a very good Ralph Fiennes), the MP leading the inquiry into MI6 operations, to whom there’s more than meets the eye. Nevertheless, for a time—in set pieces that take place mostly in Shanghai and a glitzy casino in Macau—“Skyfall” returns to classic .007 mode, with Bond back to business taking down the baddies and making the ladies swoon with trademark efficiency.

The film shifts gears again, however, with the entrance of the lead baddie, Silva (Javier Bardem in sinister mode). Never mind that Silva’s stolen some super-secret information that MI6 desperately needs to recover; that fact ends up being a Macguffin. Unlike most Bond villains, Silva isn’t particularly interested in taking over the world, and his leering, almost lascivious attitude towards Bond is likely to throw some viewers for a loop—like the guy behind me who groaned a very audible “oh HELL, no,” during an interrogation scene between Bond and Silva that’s laden with homoerotic innuendo. It quickly becomes clear, though, that Silva’s real obsession isn’t with Bond at all but with the woman behind him, M (Judi Dench). In targeting her, Silva appears bent on exacting vengeance against the country and agency that betrayed him years ago. Yet it’s even more strongly suggested that the betrayal is a personal issue specific to M, a point emphasized earlier in the movie by her willingness to sacrifice even her most trusted agents.

Thus Bond’s mission becomes a test of his own loyalty to M, leading to a final act beautifully shot in the unlikeliest of locations: a remote windswept manor in Scotland that turns out to be Bond’s childhood home, where, in a Batman-like touch, he witnessed the violent deaths of his parents. Is his defending M here a commentary on the nature of their relationship, perhaps that she’s become his de facto surrogate parent? If so, it doesn’t have quite the emotional resonance that Mendes seems to be going for, largely because the character of M remains something of a cipher. At the same time, there’s a certain poetic irony to the prospect of an uprooted Scot protecting a wounded symbol of British power on Scottish turf, in keeping with the movie’s general decline-of-empire theme.

In the end, of course, the threats are driven back, Bond reasserts his dominance, and the very last scene of the movie sees a full return of the old jaunty .007 charm. But that final tonal shift feels abrupt and not entirely convincing, a sign of “Skyfall”’s overall instability as a movie that repeatedly chips away at its own foundations. While the “A” plot ultimately prevails, it’s the subversive B strands that leave the deepest impression.



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