By Bob Clark
In the past 50 years, there have been about 23 Bond films, give or take the ones not produced by EON. That’s a rate of a movie almost every two years, and each one at a scale and scope that would dwarf most other pretenders to its action adventure mantle. A few other franchises have been as productive, in their shorter span on the cultural horizon– the X-Men film series, launched by Bryan Singer in 2000, has managed a healthy five films so far in the past dozen years, with at least two more currently on the way. Others have been a bit more limited in their output– in 35 years there have been only six Star Wars episodes (versus at least 18 Bond films over an equivalent span), though after Disney’s purchase of the franchise that restrained approach will likely vanish at the drop of a Mickey Mouse eared hat. Plenty more have done whatever they could to milk every last ounce of audience interest in their various flagging series of spectacles, pulling whatever kinds of narrative tricks and gimmicks they could come up with– we’d probably still be seeing Pink Panther movies coming out if it weren’t for Peter Seller’s death, and that still wasn’t enough for 3 different attempts to reboot the series. With all the longest running and longest active franchises there’s inevitably been a sense of diminishing returns both in terms of creativity and general interest– you can almost track the moment the Star Trek series ran out of steam at the point when even fans stopped calling the movies by their titles and nicknamed them “The One With the Whales” and so forth.
Yet Bond remains, and likely will do so for another 50 years, so long as Western civilization holds up. And if we’re in that span treated to another 23 or so movies that fall somewhere on the same creative spectrum that Skyfall hits, then we could do a hell of a lot worse (just as there are Star Wars fans who deny the Prequels, I’d like to politely pretend that the Roger Moore years never happened, thanks very much). As an fiftieth anniversary piece, it’s fitting that this latest production arrives with a fair amount of prestige, helmed by certifiable Oscar winning director, scripted by at least one of the screenwriters of a Best Picture winner and photographed by one of the most esteemed cinematographers of his era (only one of those three actually deserves any of those awards, but still), and it’s equally appropriate that the film they come up with together works both as a solid continuation of this current generation of Double O Sevenry and as a celebration of everything that’s come and gone in the five decades past. There are copious nods to the previous Bond films and novelsthroughout– a plot engendered upon a traitorous MI6 agent come back for revenge, just like 006 from GoldenEye; the return of franchise regulars Q and Moneypenny after being absent the past two features (even Moneypenny’s coatrack comes back); a flamboyant villain with a name just a couple of letters away from a precious metal (silver’s not as played out as gold, apparently), an ugly piece of mouthgear and a sexual ambiguity so slippery he could stand as a nod to at least half a dozen SPECTRE associates.
The most poignant echo might be the dominant presence of the Union Jack throughout the film, though not in the same flashy manner as in Bonds past– no longer unfolding from a parachute, instead now draping the coffins of dedicated agents in her majesty’s secret service. It’s a telling detail that speaks volumes for how the film attempts to answer the question of where a superheroic style of agent provocateur like Bond fits in the new espionage model of the War on Terror, one that underlines the urgency of many sequences throughout the film, especially set-pieces that see spies chasing terrorist actives through the crowded Underground. We’ve seen the Bond series self consciously update itself before from one war footing to the next– one of GoldenEye‘s chief pleasures isn’t just in how it moves to a new Bond (Brosnan being the one I grew up with, both in the movies and on Nintendo 64) but also how it moves away from the Cold War and into the less defined geo-political terms of the 90’s. Following 9/11, the advent of the Daniel Craig films have at least meant that the series could pull back the reins on the more outlandish embellishments and flights of fancy in the previous administration (though I do love some of the wacky choices in the Brosnan years– a Rupert Murdoch media baron out to start a war with China for profit? I’ll buy that) and rely on something that at least more closely resembled reality.
Or perhaps, the more nebulous ambiguities of our current technologically enhanced world were better suited for the twilight espionage escapades of Bond– even during the Connery years villains like Goldfinger or Blofeld were never really affiliated with the Soviets. SPECTRE and the various other menacing fronts of the franchise never truly represented any national interests, and as such feel like a savvy fit for an era where threats come from rogue international criminal groups and syndicates. It might’ve been enough to see Bond go after cartels of ideologically based baddies in the first outings of the Craig era, but instead we managed to snag an additional wrinkle of telling realism– economics. With Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace pitting a freshly rebooted 007 against a syndicate of financiers for all the world’s terrorists and despots, the Bond franchise adopted a surprisingly skeptical view of the current state of affairs, and formed something of an odd triumvirate between the Star Wars Prequels and Tom Tykwer’s The International of big action-adventure spectacles that put bankers and capitalists squarely in the crosshairs. In a sense, that’s really not so far from the roots of the Bond films themselves– what was Auric Goldfinger’s plot against Fort Knox but an elaborate stock-market scheme on par with the current day barons of Wall Street? Greed has always been a root of so many of the classic Bond villains, and something that was universally touched upon in the Brosnan years, even at moments that rivaled Moore’s tenure for pure silliness, and a villainous attribute easily hissable in today’s perpetual crisis-mode economy.
As such, it seems almost a lost opportunity that Skyfall chooses a burned spy with an axe to grudge against the agency that gave him up as its evil mastermind without even a hint of a get rich quick scheme to line his pockets. As the menacing Silva, Javier Bardem is given a fine opportunity to recycle elements of his award-winning No Country For Old Men performance, with a few nods here and there to Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker for good measure. Mendes and a script headlined by John Logan borrow liberally from the Nolan canon in the plot and execution of the film (though thankfully without the younger director’s penchant for shooting action sequences with a minimum of clarity or coherence– Mendes showcases a superb hand at set-pieces throughout), as well as various other classics and modern masterpieces throughout the running time. Sometimes the nods appear merely stylish– hints of Michael Mann in glass skyscrapers drenched with blue neon that turn nearly every shot into a silhouette that could fit in one of the title sequences. Others hit closer to home, particularly at the climax– a helicopter attack on the Scottish moors, an ancestral home engulfed in flames, a role reverse pieta lit dimly by fire and surrounded by massacre. Most especially, a repeated motif of Bond standing dimly lit in darkened doorways helps the movie join the club of films that reference The Searchers while just casually being far better than it, and there’s something to the idea of Bond being the same kind of dark, damaged hero as Ethan Edwards that fits better than the idea of Travis Bickle and his quest to clean up the dirty streets of per-Giullianni Manhattan.
Given that Skyfall goes to great lengths to underline how the physical and mental toll taken on agents in the field can lead to creating monsters just as well as heroes, the Ford homage helps offer a nice bit of context to the overall question of where Bond fits in the changing landscape of international politics, just as The Searchers attempted to rethink where the Ethan Edwards of the world fit into an America they helped create by bloodying their hands of it. Yet the film belabors the question with various pitstops for Judi Dench’s M to sit before governmental hearings on MI6 and the Double-O program in ways that were never quite so dwelled upon when Bond made the update from the Cold War back in GoldenEye. The question is asked so many times in the film, it begs the larger question of whether or not anybody was bothering to ask it in real life. Was there anybody out there who didn’t buy the idea of James Bond in the age of the War on Terror? Weren’t Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace enough of a reset on their own? It underlines some of the various attempts to bring things back to the patterned status quo of the past Bond formula (as the cooly partonizing Q and Miss Moneypenny return, so too do the strict gender roles that she and her superior represent), and brings out more of the conservative aspects of the character and franchise that seemed to have been evolved from in this iteration, helping to turn Skyfall, like this year’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises another kind of action-adventure triumverate, this time in favor of reactionary corporate elements instead of against (so much for that dream I had of Tom Tykwer helming a “Bond Vs. the WTO” movie).
After a while, however, all of the attention and suspicions of whether or not Bond or the fictionalized agency he represents fit in the world anymore hit upon something even more uncomfortable than the politics that the series represents (which, at the very least, are lightyears ahead of where Ian Fleming’s head was at times). They feel less like on-the-nose political musing or even celebratory recognition of a long-lived. At a certain point, it shows off a certain defensiveness about the series– everybody wonders aloud whether the Double-O’s are outdated or Bond himself over the hill, it makes you wonder if the EON producers are afraid that the series is bound to get lost amidst all the other blockbuster franchises out there today. But nobody out there ever asked whether or not Bond still belongs in the world– only what took him so long to come back. That was largely thanks to the insolvency of MGM, and now that the studio is somewhat up and running again, one can only hope that we can sit through another 50 years of adventures as crisp, polished and entertaining as this series has been, inviting us not merely to watch reflections of the world’s anxieties, but more importantly a chance to escape and overcome them. So shake yourself something dry and say cheers to Bond and his safe return– let’s just hope he doesn’t keep us waiting so long next time.