The People vs. James Bond

Last weekend I went to see “Skyfall,” the twenty-third entry in the now fifty year old James Bond franchise.

As an action film, it’s more than adequate, thanks largely to its overqualified crew: it was directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, whose name few people expected to see attached to popcorn franchises like this, given his past highbrow features like “American Beauty” and “Revolution Road.” I’m not a big fan of those movies, but they’re easily better entertainments than the majority of what has been issued under the 007 moniker through the decades.

Just as meaningfully, “Skyfall” was shot by one of today’s most accomplished cinematographers, Roger Deakins. The first half of the film features a fight sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper that, thanks to Deakins’ almost audacious stylization, surely qualifies as the most visually stunning Bond scene since Honey Ryder emerged from the sea in “Dr. No.” On its own, it’s almost worth the price of admission.


Defensive Postures

Despite all this abundant talent, there is a clumsy brittleness at the film’s center, when it endeavors to make a half-baked argument for itself. It involves Judi Dench’s M character, who has suffered through appallingly slight character development for years, testifying acidly before a government panel on the necessity of her absurdly destructive band of “double-oh” spies.

The whole premise strains credulity, but what’s worse is that it attempts to inject a bit of righteous urgency into its fantastical notion of secret agents. James Bond has always been outrageously bereft of accountability, and that’s as it should be; his over-the-top “license to kill” is part of his wide appeal. But “Skyfall” goes further than this; it turns its airport novella conceit into a shrill, almost Cheney-esque defense of the security state. Dench’s M argues that there are untold dangers out there in the world that can only be dispatched by men who only nominally answer to authority, and to question that need is dangerously naïve. She delivers this diatribe so stridently, and to a caricatured audience of government ministers so conveniently craven, that the scene is virtually propagandistic.

This defensiveness is actually nothing new though. Since at least the time that Pierce Brosnan first put on his Brioni suit in “Goldeneye,” the Bond franchise has been consistently and curiously defensive about its continued existence. Each installment makes obligatory nods to the creakiness of its Cold War premise, and the rotating cast of support players in Bond’s universe seem to continually harp on his methods and worldview, criticizing his unchanging habits through stilted, expository script lines.

These exchanges are a half-hearted way of acknowledging the unvarnished truth: at twenty-plus sequels over the course of fifty years, the Bond series has far outlived its original brief, if not its usefulness. The admonitions really only amount to lip service though, as no one really expects Bond to act on any of this advice to ‘get with the times.’ The character’s exploits invariably validate his own recklessness, and by the end of each sequel, Bond remains unchanged and irrepressibly himself.

There is in fact nothing wrong with that. Bond endures because of (and not in spite of) the fact that he is an unchanging, enormously attractive archetype of mid-Twentieth Century, post-colonial notions of Western manhood.

For some reason though, the filmmakers seem to believe that they must attach a more modern context for the character, that they must somehow root him in contemporary mores to make him more believable or relatable, even if they do so only cursorily. This is what “Skyfall” is trying to do by evoking the global war on terror, and effectively endorsing its many infractions on human rights.

It’s important not to get carried away with politics here, though. It’s not my complaint that the movie puts forward a political argument that I disagree with; it’s that it feels compelled to defend itself at all.

For my money, there is no need to ground Bond in real world rationality. There is no need to put forward a version of this character that even pretends to understand his geopolitical context, because that’s not what we want from the character.

This is the same mistake that I’ve seen “serious” genre films commit again and again over the past decade or so, as these previously whimsical movies have become markedly darker and grittier. Today’s genre filmmakers seem to think that in order to make these characters and premises more ‘real,’ they must be made to operate by the rules of the real world. Instead, I think the truth is that characters must operate realistically by the rules of their own world.

It’s only the constraints and crises of the pretend world in which 007 exists that matter. And if they call for a fantastical idea of a secret agent who is reckless, womanizing and homicidal, let him be just that, for those are the very things that make him interesting. Don᾿t offer meek apologies for him in the form of haranguing dialogue; don’t drag him in front of comically unrealistic tribunals; and for goodness’ sake, don’t try and explain him away with the same vapid arguments that we see in real world politics.

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11 Comments

  1. Khoi, I agree. One could fear the franchise is losing sight of what makes Bond fun in the first place with its ‘realistic’ take. I did really enjoy Skyfall..but Bond is supposed to be irresponsible. The characters M and Q exist to tsk-tsk him with a measure of reality. The Shanghai stuff was indeed beautiful and successful. The Macau sequence was also good because, classic Bond, in addition to action we want the Bond in an exciting, luxurious foreign locale.

  2. The reason why Bond feels the need to justify itself to the viewer is because there will constantly be people who can’t help but deconstruct each movie. You pore over it because it acknowledges its changing circumstances, but at the same time it would get picked apart if it acted like times weren’t different. It cannot win. I like the current tact, where it acknowledges that things have changed, but still continues on the same general path. Skyfall is probably the best Bond movie ever, which means it will invite even more dissection.

  3. Never use the word “relateable” if you want what you say to be taken seriously by anyone over the age of 29. That’s a word college kids in the “learning-as-a-service-industry” age invented to explain why they won’t study a book that offends their sensibilities.

  4. I could be mistaken, but it sounds like your version of a new Bond film is one I would probably not even waste rental money on. There’s a reason that many old action movies are terrible to watch these days and don’t hold up – and I’m not talking about special effects.

  5. Yah, the Bond movies start to suffer when they try to justify themselves or get w/the trends of modern times. Bond is a super hero, essentially, and it would be wise for the film makers not to over think this stuff. Your going to be influenced by your contemporaries, but it is a problem when things get derivative.

    The Brosnan films really play like 90s action films at their core and are just too influenced by that stuff. Though Michelle Yeoh (sp?) was brilliant in her film and Die Another Day was pretty enjoyable.

    Daniel Craig is breathing new life into the series w/his abilities, looking forward to seeing Skyfall.

  6. You nailed it! I love Bond’s world, and when I go to the see a Bond film I want to live in his world for two hours.

    Can’t wait to see Skyfall and escape!

  7. Fair points, but I think there’s something to be said for viewing the second half of the movie in a different light. (As with this entire page, spoilers coming up, naturally.)

    Casino Royale was a new take on Bond and Quantum of Solace dialed the grittiness up a few notches further (to its great discredit). While Quantum of Solace went for a relatively blemish-free villain to accentuate personal darkness, Skyfall returned the bombastic, classic Bond bad guy. Skyfall just about turns the car around, but not enough to fall into the trap of introducing John Cleese as R. (Terrific performances, but as good an indicator as anything of the plot slowly turning to self-aware parody.)

    The part of Skyfall that’s not about reclaiming the Bond legacy is about the place of Bond’s MI6 in a modern world. M makes a gallant case, but you’ll also note that it doesn’t keep her from being killed off. All the focus on the new M, the new Moneypenny and the new Q establish them as departures from what has come before, but as carrying the torch forward.

    For lack of a cheesier term, Skyfall shows us a Bond team embracing the duality of a modern Bond. A Bond that shows us what we loved before, but which makes no attempt to stay put in its box when, say, the Macau fighting scene is within reach and contributes just as much as the opening chase and the attack on the manor.

    Skyfall demonstrates that Bond can continue. There are blemishes, but you don’t have to look hard to also notice the inexorable mark of progress. The stage is set for Bond 24 to start Bond all over again; not by a reboot, not by simple remakes of the earlier movies but by Craig’s Bond in basically the same position as the start of the series and a modern cast of characters.

  8. Personally I liked Skyfall as a film. I liked the modern day scenario approach. As for relatable – considering 7/7 and 9/11 and more recently, the Breivik massacre, its not a matter of if these people exist – its a matter of who will stop them. Sure, Skyfall places the mantle of saving the day on the shoulders of a flawed man and goes to dramatise it more. After all it is a work of fiction thats evolving to work with today.

  9. I appear to be the only person in the world who enjoyed Quantum of Solace more than Skyfall. All three of the latest films were quite good, but I felt each was not as good as the previous.

    My major beef with this one was the lack of development with Severine. When she was part of the plot, she did quite a bit for the story… but she ended up being such a tiny part of the movie. Died too quickly.

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