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.
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.