Monday, December 3, 2012
Everything Old Is New Again: Skyfall
By the time I got around to seeing Skyfall, I was aware that it had been called (at least perhaps) the best Bond movie of all time. By whom and how many, I'm not sure, because this wasn't stuff I was seeking out — the hype on Twitter was simply impossible to avoid. I mention this up front because I'm definitely not the guy who should be evaluating where this picture ranks within a franchise that is now 50 years, 23 films and six Bonds strong. In theaters, on VHS, on DVD or on TV, I've seen almost all of the Bond movies at this point, but most of them only once, and I've never read so much as a page of Ian Fleming's original novels. So all I know about what a James Bond movie "should be" comes from a relatively distant appreciation of what James Bond movies typically have been. Still, when it comes to Skyfall, of this much I'm certain: I've never had a better time watching a Bond movie.
As good of a time? Well, sure. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon Casino Royale on TV and was reminded of the transfixing sexual tension between Daniel Craig's Bond and Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, and I appreciated anew the boldness of rebooting this James Bond as an emotionally raw character. Meanwhile, I've always felt that Goldfinger was the quintessential Bond flick, what with the presence of Sean Connery, the girl painted in gold, the laser aimed at Bond's crotch and the mere existence of Oddjob and Pussy Galore. And even when I think of a ridiculed installment like Moonraker, I'm put in touch with my childhood fascination for the oh-so-Bond-villainous Jaws, the tall guy with the metal teeth who you figure Vince McMahon would have dreamed up as a 1980s WWF heel if he hadn't been conceived for the Bond universe. That said, while Skyfall isn't as playful or imaginative as most of its predecessors (very much by design), it's also more sensitive, more personal and more visually daring than almost all of them. And that's thrilling.
Of course, if a Bond expert tells you I'm wrong about all that, trust the Bond expert. But if we can agree that one of the core elements of Bond Cinema is the indelible impression — a combination of the picture itself and the awe or sexuality encoded within it — then we must also agree that Skyfall is particularly rich in that regard. (Spoilers ahead.) The first unforgettable image from Skyfall comes near the end of the traditional opening set piece, in which a fistfight on top of a moving train (of course!) is interrupted by a bullet from a sniper rifle: the bad guy gets away, even though the long-range shooter has ample opportunity to take him down, but Bond doesn't — and what's so striking about that moment isn't just the jaw-dropping sight of Bond falling from a moving train (wow!) but also the free-falling effect of seeing Bond take a bullet: it's overwhelming and disorienting — the worst kind of adrenaline rush. Skyfall's next indelible impression is a fistfight before a different fall, this one taking place in a dark, vacant Shanghai skyscraper, with the action unfolding in silhouette — black against midnight blue, occasionally highlighted by a giant LED screen providing an additional psychedelic backdrop. But for my money the most dazzling image from Skyfall is, like the gold dust girl in Goldfinger, comparatively straightforward: Bond standing tall in a raft, passing through the mouth of a bright red-orange dragon that serves as the illuminated gate to a floating Macau casino — a shot in which legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and the ruggedly sexy Craig both do everything in their power to take our breath away.
I'm limiting myself by selecting just three awesome images above (hello, shaving scene!), but perhaps it's more important to dig into what these images achieve: stylized realism. That's been the modus operandi of this entire Craig-starring reboot (previous Bonds had no interest in realism), and Skyfall, written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Josh Logan, and directed by Sam Mendes, finds the perfect balance of the two, nicely grounding the series after Quantum of Solace birthed a Bond too interested in becoming Jason Bourn. The plot of Skyfall is about an agent who has lost a step and might be over the hill, but Craig's performance and Mendes'/Deakins' framing repeatedly reinforces Bond's handsomeness, swagger and strength, making this tux-clad cat cool in the only way that Bond characters can be cool: without trying. Craig's Bond isn't "original," and thank goodness for that: from a pop culture perspective, James Bond should always provide our working definition of smart, sexy and suave. But Craig's Bond almost feels new, because the screenplay taps into that rage that's still so refreshing after all those Bonds who were neither shaken nor stirred, no matter how they ordered their martinis, and because these days the multiplex is overrun by badass-posing, catchphrase-dropping, punch-line-slinging comic book superheroes who are only cool in the way of Michael Cera's Paulie Bleeker in Juno: they try really hard, actually.
Craig's Bond is so compelling, so charismatic and so accessible (despite his aloofness) that Skyfall didn't need to dig into Bond's childhood for us to figure out that he'd gone through life with a chip on his shoulder — since Craig took over the role, that chip has been the only thing bigger than his bulging lats. But the appropriateness of Bond's origin story shouldn't be taken for granted. Until now, Bond was a character who seemed born at full maturity, so it's no small task to draw his childhood convincingly, even in the abstract. And in the end it's worth it for the poetry of Skyfall's finale, which has Bond utterly destroying his former life — utilizing some of the gadgetry of former Bond movies — to battle a villain who is obsessed with the past (Javier Bardem's Silva). Skyfall ends with Bond at the end of an era and yet starting all over again. And for a series that never quite gets old, maybe that's exactly where Bond should always be.