Friday, November 9, 2012
We've come to expect a certain formula from the 007 movies, now numbering 23 with the release of Skyfall: opening stunt scene, sexy title sequence playing over a torch song, 007 on a mission where he first meets the bad girl, then the evil villain that keeps her and finally, the good girl before he fights the baddie to the death. Any freshness injected into the traditional outline has usually come through the recasting of James Bond himself (Daniel Craig is the sixth actor to play him in the official series) or by stripping the character down to his gadget-less essence so that the only thing he can depend on are his wits. In only one instance have we ever strayed close to knowing the man behind the facade. That was in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, my personal favorite and most underrated of all the Bonds, in which he gets married not because of any ulterior mission but because he has truly fallen in love. Things don't end well for Mrs. Bond needless to say. More grist for the cold, callous mill.
One area where none of the films have ever dared tread (and Fleming only lightly) is Bond's naked psyche. And Skyfall explodes it for all to see, laying siege to Bond's identity in any number of methods by way of the sadistic Silva (Javier Bardem), himself a former agent left in the cold by M (Judi Dench). Now, Silva gets his hand on a MacGuffin right out of De Palma's Mission: Impossible in order to punish M before he terminates her altogether. And in so doing, Silva exposes the complex relationship between Bond and his maternal boss. The character of Bond has always worked best as a cipher. Why do you think it's always been so easy to recast 007 with actors of such vastly different styles as Sean Connery, Roger Moore and ultimately, Craig? To know Bond too well is to risk allowing the audience to get a bead on the mysterious character.
In that sense, Skyfall is the antithesis of all of the Bond films that have come before it, giving us the clearest picture of the superspy ever. We learn of his childhood, how it specifically motivated M to recruit him, how she played on what he knew of his background in order to manipulate and shape him, effectively becoming the mother Bond never really had. Silva, presumably "raised" in the same manner, is M's prodigal son then, come back with a vengeance. So it's not hard to see past the lame homosexual advances he hopes to perturb 007 with (to which a cheeky Bond responds, "What makes you think I haven't?") to a twisted sort of brotherly kinship he feels for Bond as he tries to convince him to betray their "mother." This places Skyfall into the realm of tragic opera.
Perhaps the intrafamily dysfunction is what makes Skyfall the most emotional and stirring of all the Bonds despite being the one with both the grandest and most personal settings to date. Or perhaps it only feels like that because director Sam Mendes, composer Thomas Newman and cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) made Skyfall that way. From American Beauty to Away We Go, families under stress have been Mendes's wheelhouse, and Newman has been there to provide the musical score nearly every step of the way. However, it's Deakins' lush imagery that gives Skyfall the melancholy intrigue that one could argue has been absent since composer John Barry left the series. From a fight sequence captured in silhouette over the neon-lit cityscape of Shanghai to Bond's arrival to a Macau casino on a launch floating through a lantern-strewn waterway and finally to the Scottish Highland, filled with a mist hanging like a shroud over Bond's murky past, Deakins suffuses Skyfall with enough gloom to cast a noirish shadow over the exposed 007 as just about anyone did back in the early days of the film series.
Signposts from Bond's meta history are scattered throughout Skyfall. The movie's opening fight, on a train coursing through Istanbul, outdoes the famous fight scene on a Turkish train in From Russia with Love. Its coda punctuates the pre-credits in a way meant to evoke You Only Live Twice. Even Goldfinger's Aston Martin shows up late in the film. And for the first time in a genre reboot it doesn't feel as if it's a clever move by the filmmakers to show us how well they did their research or an attempt to ingratiate themselves with fans. It's a way to enlist us as Skyfall burrows deep into Bond's soul. It's no coincidence that the exotic locations that abound in Skyfall's early acts soon give way to settings that lie closer to home. What's the last time a Bond movie spent so much time in and throughout London and Scotland? Still, as generous a portion of James Bond as Skyfall serves up, it's just a tantalizing peek. And that's exactly how it should be.