Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I don't visit cinemas in my curmudgeonly middle age as much as I did in my curmudgeonly youth, but a new James Bond film will always find me, at least as long as I remain ambulatory, in a theatre seat on its U.S. opening day.  The next-to-last time I saw Daniel Craig as 007, alas, he was in drag, appearing in an asinine two-minute short commemorating the centenary of International Woman's Day.  (The last time I saw him, of course, his and Queen Elizabeth's stunt doubles were jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting into London's Olympic Stadium.)  Looking vaguely like the grotesque Linda Tripp of Monica Lewinsky infamy, the planet's most celebrated superspy stands dejectedly silent in the short as the current M, Dame Judith Olivia Dench, harangues him from offscreen about the Deplorable State of Women, what with all that income disparity (which, contravening gender feminist doctrine, has been thoroughly debunked; see, for example, here and here), domestic violence (reconsidered here), sexual abuse, and enforced illiteracy.  The last two problems in particular form an integral part of the savage way certain non-Western countries operate, although the multicultural mandarins behind this agitprop do not address that fact, doubtless for fear of upsetting the Diversity-at-all-costs applecart (of which a glaring example remains the "institutionalized political correctness" that facilitated the recent Rotherham atrocities).  This hysterical--in the archaic medical sense of the word--short was, to absolutely no one's surprise, written and directed by two aggrieved women (Jane Goldman and Sam Taylor Wood, respectively).  The invisible M informs Bond that "facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century is something that we all have to recognize, confront, and challenge."  Tell it to the Taliban, ladies.  I find the mistreatment of women as abominable as the next fellow, but give me the machinations of Auric Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld over this miserable misandry any day.

I frankly despair to see poor Bond in anything so aesthetically risible, but 007 has certainly proven himself resilient through the years.  That's why it's more than a little satisfying for me to see M get her belated comeuppance in Sam Mendes' magnificent Skyfall (2012).  Don't misunderstand, dear readers: I adore Dame Judith, and have generally enjoyed the gender conflict between Bond and his battleaxe boss since Pierce Brosnan assumed the role in Martin Campbell's Goldeneye (1995).  Bond may well be, in M's words, "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and "Cold War relic," but he's by far the best sexist, misogynist dinosaur and Cold War relic she and MI6 have, and she bloody well knows it.  (Ironically enough, in Skyfall's progressive Britain, M herself is considered a relic of "the golden age of espionage.")

Craig's first 007 outing, Campbell's Casino Royale (2006), energetically revised the long-running series while coming as close to a faithful adaptation of an Ian Fleming thriller as we are likely ever to encounter.  Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace (2008), although less spectacular, picked up immediately after the previous picture ended (a franchise first), and was intensely gripping for its double revenge motif.  Continuing the theme, vengeance is what Skyfall's about, administered here by Tiago Rodriquez (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 hacker turned over by M to the Communist Chinese for "operating beyond his brief" just before the 1997 Hong Kong handover ("They were on to him," M shrugs, "so I gave him up.  I got six agents in return, and a peaceful transition"), and now doing business as the androgynously bleached blonde Raoul Silva.

If supervillain Silva's carrying a ton of spiritual baggage ("Life clung to me like a disease," he says of surviving his cyanide-assisted suicide attempt after being tortured by the Chinese), so is our old friend Bond, who's presumed dead after being accidentally shot in Istanbul by his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) while battling mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) atop a speeding train.  It's the second bullet for Bond, whom Patrice has earlier wounded.  The mercenary has stolen a computer hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents working undercover in terrorist cells, thus inciting the deaths of several operatives.  Shrapnel from Patrice's slug enables 007 to track him to Shanghai, where the two men--who seem to have wandered onto the futuristic set of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982)--battle to the death in a skyscraper after Patrice assassinates a man in an adjacent monstrosity who's attending a private viewing of what appears to be the Amadeo Modigliani painting La Femme a l'eventail (Woman with a Fan), which was stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

Before this battle, a bitter Bond has secretly retired to Turkey, where he spends most of his time brooding, cultivating stubble, and generally drinking himself senseless; the last activity entails entertaining the locals by draining the tequila from a shot glass while a scorpion is balanced precariously on the back of his hand.  One morning Bond is watching Wolf Blitzer on a bar television and learns that MI6's headquarters has been partially detonated, killing eight employees, by terrorists (the second time in the series the building has been bombed).  The blast is observed from outside by M, who's returning from a meeting with Intelligence and Security Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, looking fairly weatherbeaten) where he's urged her to retire in light of recent events as the political winds shift.  ("We can't keep living in the shadows," Mallory obliviously insists, apparently having never seen a Bond film.  "There are no more shadows.")  MI6 has also been hacked, causing the exposure and murder of additional NATO agents.  007 pulls himself together, more or less, and returns to duty, incidentally informing M that he found the obituary she wrote for him "appalling."  Believing him deceased, the agency has also unloaded Bond's childhood home in Scotland, Skyfall, as well as his London apartment.  007 fails MI6's mandatory physical and psychological retesting--M, however, deliberately conceals the results from him--and next he's in a Macau casino after discovering a gambling chip in the late Patrice's gear.

Here Bond encounters the mysterious Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe, whose character's name recalls Catherine Deneuve's role in Luis Bunuel's classic Belle de Jour [1967]), a former sex slave employed by Silva and earlier glimpsed by Bond during Patrice's hit at the Modigliani viewing.  She agrees to help 007 if he will kill Silva.  After battling her bodyguards (one of whom winds up as a tasty meal for the casino's Komodo Dragons), Bond does the horizontal mambo with Severine as her yacht sets sail for an island Silva's requisitioned for global mischief.  The pair are taken prisoner aboard the boat by his henchmen.  Back on dry land and with a goon's pistol pointed at him, Bond is challenged by Silva to shoot a shot glass off the now-bound Severine's skull (a William Burroughs reference?--the ambiguously sexual Silva could easily be a member of the novelist's viral Nova Mob).  Bond's old aim, unfortunately, isn't what it was; the shaken 007 misses, hitting a broken statue behind Severine, and, in a truly chilling moment, Silva casually kills the woman, almost as an afterthought.  Bond finally springs into action, while the tracking device Q (Ben Wishaw) has earlier given him trails Silva to his lair as helicopters swoop down for the capture.

Silva is held in MI6's underground headquarters (which once served as Sir Winston Churchill's wartime bunker), assailing a phlegmatic M for betraying him.  "You're smaller than I remember you," he tells her, to which she retorts, "Whereas I barely remember you at all."  Assuring Silva that "soon your past will be as non-existent as your future," M departs to appear before a House of Commons subcommittee regarding the case of the stolen hard drive; there she is badgered by the female Prime Minister and responds by attempting to inform the silly creature what a dangerous place the planet has become.  (In Michael Apted's The World Is Not Enough [1999], the character openly lamented the end of the Cold War.)  Silva escapes from his glass cage--his capture was a deliberate attempt to get him close to M--and, disguised as a policeman, is pursued by Bond while wreaking havoc in the London Underground.  Silva and his henchmen emerge full-blown from Mallory's non-existent shadows, storming with guns ablaze into the subcommittee inquiry just after M has finished reciting the final stanza of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Bond arrives rather late to protect his boss; he's assisted by Eve and Mallory, who is wounded in the shootout.  Silva and crew retreat, allowing Bond to go "back in time" by essentially kidnapping M and hiding her out at Skyfall.

If you have yet to see this marvelous picture, then I strongly suggest that you stop reading right now, as I intend to discuss the outcome of all this chaos.  Bond and his boss are greeted at Skyfall by estate gamekeeper Kincade (an almost-unrecognizable Albert Finney), who helps them prepare a lethal welcome for Silva and his men as the villains electronically track them.  (Amusingly, the only gun left in the house is Bond's father's old rifle; an American collector has snapped up all the other weapons.)  Silva arrives by helicopter, his plane's speakers blasting the Animals' classic "Boom Boom" much as Robert Duvall's choppers blared Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).  M is mortally wounded in the ensuing firefight, dying of her injuries in the family chapel after Bond dispatches Silva with a hunting knife in the back.  It's a devastating moment for the series--in truth, I can scarcely believe it myself--and 007 openly weeps for her, just as he did for his murdered wife Tracy in Peter R. Hunt's much-underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).  An era has ineradicably ended.

Stephen B. Tippens, Jr. has detected more than a trace of Ian Fleming's father, the World War One-killed Tory MP Major Valentine Fleming, in the novelist's legendary creation, noting that 007's "intangible virtues are Valentine's," virtues which "may not have been singular" in the Major's time, "but...are quite un-plural now."  If Bond is, in a very loose sense, Valentine reborn, M plainly functions in both Fleming's novels and the pre-Brosnan series as a sometimes distant father figure to the orphaned Bond, whose parents perished in a mountain climbing accident.  (Fleming's posthumous 1965 The Man With the Golden Gun goes all Oedipal as a Communist-brainwashed 007 attempts to assassinate M, though this surprising subplot was omitted from Guy Hamilton's 1974 film adaptation.)  In the Brosnan movies, Bond resents M's female leadership--he considers her a "an accountant, a bean counter, more interested in [her] numbers than [his] instincts" in Goldenye, while she warns him that "if you think for one moment I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong."  M assures him that his "boyish charms" are "wasted" on her, and even abandons him to the North Koreans in Lee Tamahori's Die Another Day (2002), which got 007 through the atrocities of 9/11 by the expedient of having the secret agent held and tortured by the Communists for fourteen months.  The Craig Bonds, however, take their relationship in a different direction, with a more distinct maternal dynamic.  The three most recent pictures in fact form a trilogy of sorts for our post-9/11 age.

Bond is callow and violent, too-quick to emotion in Casino--eager, indeed, to quit his job for the (treacherous) woman he loves--and almost off-his-rocker ruthless in Quantum (at one point he prepares to kill himself and his fellow vengeance-seeker Camille when it looks as if they're going to be incinerated in a South American hotel), but by the time of Skyfall Bond's more than just physically broken; he's unexpectedly middle-aged--apparently several years have transpired since the previous picture--and facing burnout in a young man's field.  Yet still he must keep moving, demonstrating Nietzsche's dictum that "Under peaceful conditions a warlike man sets upon himself."  It is Silva's vendetta which brings Bond back from the brink of despair.  Meanwhile, the new Q, a tousle-haired waif, seems to have wandered into MI6 from a shoegaze or emo band; Bond can scarcely believe his eyes when he encounters the lad, who's nearly young enough to be his son.  Time is marching relentlessly on for the scenario's key characters.

007 admirer Sir Kingsley Amis famously preferred the Fleming novels' "belief, however unreflecting, in the rightness of one's cause" to "the anguished cynicism and the torpid cynicism of Messrs [John] le Carre and [Len] Deighton,"  but the dark, dour world of George Smiley and Harry Palmer has been very much a part of Bond's cinematic universe for quite some time now, particularly since Craig assumed the role.  The key sequence in Skyfall is Silva's assault on M at her hearing.  Powerful cross-cutting has her quoting "Ulysses" as Bond races through the London streets to stop his nemesis.  Tennyson's lines symbolize England's faded glory, as well as the nation's fortitude:  "'Though much is taken, much abides," M intones to the inquiry board, "and though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"  This eloquently sums up 007 himself, a superman in a country which is no longer a superpower.  Bond endures in spite of everything, even the Spenglerian decline of the land he loves.

The film's family dynamic is amplified by the surrogate father figure of Kincade, who has known Bond since he was a child, and is further complicated by Silva, bloodily craving acknowledgement from the woman who abandoned him.  When Silva observes that M shows "no remorse" for turning him over to the Chinese, she responds that "regret is unprofessional." He's an agent sacrificed--stabbed in the back, literally and figuratively--for the sake of the British government, a man who despite torture "protected [its] secrets" until he finally realized that it was M, and M solely, "who betrayed me."  M not only represents motherhood, she's Mother England herself, repeatedly referred to by her MI6 underlings as "Mum."  Attempting suicide with his molar capsule--the same type of  cyanide implant which M chastises 007 for not swallowing in Die Another Day ("I threw it away years ago," Bond defiantly informs her)--the poison damaged Silva internally and left him with a mutilated mouth, but the terrorist ultimately comes to believe that he has survived in order to look into M's eyes "one last time."  He wants to hear her speak "my real name.  I know you remember it"; she, however, declares that she will have that name removed from "the memorial wall of the very building you attacked."  Silva mockingly tells his former brother in arms that "Mommy was very bad" in "[sending] you after me, knowing you're not ready, knowing you would likely die."  In the chapel climax, Silva embraces the dying M, giving her his pistol so she can shoot them both in order for them to be together in the grave.  She willingly pulls the trigger, but the weapon's out of ammunition, although Silva successfully joins his surrogate mother in oblivion, his mission accomplished.  This time, the villain has won.  Bond, once again, has been abandoned.

Skyfall is permeated by a surprising Christian religiosity, something one seldom encounters in the series.  M is hounded electronically by Silva, who urges her via computer to "think on your sins."  Skyfall (the manor) contains a priest hole, one of those hiding places which were prominent during the persecution of Catholics in Queen Elizabeth I's reign.  Kincade proudly tells M that the young Bond hid in the tunnel behind the priest hole after learning of his parents' deaths; when he emerged, Kincade says, "he was no longer a boy."  The hole later allows the surrogate family unit to escape from the manse's inevitable obliteration.  Earlier, when Silva inquires what Bond's hobby is, our hero replies, "Resurrection."  007 is violently baptized twice in the film, the first time emerging into a metaphorical afterlife spent "enjoying death"; the second, after a battle with Silva's last remaining henchman beneath the broken ice of a frozen lake, rebirths Bond into a post-maternal landscape.

Mendes' direction is muscular, with Skyfall fitting in surprisingly well amongst his other examinations of personal and social breakdown such as American Beauty (1999) and his splendid adaptation of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (2008).  The film's numerous action setpieces, from a motorcycle rooftop chase in the pre-titles sequence to the obliterating battle of Skyfall itself, are superbly staged.  The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan has a novelistic depth not often witnessed in today's megabudget behemoths.  Roger Deakins' cinematography is exquisite, impressionistically interpreting the bleak beauty of the Scottish Highlands, while Mendes' frequent composer, Thomas Newman, offers a score to rival the powerful work of earlier series masters John Barry and David Arnold.  Adele's sultry theme is one of the better Bond songs.  The performances are uniformly excellent, with Craig, Dench, and Bardem delivering Oscar-caliber performances.

All those novels, all those films.  Why does 007 so fascinate us?  It's not simply vicarious self-actualization.  Contrasting the age of Valentine Fleming with postmodern England's grave new world, Tippins observes that, "[w]here Valentine's contemporaries took to the trenches, the young men of today's Britain riot in the streets.  That's what a half-century of entitlement does to a society," he continues, "it takes the backbone out of people while simultaneously giving them notions of grandeur."  The appeal of Bond appears to be well-nigh eternal because he represents a masculine ideal in our increasingly demasculinized age.  007 still has his backbone, and by the gods, he knows how to use it.

Typically, the superspy has his fair share of detractors.  The British/Indian writer Bidisha sniffs that "the Bond films are generally sexist....Ian Fleming hates women," asserts the angry authoress without supplying any evidence whatsoever.  Leicester University Professor James Chapman, author of a cultural history of the movie series, goes so far as to pronounce that "ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films"--speak for yourself, Professor--which flaunt "everything that is not politically correct."  This, however, is precisely one of the reasons why I, and I suspect many moviegoers, enjoy the pictures.  Bidisha propounds that "the Bond mythos is loved because it represents people's biggest bigot fantasies," but I believe that she, like others of her idealistic ilk, is dead wrong.  We love 007 not because we are bigots, but because we respect his intangible, non-plural, and out-of-fashion virtues.  We passionately long for a less sensitive age when men strove, sought, found, and did not yield--especially to the Universal Cult of the Victim and its attendant entitlements.  By Skyfall's end, the recuperating Mallory has become both the new M and another father figure to 007, Eve has become the new Moneypenny, and James Bond is ready for his next assignment, which I fervently hope will not entail facing up to gender issues and the sometimes covert nature of sexism in the Twenty-First Century.  Here's the trailer.