Friday, November 23, 2012

Pastiche: Sam Mendes' Skyfall

My original intention was to look at the last 50 years of cinematic James Bonds, ending with the just-released Skyfall. I was planning to write about how each generation gets the Bond that suits the times. Sean Connery was the Bond for the men (and women) who'd fought in World War II. He was a man's man who fought the good fight, drank like a fish, smoked like a fiend, bedded a couple of “broads” and saved the world from diabolical evilness (i.e., Hitler). He was also the Bond for the first of the Baby Boomers who were born just after the war, so they would have been hormonal 16- or 17-year-old boys when Dr. No (1962) was released (they all drooled over Ursula Andress and her bikini). By the time Connery made his last original Bond in 1971, Diamonds Are Forever, he was the Bond for the end of the hippie era (the ideals destroyed, now usurped by scum such as slightly hippieish/psychopathic Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith)).

I was going to talk about how Roger Moore's first Bond, Live and Let Die (1973), was an attempt to come to terms with blacksploitation films such as Shaft (1971). I watched it again recently, having loved it when I was 14. My God, is it terrible and borderline racist. The Me Decade was encapsulated with the rest of Moore's work, with its disco overtones and not-funny quips. The new-seriousness of Timothy Dalton failed because the screenwriters seemed to forget that Moore had retired. The less said about the Pierce Brosnan era the better. Daniel Craig, in Casino Royale (2006), was the first post 9/11 Bond working in a world filled with confusion and trust being constantly betrayed.

Sean Connery as James Bond
I was going to talk about all this and fit Skyfall into the Bondian universe. And then I saw it. Don't get me wrong, I liked the film and was never bored or irritated by it (or angered as I was by the terrible Quantum of Solace (2008)). In fact, it's the first film by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) I actually liked. The biggest problem with Skyfall is that it isn't a James Bond film. I have no issue if an old series like Bond gets a make-over (that's what they did in Casino Royale, and that's why it worked), but this film, except for a few exceptional action set pieces (by the way, directed by Second Unit specialist Alexander Witt not Mendes – tellingly, Witt was not the second unit director on Quantum of Solace, another reason the action scenes in that movie were so bad), doesn't really seem to care much about the Bond history or legacy (except for throwing in the original Aston Martin DB5, and he orders one “perfect” martini). Skyfall is more concerned with the troubling nature of the family dynamic. In other words, the same sort of material Mendes has worked on throughout his film career (American Beauty, Road to Perdition (2002), Revolutionary Road (2008)). It is also one big pastiche.

Because Mendes sees himself as an auteur, I can almost envision him thinking, “I bet I can make a Bond film that will get nominated for Best Picture.” He tries to do this by not making a Bond film, but making a Mendes picture. This is American Beauty meets the action film. Bond, here, is the orphan that Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) speculated he was in Casino Royale. Since I don’t want to reveal late-film plot points, I will be vague on how that generally plays out, except to say there’s an mostly abandoned house on an isolated piece of land in Scotland (with more than one echo to Harry Potter films, what with long-dead parents and that spooky old house in the middle of nowhere). He’s not the only one with “parent issues.” The film’s big bad, Silva (Javier Bardem), has it in for M (Judi Dench) because he thinks she betrayed him back in the day when he was her “favourite son.” His elaborate, frequently unnerving revenge plan takes up the rest of the film. He attempts to pull both Bond and M into the way he sees the world, but neither will have anything to do with it. There are other parallels to Mendes’s earlier work, but I will leave you to discover those. But that also leads me to what (if I'm being generous) I’ll call “quoting” from other films.

Naomie Harris as Eve
When Silva is locked up in a glass cage at MI-6, it is similar to the steel-bars that held Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs just before he escaped. And in fact, Bardem borrows a few of his eccentric character choices from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal in that film. The Matt Damon Bourne films are echoed in the sequences where Bond floats unconscious in a body of water, and then later when he ends up on an exotic beach to escape the world and only returns to it once, in this case, England is threatened. Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible is acknowledged in the fact a list of undercover agents is stolen and then released to the world so the Taliban, or someone like them, can capture and kill them. In the De Palma film, it was the NOC list that the villains wanted to steal (containing the names of all operatives’ fake names). Julian Assange and his leaks on Wikileaks also came to mind during this plot point, especially when Silva sends a hack message to computers that says, “Think on your sins.” Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg's own take on Bond movies) is quoted when Bond takes part in a drinking game with a bunch of loud locals during the beach escape. Even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979 and 2011) gets in on the game with the dreary committee meetings and angst-ridden navel gazing about what the world of spying is really like. Some wag suggested the finale is out of the Home Alone movies; I think it's more likely quoting Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971). There's probably a lot more, but these are the ones I noticed.

Judi Dench as M
The performances though are what make the film so watchable, even if it is not a typical Bond movie. Craig continues to dig into the darkness of the character trying to find more than a cartoon super spy (he generally succeeds). Bardem is both fun and really unnerving as Silva, but he also veers into camp sometimes that undercuts the danger his deranged character clearly represents. Naomi Harris as Eve, Bond’s fellow spy, is terrific. She holds her own in the action sequences, helping and rescuing Bond in equal measure; she also gives as good as she gets in her tremendous repartee with Bond (there’s a reason the repartee is so gleeful). Bérénice Marlohe, as Sévérine, is an intriguing “Bond girl.” As with most Bond films, she’s the gal who is in some way attached to the villain. What is so appealing about the way she plays the role is that she is clearly “enjoying” her seeming position of power with Bond, until her real character is revealed by a slight hand tremor. In reality, as the layers fall away, she is a just a frightened young woman who has put on a shield of toughness to protect herself, but if it is a shield made of thin glass. Ralph Fiennes plays a complex character with real unexpected layers, even though it’s nothing more than an extended cameo. And Ben Whishaw, as Q, is wonderfully cast as the callow youth who thinks technology and his own smarts can solve all problems. He’s proven wrong.

Director Sam Mendes
But it is my pal Judi Dench (long story) as M who has the most vital story in this film. A friend of mine suggested intriguingly that Judi Dench is the film’s “Bond girl” because that is who Bond spends most of the film defending and protecting. Showing her age in a way most actresses today don’t dare to, Dench lets you see the wear and tear on M's body and psyche as Silva tries to destroy everything she’s desperately tried to defend over the years, including Bond. It’s a wonderful performance.

So there’s mixed feelings about this film. It may not be a James Bond movie, except during a few moments, and it’s not really that original nor that insightful a look at the family dynamic. (Skyfall also raises the issue of how age is catching up to all of them, not completely believably either, except for Dench.) But there are so many gems spread throughout, especially in the performances, that it allows me to sort of overlook its Bondian flaws. I think the biggest problem with this picture is that Mendes lets his ego get in the way, therefore making a film that is not as inspired as he clearly thinks it is.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and its Eye.

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