'Skyfall' And An Auteur's Bond: A Fan Makes Peace With An Artsy 007
Skyfall, the 23rd canonical James Bond movie, came out in the U.S. this weekend. I am pleased to reaffirm what you've already read about it if you care at all about James Bond movies: The film is good and occasionally great, restoring the character to his rightful station as the grandest of screen spies — or at least the one most likely to take time to introduce himself to the targets of his spycraft by his last, then his first-and-last, names. I assume he formed this habit after people began showing a quite sensible reluctance to accept his business card.
The film is a triumphant paradox. It reintroduces the some of the series' iconic-but-lately-absent tropes and characters while preserving Daniel Craig's fresh take on the role, even as it asks whether he's already over the hill. (The-44-year-old Craig's frequently uncovered body still appears to be chiseled out of marble, but we understand that he's a mojo-depleted, pill-popping wreck for part of the movie because he grows a little stubble. Fortunately for us, that stubble is as easily cured as Bruce Wayne's broken leg was inThe Dark Knight Rises, a film that this one echoes to a surprising degree.)
Minor quibbles (and without quibble, would a fanboy not simply blink out of existence?) aside, Skyfall is a layered, exciting, beautifully shot adventure. No one is more relieved I am. I've been dreading this movie ever since Sam Mendes was announced as its director, well over two years ago.
Mendes makes an inviting target for fanboys like me: He won the Best Oscar for his very first film, 1999's American Beauty, now widely seen as overrated. (Let the record show I had the purity of vision to hate it way back in 1999.) But the reason I didn't want him going within wristwatch-laser distance, much less shoe-knife distance, of the 50-year-old 007 franchise was that he seemed to have the same pedigree as Marc Forster, who directed the prior Bond adventure, 2008's Quantum of Solace.
That mouthful of a title was the least of its problems.
I'd loved Casino Royale, 2006's vigorous Bond reboot. It introduced 007 No. 006, and Craig is beyond all argument the worthiest of Sean Connery's successors. It wasn't merely the best Bond movie since the 60s; it was the first one wherein I actually worried the guy might fail. Royale commits to the idea of Bond not having mastered the je ne sans quoi his exceedingly weird job demands. He spends the movie screwing up, and then screwing up some more. His boss, M, (played magnificently by the magnificent Judi Dench, in the series' sole casting holdover from the Pierce Brosnan era), calls him "a blunt instrument." He hasn't yet made himself a blade.
Casino Royale's sequel, Quantum of Solace, was the first direct continuation in the franchise's history; the two form a single, four-hour story, unevenly divided. (Unfortunately, Casino of Solace is already a well-known Lifetime movie about the scourge of gambling addiction.) But producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli didn't rehire Royale's director, Martin Campbell for Quantum, even though they used the same writers. For whatever reason, they went to Forster, who made Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction. Good films all. None of them action pictures.
Quantum was of those odd ducks that can only exist within beloved franchises: a huge box office hit that almost nobody liked. It's a relentlessly dreary, violent picture; with the exception of one breathtaking chase-and-fight sequence set during a performance of the opera Tosca, its stunts and action sequences are barely punctuated by dialogue scenes and are as incomprehensible as anything in a Michael Bay movie. It played better on my laptop than it had on the big screen, and that's all wrong: If there's one thing the Bond pictures stand for, it's living large, production-value-wise. (The judges' panel would also have accepted "imperialism" or "misogyny.")
Here's why I'd fretted that Mendes posed a more dire threat to Bond than Oddjob, Jaws, and that five-foot-tall French guy he fought at the end of Quantum of Solace put together: Mendes is an auteur.
There's nothing wrong with an auteur putting his stamp on a franchise. I love that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan each gave us distinct visions of Batman, for example, that felt of a piece with their other work. I like that each of the four movies in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible series has come from a different director, and that they look and feel so different.
But Bond is not Batman – though Skyfall's final act comes perilously close to making him Batman, right down to giving him his own Alfred Pennyworth. The best Bonds have been made by journeymen filmmakers, competent but largely anonymous. Only five directors were responsible for the first 16 films. John Glen, for years the series' in-house director, helmed all five of the "official" Bonds released during the '80s. (There was one unofficial entry, Never Say Never Again, that brought a 53-year-old Sean Connery back to compete at the box office against a sanctioned Bond film starring a 56-year-old Roger Moore that same year.)
Two of the best latter-day films, Goldeneye and Casino Royale – the 007 debuts from Pierce Brosnan and Craig, respectively – were from the hand of Martin Campbell, whom you wouldn't call an auteur. He's made good entertainments (the pilot episode of ABC's drama series Last Resort) and bad ones (2011 Green Lantern). But he never leaves fingerprints. The franchise is the star.
Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli have moved away from the notion of having a stable of directors work in a house style. In the '90s, they hired Michael Apted, a noted documentarian and the director of high-toned features like Coal Miner's Daughter, to direct The World Is Not Enough. (Remember? With Denise Richards as Christmas Jones, nuclear physicist? Sheeeeyeah.) For Die Another Day, they got New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, famed for the Māori family drama Once Were Warriors.
Highly regarded, these filmmakers, just like Mendes. But these are nobody's favorite Bond movies.
Skyfall, on the other hand? Well, it's far too early to tell how hypnotic a spell this film will cast in its cable TV afterlife. But I think it's about as good as Casino Royale, which would make it at worst the second-best James Bond film released during my lifetime.
I was afraid Mendes would art it up. And he did, but in a way that only makes the film feel richer. In addition to deepening the relationship between Bond and his boss — and filling in some, possibly too many, details of Bond's upbringing — the film gives us a spectacularly stylish neon-lit action sequence set in Shanghai. (Roger Deakins cinematography is eye-popping throughout, but especially here.) At 143 minutes, it's one of the longest films in the series, and wrapped in not a little weary melancholy, which is exactly what I thought this series did not need. And yet, there's a candlelit casino with Komodo dragons under the floor. And yet, Dench gets more screen time than in any prior Bond movie. And yet, Bond gets to make a few quips. They're awful; it's wonderful to have them back. And yet, Javier Bardem [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED].
My fear was that Mendes would try to turn Bond – a fundamentally escapist series – into some existential metaphor for the folly of war or the futility of revenge or the winnowing poverty of the soul that comes from leading a double life. Hey Sam, I wanted to shout. Just make a stylish, pulse-quickening adventure movie. Avoid a shot of James Bond surfing, if at all possible. Union Jack parachute? If you must.