Review: 'Skyfall' Takes a Licking. Keeps on Ticking. (Double entendre intended.)
A close up of Daniel Craig’s eye ends Skyfall’s credit sequence. It’s a touch of Vertigo and reminds us this franchise will “keep ticking,” or at least the hands of time don't plan to stop moving. The clock motif is subtle but bigger than Bond's Omega product placement. This Bond is greying, wounded and unfit for service—but his legacy as MI6’s energizer bunny makes him the ideal (if the only) candidate to defeat a villain too internet savvy to track and too ephemeral to identify. The tropes are old but this saga of the gentleman soldier solicits swoons like the best Bonds ever did, even if Bond’s dangerously close to decommission.
Casting Dame Judi Dench as M was a nod to progress with the flavor of “Old Mum.” The Brit’s tradition of lionizing their blue hairs is deeply rooted and here it's a life or death proposition. More than once in her career, M’s had to sacrifice an agent to save six. To the individual, this signals betrayal, but to the team the decision is self-evident. Leadership is difficult, but it’s not M’s movie—Bond is the star, a sexy lone wolf who fights and f**ks for Bulldog England. Part of the thrill of his exploits is the reality that his slinking has to be a solo job—this isn’t a war film about strategy or taking one for the team. But the values that defined Bond's England have changed, and as the icon of that time, he can't survive trapped in amber from 1962. Bond was swinging England, a saucy flag crassly flown above a superpower seeing prominence in international culture. For a shining moment England was the World Capital of Fashion (supplanting France) but all we remember of this today is what we’ve learned from Austin Powers. Our historical evidence of Cutting Edge UK begins with Kandinsky dresses and ends with Connery shagging his way through the female spy corps. You’d think The Who had made a bigger impression.
So while the Bond of Ian Fleming’s books and 1962’s Dr. No are benchmarks of an era in transition, Skyfall is the reverse: it’s about an icon in transition, which makes for some awkward statements.
Like George Lazenby (Her Majesty’s Secret Service) before him, Skyfall's Bond is particularly physical. Craig's not a jet-setter like Roger Moore, he uses his body to do his job and, paycheck aside, this makes him part of a working class that might be made redundant. So when Bond enters a backhoe to take out a pursuant, the world’s construction workers can applaud. And when he topples a row of last decade’s VW Bugs and M asks “what was that?” the reply is “VW Beatles…I think"--well you wouldn't be wrong to read a criticism of "retro" culture. Bond shaves with a straight razor, runs in sweat pants and while all his competitors sport sneakers, he’s always in rubber soled dress shoes. The old ways, one agent says, are sometimes the best. They just require some resurrection to re-enter view—fortunately that’s Bond’s new hobby.
Bond’s villain is a previous incarnation—of a sort. Again, Javier Bardem is perfect, parading an embarrassing coif and a manner no other human could pull off. His villain's skill with computers betrays the established notion technology is the province of the young, and his emphatically fay mischief-maker is the kind of villain Gay Activists used to rally against and now laugh at. Ken Anger would love this guy: he giggles at the Aston Martin, looks like a firework and “buys” himself an island by telling the inhabitants it’s polluted. (It's like he's buying with stock!)
The climactic showdown takes place at a Castle in the Scottish highlands—a bastion of old ways and a home guarded by a patrician groundskeeper (Albert Finney). I can’t explain why an Englishman would be caring for a Scottish estate, but no one could play the mascot for the aging lothario like Finney (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, anyone?). Old Mum, unfit Bond and slow-moving Finney boobytrap the castle like a Geriatric Home Alone, in effect building the Best Explosive Marigold Hotel—it’s a once resplendent edifice, but the change of times can’t support it. Some things fade, others go boom, but in this never ending cycle, the world refuses to let Bond stop ticking. If he had kids we'd want him to rest, but what Bond has "fathered" is legacies, and those live on with or with custodial visits.
When Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out I saw it as a valentine to progeny; it’s a film by a patrician figure (Spielberg) interested in honoring its heirs. Crystal Skull nodded to Shyamalan, Singer and other high pedigree purveyors of schmaltz. Like Indiana Jones, Bond is a serial that’s touched many legacies in its wake: Skyfall boasts a fight around an open skyscraper window (MI: 4 Ghost Protocol), an underwater “rebirth” a la Bourne and a gun that’s explicitly a cock-with-balls (ok, that might not be a reference). When M goes on trial for losing agents to Javier Bardem’s cyberstalker, her prosecutor sites her for reckless disregard because she believes in a golden era of espionage in which human intelligence is the greatest resource. M responds that today we don’t know our enemies. It’s an argument that might have been made by Scotland Yard as they were adapting fingerprints and Social Security cards and Arthur Conan Doyle was inventing Sherlock Holmes, the CSI hero who could track baddies down to their homes by studying just the mud on a boot. I'm a devoted sucker for Bond, I love the lairs, the gadgets and all the girls, but I'm beginning to feel guilty for keeping him around. If he's vulnerable, and to be an accessible character he has to be a little, I want him safe--I want him to rest. It's a conflicting proposition. I'm waiting for the second rubber soled dress shoe to drop.