“It’s Not You, Mr. Bond, It’s Me”

Skyfall is a good movie. It’s a good action movie. It’s a good Bond movie. Fans of action movies and Bond movies will love it. It’s already made a lot of money at the box office, and it will continue to make a lot more in the coming weeks. You should go see it. You’ll most likely be very entertained.

As for me, I found myself bored right through the backs of my apathetic eyeballs and all the way down to my detached and disinterested toes. Yes, it was all very well done by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), stolidly grimacing star Daniel Craig, and especially the always-brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins.

So we can only conclude that I no longer care much for action films or Bond films. That realization threatens to nudge my reaction to and assessment of Skyfall from the realm of film criticism and into navel-gazing personal therapy, but I’ll do my best to steer toward the former and keep the latter to a minimum.

Even if Skyfall’s basic plot (from a script by regular Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, plus John Logan) spins on a couple all-too-familiar axes (a disgruntled former M16 agent has stolen a list of undercover spies… yawn) and serves up the usual off-puttingly blatant product placement (hai, Heineken!), there are still oodles of pleasing set pieces, lots of big stunts, far-flung locales, and morally compromised femme fatales.

There’s Bond as a beach bum, broken and reflective on the sand, and later back in London, in repose, studying a Turner painting. There’s M16 relocated to a Churchillian underground war bunker and a villain’s visually nifty man-made island (Japan’s Hashima), its ruin porn a sly play off the shiny Bond-villain lairs of old. And there’s a well-done final siege in a crumbling Scottish manor. (This is easily the most British- and London-centric of the Bond films, another plus in my book.)

Through it all, Craig is solid as usual, his Bond a cold, cruel, bowlegged battering ram, and no one, least of all me, has a bad thing to say about Dame Judi Dench’s M. Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney shore up the film’s British Thespian credentials, and on the younger end, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Bérénice Marlohe don’t let down the side.

Of course, Bond, like all heroes, is only as good as his villain, and Javier Bardem’s Silva is a bag-of-cats-crazy study in contrasts, his performance and its paradoxes making for the film’s most interesting elements. Wiggling out from under the most, um… “intriguing” hair choices since Christopher Walken in View to a Kill, Barden plays Silva with both soft-spoken menace and mincing innuendo. The result is simultaneously understated and flamboyant; it conveys chilling effect and eye-rolling self-parody at the same time—Bardem’s undeniable talent forces us to evaluate his performance decisions, successful or not, as carefully and intentionally chosen.

In the film’s only surprising scene, Silva’s sadistic seduction of Bond strips away the long-coded sexual tension between 007 and his antagonists. (Who can forget Gert Frobe threatening Sean Connery’s manhood with a laser beam in Goldfinger?) But it also ends up feeling, disappointingly in this day and age, like a throwback to the tired stereotype of the gay psycho; a return to the dated spy action world where homosexuality and homicidal deviancy signify each other. (Silva, however, speaks for us all when he notes, “The physical stuff is so dull,” and later, “All this running and jumping and fighting is exhausting.” Amen to that, Brother Silva.)

Deakins certainly makes it all look good: the smoke and sunlight, fall-grey London and mist-covered Scottish moors, and Craig’s hardened face in all its increasingly craggy glory. But throughout Skyfall there’s also a feeling of Mendes trying too hard, no matter how effortlessly the end result appears on the surface. Bond’s wry quips and British-bulldog toughness seem forced, and the constant attempts to pay homage to the 50-year-old film franchise’s checkered past, with jokes about exploding pens and ejector seats, feel like pandering, winking distractions. There’s no subtext to Mendes’ homage—an art-house and Oscar-winning auteur-wannabe, the stylish and mannered director studied up and worked hard to make the best Bond film he can, followed all the rules, wove in all the tropes, and by most measures he’s succeeded. Mendes is excellent at flawlessly recreating the idea of a Bond film, but so what?

Ultimately Skyfall’s only purpose is to be a Bond film (and by extension, an “event movie” and box-office blockbuster). Take as microcosm Adele’s tremendous theme song, one of the series’ best of recent decades: It’s a perfect tribute to the classic Shirley Bassey Bond songs, but what’s that get us but a) half a nice Adele song and b) half a nice faux Shirley Bassey song? Maybe that’s enough, but, like the whole of Skyfall, “Skyfall” the song feels more like impressive karaoke than fresh creation. There’s no energy to the entire endeavor that doesn’t feel borrowed, and while the movie keeps moving, it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

2006’s Casino Royale succeeded by stripping away the Bond franchise’s baggage and shaking up its ailing status quo. After the sideways misfire of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall takes several steps back toward Bond business as usual, and with these tentative (seemingly harmless, even laudable) nods to “tradition” comes the fear that the inevitable future installments will continue–as so often happens after house cleanings–to pile the old baggage back in.

We are continually told in Skyfall how old and out of date Bond is—there are plenty of mentions of old dogs and new tricks, and the lessened role for brute force in the new world of cyber terrorism and espionage. But of course this is only Craig’s third outing as 007—he got his license to kill in Casino Royale, and 2008’s A Quantum of Solace followed directly from its predecessor chronologically. That means this current, rebooted version of Bond has only been out there killing for Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a few years (MGM bankruptcy delays not withstanding). Granted, the job no doubt puts on the mileage, but with all the tips of the hat to the overall franchise, we quickly realize it’s not Craig’s James Bond who’s getting on in years, but “James Bond,” the pop-culture, Kennedy era icon trying to find someone to kill in the post-Bourne age.

(I can make peace with the idea that the Bond films don’t need to be saying much or breaking cinematic ground, but that just supports my long-held belief that the best way to revive the series would be to re-film the canonical Fleming novels as period pieces, set in the timeline of their publications.)

Of course, none of us are getting any younger. God help you if you become old enough to see all your childhood pop-culture loves and obsessions re-invented and re-booted for a new generation, but particular aid is required for that moment when you realize you’ve outgrown most of them. My pre-pubescent brain was soaked in Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Bond, and to this day, I still get a giddy thrill from Trek and Tolkien. Star Wars and Bond, not so much.

It’s not so much a reflection of the overall quality of these pop-culture products, though an argument can be made that taken as a whole the Star Trek and Middle Earth fictional universes have been crafted with slightly more creative and thematic care than the Star Wars and Bond franchises. All these things are steeped in escapist, wish-fulfillment fantasy, but as an adult, Roddenberry and Tolkien’s initial visions and characters, clunky as they may be, still have something to say to me about life, the universe, and humanity (or Hobbitry), and while their themes and messages aren’t Dostoevsky deep, they are at least served up with a certain rich and rewarding resonance.

I don’t find that in Bond, and I can live with the argument that I’m not supposed to; that it was never there in the first place. That’s not what the Bond books or films are about. Which is my point—it’s not Bond, it’s me. Stylish, cavalier fantasies about how to look cool while killing people just don’t do it for me anymore on an emotional or escapist level. And Skyfall has proven that, at least for me, without that connection, even the most tremendously effective execution can’t keep my re-packaged childhood fantasies from feeling hollowed out, dull, and pointless.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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