Friday 7 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: Skyfall (2012)

Bond is back. For the twenty-third time in fifty years, Eon productions, which started as a collaboration between the American Albert 'Cubby' Brocolli and Harry Saltzman, a Canadian, and which is now run by the heirs of Brocolli, have dreamed up another epic concoction of the enduring espionage-thriller series starring British Secret Intelligence Service agent James Bond, the mythic construction of English author Ian Fleming.

Fleming, an operative for British Intelligence during the Second World War, dreamed up a series of books which he would reveal were “written for warm-blooded heterosexuals.”

With a globe-travelling hero constantly enmeshed in life-or-death intrigue amid a procession of alluring and sensual female companions, and who pitted wits against an assortment of ferocious villains working for ideologically hostile foreign governments, the books portrayed a hero decidedly more worldy in scope than the famous heroes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan and Herman Cyril McNeile.

Bond certainly projected a more glamour-tinged edge and a level of escapism which represented a clear departure from past characterisations of the British super sleuth.

The context of the origins of the Bond phenomenon are worth noting. The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of the end of the British Empire, a period in which the contracting imperial body politic was mirrored by a waning influence on a world stage now dominated by the cold warring United States and Soviet Union.

Yet Bond, the master problem-solver and the public school-populated but tenaciously game British secret service, kept the crumbling empire relevant. 

The backdrop of the humiliation of the Suez Crisis notwithstanding, Bond foils the ambitions of Doctor No, the Soviet asset who is sabotaging American missile tests at Cape Canaveral, and in From Russia, With Love, the debacle of the defected Burgess and Maclean is glossed over by an understanding on the Soviet side that its most feared counter intelligence agency, SMERSH, considers Bond and the British secret service their most formidable foes in the conduct of the brutal business of international espionage.

Thus it was in the context of the austerity-laden fifties and the Cold War that Fleming’s brain-child became colossal best-sellers; paving the way for the movies that would find a cinematic niche in the 1960s.

The Bond films, inaugurated with Scottish actor, Sean Connery in the lead role were nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. The movies were replete with beautiful female leads, exotic location backdrops, technology-savvy gadgets, thrilling car chases, and popular, velvety title songs which captured the public imagination.

It led to a host of imitators, none of which survived. The Bond franchise went from strength-to-strength finding new themes after the ending of the Cold War while keeping many of its distinctive elements.

Some of these central elements are for some tired features and expressions of an anachronistic formula.

“Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it, and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes,” said Matt Damon, star of the Bourne Identity series of movie thrillers.

But Skyfall, featuring Daniel Craig in his third outing as Bond, shows there is still much life left in the series. Directed by Sam Mendes, the movie follows the established pattern of an attention-grabbing opener, a heavily orchestrated cabaret-style theme tune sung to stylized opening titles, intense fist fights, car chases and an arch-criminal with whom Bond engages in a noisy duel to the death.

The grotesqueness of Fleming’s villainous characters, invariably foreigners, almost to a man deformed or depraved, and certainly vainglorious and amoral in the extreme, was retained in the films and remains in the narrative of this movie.

The villain of the piece is one Raoul Silva, a disgruntled former British agent played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem who is bent on humiliating and destroying ‘M’, the head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. Silva is a resourceful enemy who utilises cyber-terrorism as a means of penetrating the inner sanctum of MI6.

The organisation is so thoroughly compromised that he literally sends it underground to the subterranean labyrinth which functioned as Winston Churchill’s war time bunker.

As a leading man, Craig is decidedly cut from a cloth different to those who have previously inhabited the role of Bond. His pug-ugly mug, crew cut hairstyle and sinewy build remove any pretence of the traditional suave appearance of the character and underline the fact that Bond is as much of a thug as the thugs he pursues.

This effect does not necessarily depart from the original depiction by Fleming whose novels bore more than a hint of Bond’s inherent coldness, his ruthlessness and sadistic tendencies.

In From Russia With Love, Bond can sort out the gentleman assassin from the rest by studying the choice of meat used to complement his brand of wine. One suspects that Craig’s character operates on different instincts.

Bond movies are about out and out action as well as about death, and here the instruments of conflict are no less innovative than they were in succeeding films in the series.

A ‘smart gun’ with individualised palm-prints provides the latest incarnation of Bond’s perennial Walther PPK, while others are armed at various points with Glock 18C pistols which are loaded with depleted uranium and an assortment of high-powered assault rifles and sub-machine guns. A colt rifle and a dagger, however, provide for more down-to-earth weaponry.

In Skyfall, the villain truly brings the fight back to the home front. While the movie has segments staged in far off places such as Istanbul, Shanghai and Macau, much of the action is set in London and ends at Bond’s family estate and childhood home in Scotland.

Is Bond an anachronism as some are wont to assert? An answer need not dwell too much on the intricate points of cultural critique and notions of political correctitude. So long as movies can thrive on action, adventure and pure escapism James Bond movies will belong to the times in which they are made.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2012)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula

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