Friday, November 16, 2012

Penny. *Henny* Penny.

I am reliably excited about every new James Bond film. Not sure why this should be so, but there it is.

Sam Mendes's new film Skyfall is the 23rd or 24th installment in the James Bond franchise, and it coincidentally marks the 50th year anniversary of the first film, Terence Young's Dr. No from 1962. Ian Fleming debuted the British überspy in his 1953 novel Casino Royale, and the character has had a durable and ongoing career in print and film alike. American audiences are likely most familiar with the filmic Bond (I'm not sure how widely-read the books have been here or abroad). For those who like this kind of film, we all have our favorite Bond, the characterization that comes closest to our mental template of what the super-spy beau idéal should be. Sean Connery kicked the franchise off, and was in six or seven films (depending on whether his last film, Never Say Never Again, is included in the oeuvre). Next we had George Lazenby (one film) followed by Roger Moore (seven films), Timothy Dalton (two films), and Pierce Brosnan (three films). Daniel Craig holds the chair as the most recent Bond (three films and counting).

I grew up during the Roger Moore era (seven films), but as I watched the earlier films in college I came to realize that Connery's Bond was much the more compelling character. Connery seems to have most comfortably fit into the shoes of this character (though whether that character closely matches Fleming's mental image I cannot say), his Bond being equal parts extraordinary competence, cavalier nonchalance, impossible sex appeal, and a winning capacity for brutality. I don't know that anyone has quite matched him since, though both short-lived Bonds (Lazenby and Dalton) seem to me better choices than Roger Moore.

Despite the auspicious beginnings there were early warning signs. Audiences loved the British stiff upper lip stuff, the deadpan throw-away lines after bits of violence. And they loved increasing high-tech gadgetry that Bond employed in exotic locales to thwart the bad guys. But before long those elements had become the series' raison d'etre. By the time we get to the end of the Roger Moore era, the franchise had become almost a comedic one, with cheesy humor and bad puns and misguided wardrobe choices and ludicrous gadgetry and cartoonish villains--a sad departure from Dr. No. Despite this, some of the Moore films are nonetheless quite watchable, even if they're steering the franchise into a cul-de-sac. But most of them now look hopelessly dated, celebrations of an historical period from which we have since quickly and resolutely moved on.

The Powers That Be within the Bond franchise know all this, of course. With each changing of the guard we are promised a return to the "true" Bond, a confession that the franchise keeps straying from its mission (or perhaps a judgment that what we say we want is not really what we want). 

Perhaps I'm all wrong here, but all this historical baggage kind of amounts to a yoke placed around the filmmakers' necks; how much easier would it be to just write and tell a compelling story without having to check all the boxes of audience expectation? (But then we'd have to get to know a new character all over again and, if we liked him / her, we'd want to see more of them. And here we are back where we started.)

Daniel Craig's first outing as Bond, Martin Campbell's Casino Royale (2006), was another retooling and the film was a solid home run. The franchise went back to the very beginning and started over. All of the bullshit accumulated by the series was summarily swept away, and the film refocused on the essentials: a super-competent, sexy, physically compelling spy in a high-stakes, high-wire story. That film garnered high praise from critics, and Daniel Craig has been almost universally lauded as Bond.

They attempted to build on this re-created Bond with Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace (2008), but it's clearly no simple matter to keep this ball in the air. Quantum got more tepid (if still positive) reviews--though Craig was again highly praised.

So this seems a worthy platform on which to build a continuing series. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition [one of my favorites], Jarhead) is an inspired choice to helm the project, and Daniel Craig is up to carrying the load. Skyfall involves a hunt for a stolen hard drive which contains the identities of British secret agents in sensitive positions around the world (among other things). Perhaps not the globe-threatening apocalypse Bond has previously been tasked with averting, but it's easy enough to get on board. After all this introduction, I won't say any more about the plot, as an action film like this is rather carried along by its details, but the trailers do a good job of setting the tone. Bond straightening his cufflinks after jumping into a disintegrating train is, well, pure Bond. A laugh line without too much cheese. I will say that a brief scene near the film's end did not sit very snugly against my mental template of the character of James Bond--distasteful shades of Pierce Brosnan's Bond--but my wife rather sternly disagreed with my assessment, so I won't own it fully. And apart from that one, brief moment I was quite entertained.

I left the theater thinking the Bond franchise is in good hands with these latest films. I feel their re-focus on the essentials is exactly right and has been quite successful. The character of James Bond has regained his essential magnetism, though he's a harder, more brutal Bond than any previous one. But that's the world we live in, and he seems properly (if fantastically) to inhabit that world. 

Grade: B+


CyberKitten said...

As a big Bond fan I saw this with the guys the day it came out.

I grew up with Connery who I thought made a very good Bond and (for me) became the bench mark for any future Bonds. Craig is the first Bond that could, and I think does, fill Connery's shoes.

I really like Casino Royal but was very disappointed with Quantum. Skyfall was, I thought, a decided return to form and really, really enjoyed it. It was dark, very of the moment and very British (which I liked). I think I was smiling all the way through.

wunelle said...

Yes, Bond and MI5 are some of your prime cultural exports! I loved Casino Royale, and recently watched Quantum again in prep for the new film. I didn't hate it, but it seemed considerably weaker than Casino. I'm curious to see Skyfall again.

Like you, I was grandly entertained!

CyberKitten said...

I picked up a book about Ian Fleming's wartime experiences which seem to go a long way to explaining the character of Bond. I'll probably be reading it early next year if I can hold off that long!

wunelle said...

Here's a proper review!

dbackdad said...

Saw it this last weekend and loved it. I'll give it a proper review in a day or so. I do love all the nods to old school Bond while still maintaining what makes Craig such a new and unique Bond.

I've read interviews with Craig about Quantum and he shares our general tepid response to it. He said that because of the writer's strike prior to that movie, they were forced to start filming the movie without a proper script and had to kind of throw it together as they went.

Jon said...

I agree, it was another good Bond film. I especially liked the motorcycle scene in the beginning, as I'm sure you did also! We saw it last weekend to a packed house. Alot less of the gadget crap we have come to expect, which I liked. Also, his love interest this time around didnt last too long, if she indeed was one.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

I've seen a few Bond films over the years. They never did anything for me, not surprising since I'm a chick, but I really liked this recent one. I LOVED Javier Bardem's villain. He was creepy, scarey and I thought a good intellectual match for Bond.