Thursday, November 15, 2012

Culture Shock 11.15.12: James Bond at 50 comes full circle in 'Skyfall'

Fifty years after James Bond first appeared on the big screen in "Dr. No," the Bond franchise is showing its age.

This isn't 007's first midlife crisis. The Bond films turned to amiable self-parody during the Roger Moore years, then drifted aimlessly without the Cold War as background or motivation. Timothy Dalton's Bond is underrated, but the drug war plot of "License to Kill" is the series at its most lifeless. And the less said about the Pierce Brosnan era — it went off the rails after the promising "GoldenEye" — the better.

By the time Daniel Craig became the sixth "official" James Bond, more than a new actor was required. The franchise underwent a near-complete reboot, with Judi Dench's spy chief M as the only holdover. "Casino Royale," based on Ian Fleming's first 007 novel, took the character back to basics. Here was a stripped-down, only-the-essentials James Bond, free of the gimmicks and the gadgets.

The average person on the street now carries a telephone so sophisticated you'd think Q invented it, while Bond now gets by with just a pistol and a radio.

Exploding pens are out; elegant simplicity is in. In the tech-savvy 21st century, 007 distinguishes himself from the rest of us mere mortals by being a lo-fi spy. How things have changed.

The new 007's second outing was "Quantum of Solace," the most typically Bondian of all Craig's Bond films, yet the least satisfying. It's a middling entry at best.

And now we have "Skyfall," and it turns out the franchise reboot that started with "Casino Royale" didn't end there. Only now is it obvious that Craig's three Bond films form a proper trilogy, to the extent it's instructive to compare them to Christopher Nolan's Batman films. The final film in each series is a meditation on death and rebirth, right down to the contrasting titles, with "The Dark Knight Rises" putting the emphasis on the rise and "Skyfall" on the fall. Fortunately, "Skyfall" director Sam Mendes does what Nolan couldn't — bring the story to a rousing conclusion.

Like "The Dark Knight Rises," "Skyfall" gives us a hero whose greatest enemy isn't really a disfigured super-villain with a personal score to settle (be he Tom Hardy's Bane or Javier Bardem's Silva) but time. And time can be denied for only so long.

"Skyfall" is all about the past catching up with you, which can be especially dangerous if you are a trained killer like Bond or a long-serving MI6 chief like M. That becomes obvious when Silva, a former MI6 agent cut loose by M before Bond got his 00 rank, steals a list of undercover agents and uses it to get his revenge on M. (Dench meets the challenge by giving what may be her best screen performance.)

In a film full of surprising contrasts, Silva is one of the biggest. Played by Bardem as a lip-smacking, over-the-top psychopath, he's among the most memorable and extravagant of Bond villains, even as he has the most realistic motivation.

At the same time, "Skyfall" is both uncharted territory for Bond and the closing of the circle. Never before has 007 had a story so personal and faced a threat that hits so close to home. The death of his wife in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is the only thing that comes close. Yet by the end, it's telling how little has really changed. The franchise is back where it started.

Throughout "Skyfall," Bond and M tell their more modern colleagues that there's no substitute for the old-fashioned ways. You can't replace field agents, entrusted with the power of life and death, with computers and drones. By the time the credits roll, the old ways have won out. Even the old, leather-lined door to M's office is back.

Bond's future seems bright, and the Bond of the future seems a lot like the Bond of 1962.

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