Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfall: The Bond Brand

Skyfall is a good, solid Bond movie. Not without its problems, if you choose to disregard the predictably hyperbolic BOND IS BACKers: the third act is a pretty thorough wash, squandering a handful of intriguing ideas laid out by the first two; not every action scene lands; and the normally reliable Naomie Harris is terrible in ways that bode ill for future films in the franchise. For the most part, though, the movie is an exciting, beautifully shot, intuitively paced entry in the canon, an effort that buries the forgettable Quantum of Solace and restores its flagbearer to nearly full vitality.

What caught my attention, however, was Skyfall's frequent self-reference and its acknowledgement of Bond as an indelible cultural standing stone. The film is peppered with inside jokes, many of which I'm sure I didn't catch because of my lack of comprehensive Bond knowledge; it also focuses on the perceived obsolescence of England's beloved old guard, Bond and M, and how there's no room for their clandestine methods in a world "without shadows." Bond may be Bond, sure, but is Bond enough these days? Can the world still rely on this aging, lecherous old boozehound? The answer is yes, of course, but the film constructs itself around the incomprehensible possibility that it can't. Skyfall is obsessed with its roots and using them to entertain, raise thematic questions, and perhaps redundantly in the face of its 50th anniversary, celebrate itself.

But does it earn that right? Preying on nostalgia is dangerous, and though it typically pays out considerable financial and popular dividends, it can also make the work in question seem opportunistic or manipulative. This has become an exceptionally popular tactic in the last decade, with remakes and reboots and reimaginings galore. What makes Skyfall's frequent callbacks to its lineage problematic, however, is that the Bond franchise has been transformed so radically in those 50 years that Craig's recent iterations hardly feel like Bonds at all. Sure, there's goofy humor and intermittent camp to be found, most of which is provided by Javier Bardem's hilarious turn as a bottle-blond M-hating ponce with some icky secrets. Skyfall is careful to parcel these Silly Scenes separately from its Serious Scenes, and a majority of the film gives way to a granite Bond deftly maneuvering through action setpieces of desperate urgency. Certainly a far cry from the likes of the Connery Bond films, where he would rarely even take cover during firefights, or especially the iconic-in-a-bad-way intro to Thunderball where he flies away on a jetpack George Jetson-style. Somewhere along the way, probably after Die Another Day came out and was pilloried by the public, some suit at MGM realized that Bond was going to have to start pulling his weight in order to justify his blockbuster status. No more of this hokey claptrap, unless the script specifically calls for a calculably groan-worthy pun or some "witty" "banter." (Side eye to Harris.)

Overriding any concerns of tone, however, is that Bond has always been a commercial icon. Universal consistency be damned: the Broccolis, MGM, and their superspy lovechild have always answered to the dollar before all else, reaching waaaaay back to those conspicuous crates of Red Stripe in Dr. No. These movies have never been shy about embracing shiny, shiny capitalism, what with the cool brand-name cars and the increasing prevalence of recognizable corporate logos on fancy gadgets. Skyfall itself features plugs for Heineken, Omega Watches, a whole bunch of Sony shit, a resuscitation of the classic Aston Martin, a theme song by ostensibly the year's most popular singer, and a bevy of other goodies for us to subconsciously assimilate. Though Phil Rosenthal's "Forming a Bond with Brands" does a good job at delineating the science of restrained yet overt product placement, it misses the rather obvious fact that commercial restraint is not really necessary in a film franchise twenty-three entries strong. The supposed evils of product placement should hardly be a concern when the franchise's most lucrative product is, has been, and always will be Bond himself. So long as his name remains, these films can be changed and warped beyond familiarity, fluctuate in quality, fellate themselves shamelessly, shovel in wares from every gadget-peddler in the world, and people will still go to see them in droves. The Bond brand is unstoppable. Everything else should feel lucky to share the screen with him.

B (is for Bond)

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