Simon Pitt |
Sunday 11th November
Now this may come as a surprise to no one, but I'm a big fan of Bond films.
Not all of them, of course. No rational human enjoys watching Moonraker, but generally I enjoy the Bond franchise. And this year sees the release of the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, praised by many, including Roger Moore, as "the best Bond film ever".
Skyfall is an atypical Bond film. The finale feels more like Home Alone than Bond. Even though it borrows plot points from The World Is Not Enough (an explosion in MI6 headquarters, and M being kidnapped) it feels different. Gone is much of the wit and charm of previous Bond films, instead it latches on to a number of zeitgeists.
M faces a House of Commons select committee, something of a sign of our times, I think. After the Hutton Enquiry, the Leveson Enquiry, and most recently George Entwistle's appearance in front of a select committee, they're becoming a regular sight. The Thick of It recently dedicated an hour-long "enquiry special" to a fictional enquiry into Government leaks.
Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva like the Joker, his wiry haired makeup adding to the effect.
The idea of a single but powerfully intelligent villain is something we've seen in the last two Dark Knight films, with the Joker and Bane.
Like the Joker, Silva intentionally allows himself to be captured, only to escape and wreak havoc on a personal mission of revenge. And on the other end of the spectrum, Ben Wishaw, as Q, channels Matt Smith playing the Doctor in Doctor Who.
Leaving the cinema, L said "I'm not sure what I want from a Bond film anymore." I think I know, and I think this isn't quite it.
And last, but not least, product placement. Now, this has always been a part of Bond. Where would 007 be without his Aston Martin and his Martini. I don't have a problem with Bond drinking bottled beer while he's off on holiday. I don't even have a problem with Richard Branson appearing in Casino Royale. But Sykfall began with half an hour of adverts, all of which featured clips of the film being reused for advertising purposes. Of course, MGM was in financial problems, and couldn't make the film without it, but this was poor taste. And didn't even help the brands.
- I expect the first thing on screen to be a gun barrel scrolling from left to right. They managed to do this consistently for forty years, but the Daniel Craig films seem to think that they're "too serious" for this piece of imagery. But I'll tell you what: they're not. No one is too serious for the gun barrel and it is mandatory for a Bond film, so put it back. I'll let Casino Royale off as an exception; it integrated the gun barrel into the actual film, making it Bond's first kill. It's a visually neat trick, a nice surprise, and has some meaning behind it.
But now that's done, the gun barrel opening should be back to normal.
- A casino sequence. I don't know why this needs to be there, and I don't particular like them, but there should be one, and I'll just put up with it, like eating my greens. It's part of the display of opulence and grandeur in the film. And I want it to be stylish and witty. In fact, this brings me onto the next point.
- Wit. This, really, is at the heart of all Bond films. A witty, playful script. Take this sequence between M and Bond in Goldeneye.
M: You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, more interested in numbers than your instincts.
In Goldeneye, this wit keeps the casino scenes alive.
Bond: The thought had occurred to me.
M: Good. Because I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.
Bond: Point taken.
M: Not quite. If you think I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong. I've no compunction about sending you to your death. But I won't do it on a whim, even with your cavalier attitude towards life.
Xenia: You've been to Russia.
This playful verbal fighting is present throughout the film, between all the characters. It makes it a joy to watch, especially with actors like Michael Kitchen acting out every word. In the exchange below you feel like you're there:
Bond: Not recently. I used to drop in occasionally. Shoot in and out.
Xenia: It's very different now. A land of opportunity.
Bond: With a new Ferrari in every garage?
Xenia: No, not quite. That belongs to a friend.
Bond: A tip for your friend: the French number plates for this year's model start with "L". Even the counterfeit ones.
Xenia: And what rank do you hold with the motor vehicles department, Mr Bond?
Admiral: Shall we go?
Xenia: This one is an admiral.
Bond: I like a woman who enjoys pulling rank.
Tanner: We found a match. Your missing Tiger.
Bond: In the middle of northern Russia?
Tanner: Your hunch was right. Too bad the evil queen of numbers wouldn't let you play it.
M:(walking in) You were saying?
Tanner: No, no. I was just... just...
M: Good. Because if I want sarcasm, I'll talk to my children, thank you very much.
Casino Royale, has flashes of that wit too.
Bond: Dry Martini.
But this is almost entirely missing from Skyfall. There's a playful exchange between Bond and Silva, but Daniel Craig's Bond is more gruff. He lacks the charm of earlier Bonds. His chat up lines are often on the sleazy side of charming, and some of his come backs are borderline stupid. I'm thinking here of the line in Casino Royale where he manages to come out with "I know where you keep your gun." Come on, Bond! Is that really the best you can do? And let's not even mention the exchange where his pithy comeback is to name the brand of his watch.
Bartender: Oui, monsieur.
Bond: Wait... three measures of Gordon's; one of vodka; half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.
Bartender: Yes, sir.
Tomelli: You know, I'll have one of those.
Infante: So will I.
Felix Leiter: My friend, bring me one as well, keep the fruit.
Le Chiffre: That's it? Hm? Anyone want to play poker now?
Even M here is different from the M of Goldeneye. Her eloquence and confidence replaced with confusion. "What do you say about a man like that?" she says when trying to write Bond's obituary. A few films earlier, she would have known exactly what to write.
- Tone. There was something tonally different in Skyfall. From the villain's plot, to his implementation of it, to Bond's plan to hide out in his childhood house and lay booby traps. It felt different.
- Set pieces. Bond films have always been a series of set pieces, many of which are interchangeable: "the bit where the laser goes between his legs" or "the bit where Bond jumps out of a plane without a parachute" or "runs over the crocodiles". It's these "wow" moments that make a Bond film. The plot is just an excuse for why Bond has to chase someone in a hot air balloon over the Millennium Dome, or have a fight on the back of a plane. It's all secondary really to how good the set pieces are. Weeks later, you won't remember the details of why Bond had to go to Afghanistan, but you'll remember the KGB spy with the exploding milk bottles. The Living Daylights is a good example of a film that manages to neatly tie together one set piece after another without bothering about a plot too much.
- Continuation. There were certainly some moments of this. The moment Bond revealed his Aston Martin DB5 (and threatened to use the ejector seat from Goldfinger on M) was genuinely charming. But at other times it felt like it was the end of the series. There was a huge gap between the end of Quantum of Solace and this. In Casino Royale Bond makes his first kill, whereas now, he is an older, grizzled agent. The timeline is all out and unsettling.
Maybe product placement has never been a problem before for me because all of the brands that featured in the film were beyond my means (BMW, Aston Martin, Rolex, Omega. These are things I wouldn't want to buy anyway, but I'm happy for them to identify themselves as the top end of the market by being the item Bond uses). There's a kudos, I think, from being the brand of car Bond drives or the watch he wears. But by misappropriating Bond footage for use in an advert, they're doing it the wrong way. Rather than raising the value of their brand, they're cheapening Bond.
All of this sounds like I didn't enjoy the film, which isn't true at all. It's very good with some lovely set pieces, a great opening sequence, title sequence, and theme tune. But is it the best Bond film ever? I wouldn't take Roger Moore's word for it. "He ought to know," one website says, but maybe he doesn't. Remember the whole Moonraker thing.