Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The inevitability of time"... reversed by Bond

It's a big day for a cinephile like me - I just saw my very first Bond movie in the theater. And I couldn't have picked a better film to be "Bond-tized". Nearly every film critic I've read have nothing but praise for Skyfall. And on one lazy and wintry afternoon, I decided to hoof it to the cineplex and see it.

My dad is a huge Bond fan, and so are millions of others worldwide. Until today I had been completely immune to the icon's charms. Even when it modernized itself and kept up with the times and added more bang, I simply resisted it. I didn't know why. I wasn't worried about not knowing what the backstory was, because I knew there wasn't any. Bond was a standalone character, and was clearly on the side of good. The Bond films didn't need to exposit on previous films because they weren't in series. All you need to know was that Bond was an agent for the British intelligence, he was a ladies' man, his colleagues are named M (his boss) and Q (the weapons expert), and he liked his martini shaken. I think my disinterest stemmed from the fact that the films were always straightforward, and always ended happily for Bond. People will say that the journey is more important than the ending, but I wasn't a huge fan of filmic formulas. So I stayed clear from these movies for more than three decades.

Until Skyfall. When the franchise came into the 00's, the Bond character had gradually transformed into a brooding fellow unlike the campy ones of yesteryears. Daniel Craig's Bond had devolved into a devilish debonair agent, turning him into a complex character. This attracted me to it a great deal, and I expected a lot coming into it. I was not disappointed. While Bond films have always been mega-productions, the opening sequence in Turkey where he used a bulldozer to pursue his quarry on a moving train was pretty inspired. And jumping ahead a few scenes, what I really loved about this particular Bond film were the fight sequences.

The choreography and staging of all the fight sequences were excellent. One that I particularly enjoyed was the sequence on top of a Shanghai tower. The cinematography on this one was fantastic, with the blue lights and the neon jellyfish graphically going in and out of frame and helping to camouflage the players. And the fact that the actual fight was done in real time and in a single-camera setup was brilliant. There was no disguising the stunt. I actually wanted it to go on for longer because the choreography was really good. Kudos to the person who choreographed the fight. And of course, to Roger Deakins for making it all look so bloody good. I want him to win an Oscar for this one. He'll be in a competitive category, but I want him to take it all.

I also enjoyed the Aston Martin DB 5 being recalled back to duty. (And thanks to Top Gear, I knew instantly what a wonderful nugget that was for Bond fans. I wasn't a Bond fan to begin with and yet I got so excited when I saw the car.) I even loved the inside joke about the ejector seat button hidden in the stick shift. And good for the writers to finally give M something substantial to do other than phoning orders from the home office. Dame Judi is such a badass. (And I loved that her plucky ceramic British bulldog survived a bomb blast. And even outlived its owner *sniff*)

One thing I'd like to point out was the heavy-handed way they carried out the theme. That Bond was "old", and past his prime. Even M was on the way out, and Q has been replaced by a young 'un (Ben Whishaw is adorable though). Heck even J.M.W. Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" gets a cameo and nearly clunks us over the head with it. But I love how they use this theme to an advantage - that of Bond relying on old-fashioned persistence and muscle and guile, on a straight razor to shave, on his old Aston, on radio transmitters, on an old-timey hunting knife, and on going back to the ol' Skyfall homestead. (So Bond is Scottish? He doesn't sound like one.) I wish he was still a standalone character with no back story or family issues that we know of. Instead, he turned out to come from a pretty wealthy family, and knew how to hunt. It feels as though the Bond franchise's turning 50 felt its age, and the producers had to stick that in. But ultimately, it was able to weave the theme tightly into the story, and with the way it ended, it was a very wise and understandable decision. And it made Bond seem more human and relatable.

As a Bond film, the fact that it gave Bond a personal history was one of the things it deviated from any expectations I had about the material. (Though Fleming readers will know that Bond does have a personal history; the movies just don't delve into it until recently.) And there were others. The Bond Women were kept mostly on the fringe, away from the main conflict (in fact, I'd say M figured to be the most central Bond Girl in this film). The bulk of the film was set in familiar London/UK, not an exotic location at all. (Though you can say that the Scottish highlands can substitute for one, with its dreary and mysterious expanse.) Gone were the exploding pens and the cartoony villains. (Though Bardem's Silva was fantastic, and displayed subtle camp when he shows himself to Bond for the first time.)

I think the one part I loved the most, and will anticipate moving forward (if I decide to see future Bond movies) is the new M. I have always been a fan of Ralph Fiennes, so I was really glad that his character grew from a government administrator bent on modernizing MI6, to becoming an agency head who can see past the bureaucracy. His firsthand experience in a shootout at Parliament helps hasten his character development and gives him the requisite "field experience" to gain his agents' respect (Bond, most of all). By the end of the film, you are fully convinced that he would make a good M, and would have 007's back.

I'm happy I made the decision to see this film. People have said this may be the best Bond film in the series, and I could see why they would say that. As a first-timer, it's shattered some of my preconceptions about the franchise, and manages to move it's 50-year old self into a new era. Not bad for an old-timer.