Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall (2012) and What Bond Films Could Learn from Other Thrillers

I’ve recently been hearing a lot about how Skyfall is the ‘best Bond ever’. I’ll keep an open mind, I’ll watch it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the film didn’t completely satisfy me. Sam Mendes, judging from American Beauty, can be a great director, so there’s definite reason for hope. On the other hand he also did Jarhead and Road to Perdition, which were OK but nothing special, and Revolutionary Road, which was quite bad. And my generally good feeling about Skyfall has been a bit punctured whenever I’ve heard or seen clips from it. I start thinking “This ‘love-hate fireworks’ business between Dench and Craig has been done before. This supposed interesting new twist on Bond’s character has been done before. Javier Bardem as a scary villain with a weird hair-cut has been done before. And wasn’t Casino Royale also supposed to be the ‘best Bond ever’?”

I thought Casino was a pretty good film - the chase near the start in Madagascar and a few other scenes were excellent, the second half lost a bit of steam - but the main ‘new thing’ after all was Daniel Craig. And whilst I like Craig, I also liked Pierce Brosnan. The fan-boys of the mass-market film magazines, and some older critics too, may seduce you into that ‘He’s so tough and cool, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt’ feeling, but once you get past that, is there really much to get excited about in the Craig films? The marketing of the Bond franchise I think is the real work of art: the way it manages to create such a buzz each time, despite the fact everyone’s seen the same thing 20 times before. I often fall for it myself and fork out my hard-earned cash for a cinema ticket. But I’ve taken the unusual step of writing this article on a film I haven’t seen yet (* see below for my comments after seeing it) exactly because the excitement I get before seeing a new Bond film is often the best it ever gets. The movies themselves nearly always produce a slightly deflated feeling; they may be good, but they’re never very good. And that deflated feeling is the main thing that stays with me, because I’ve never watched a Bond film and felt it got better on second viewing.

I think the Bond movie I enjoyed most was The Spy Who Loved Me, not because it was necessarily the best, but because I was 10 when it came out, the right age to be bowled over, both by the experience of seeing it at a cinema and by the hype. Plus it had a great theme song (Carly Simon’s Nobody Does it Better), a good antagonist in Richard Kiel’s ‘Jaws’, and…err…I really fancied Barbara Bach; there was just something about her. After that it was the quite good Moonraker, the inferior Roger Moore films of the early 80’s, the Timothy Dalton era, and by the time a really decent one came around again - Goldeneye perhaps - I was too old to get very excited about it.

As for the 60’s films, I know this is sacrilege but I think On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favourite. Everyone says George Lazenby was a poor substitute for Connery but really the role itself does not require great acting - Bond is a cardboard cut-out of a man - and though I enjoyed Goldfinger, Thunderball et al, I’d far rather watch Connery in something like The Man Who Would Be King or The Untouchables. And On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at least had some bite, some drama, some tragedy. Lazenby actually looked devastated when the tragedy befell him. In Casino Royale Bond again lost a loved one (sort of) but it didn’t seem the same. I guess that’s the problem with making Bond as tough as the Craig iteration has him; it’s hard to empathise with an invulnerable rock of a man.

Maybe it’s pointless to speculate on how you could make a Bond film into a truly satisfying human drama because to do that you’d have to dismantle the whole Bond modus operandi. Time and time again they put him in danger, but it’s all rather mechanical. He’s Bond, for God’s sake. He never dies, he never loses. It’s like watching Sacha Baron Cohen in The Dictator running the 100 metres and wondering if he’s going to win - when he owns the whole country including the stadium and all its officials (and he’s got a gun in his hand). But this problem of creating tension when you know the hero cannot die also applies to a whole range of other screen figures: Spiderman, Iron Man, John McClane, Ethan Hunt etc. So why do the Bond films feel more tired? Is it just that no franchise should ever go on for more than three or four outings, let alone 23?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more that the screenwriters need to do a better job. For a start they could create more intricate plots with more pleasing reversals. I can’t think of any of the series that really satisfy on that level. Maybe the scriptwriters should watch a few series of the TV show Dexter to learn about creating unbearable tension, or a few classic England-Germany football games to learn about maddening setbacks (though Bond of course would have to be in the Germany role, always just winning out in the final moments). For me the main attraction of the world of spy films, or thrillers in general, is that it’s a place where people use their wits to outdo each other in an ingenious cat-and-mouse struggle. But that’s something that’s singularly lacking in Bond films. There’s never been a Bond film that can even remotely match something like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (or The Usual Suspects or The Spanish Prisoner or Sleuth) in terms of satisfying twists and turns. There’s never been a Bond film where people use bluffs and double-bluffs against each other and what you thought was one thing turns out to be another. There’s never been a Bond film where people come out of the cinema marvelling at the surprises in the storyline, let alone arguing about what exactly just went on.

The plots as they are now are all rather literal, and they have an episodic quality, with quiet passages always filling in the space until the next big set-piece. The fact that they are so globe-trotting often works against them. It does not allow the tension of a single situation to build and build for a long time as happens in some other good thrillers. Sometimes films can move around a lot and still be gripping - The Bourne Identity and The International spring to mind - but for that you need to keep the central conflict the same whatever the setting; too often with Bond films it’s a series of battles with minor henchmen until he finally gets to meet his true nemesis in the last quarter of the movie, and so there’s not that central unifying opposition between two parties throughout the film.

I also considered whether The Bourne Identity and The International seem far tenser than any Bond movie because they are ‘grittier’. But then 'grittiness' is a quality that the Craig Bond films have been very explicitly going for, yet still they don’t win me over entirely. So maybe it’s just the fact that in those other films Matt Damon and Clive Owen play men who are alone, forced to fend for themselves, up against enemies more powerful than themselves. With Bond movies, who are you rooting for exactly? The British government? It’s not quite the same. So maybe they should play with that more. For example, they could have him set up in the story so that British and American intelligence believe he’s gone rogue and they send a team to eliminate him: Bond against a lot of other expert agents and assassins might be interesting.

The makers of the Bond films could at least try to make a thriller as good as Point Break, where the good guy and the bad guy really engage in a life-or-death struggle that builds throughout the picture, and you have no idea how it will turn out, as our hero ends up doing crazy things like robbing a bank against his will and jumping out of a plane without a parachute. We know Bond can’t die, but he can be made to look a fool, he can be made to do things he doesn’t want to do, he can be put between a rock and a hard place. I don’t mean by that the kind of set-piece ‘difficult situation’ that is a Bond commonplace, where he’s tied up and has to escape. I mean, for example, situations where he’s undercover and if he’s found out something very bad definitely will happen, or situations where it’s difficult to know how to proceed and if he makes the wrong decision it will have serious consequences that we, the audience, can really appreciate.

For any of these situations to work, of course, Bond needs to be a bit less super-human and a bit more fallible. He can be shown to be confused or out-of-his-depth or frustrated, and his confidence can waiver or he can even lose his nerve completely. A character can get close to him, and really win the audience over too, and then betray him. He can be forced by circumstance to witness something very bad happening which he can’t stop. He can find himself up against a brutal opponent who scares him, perhaps an ingenious bomber who keeps on killing people. He can be forced to play a large part of the movie seriously injured. He can lose an arm or a hand or an eye, or at least a little finger. He can very nearly die and lose his mind and operate thereafter with clouded judgment so that the audience start to question their faith in him. He can assemble a team and we get to know and like them but then some or all of them die. His situation can be more mixed into the life of ordinary people so that they are put at risk by his presence. The bad guys might attack him in a train station or airport and he survives but three or four innocent bystanders die and he has to stare tragedy and grief in the face like a real-life human being.

All I ask is that things really matter in a Bond film as they do in the Lord of the Rings films or the darker Harry Potter films. It might help if, like these films, they contain characters who are genuinely creepy. It might also help if we occasionally get a glimpse of fear in someone’s eyes as we do in Harry’s or Frodo’s. If that’s not going to happen with Bond himself, then maybe they could introduce some major adolescent character? (The Bond films seem to exist in a strangely childless world). Anyway, after fifty years it’s about time Bond faced some trials and tribulations that actually took a toll on him.

People go and see Bond films because they’re ‘reliable’. The franchise name is a promise of a certain amount of fun and a certain number of good action scenes, just like Macdonald’s promise of a certain amount of French Fries. You know at least that you won’t be painfully bored at any point. But I wish the writers and directors and producers would give a little more. I wish they would make a Bond film that has such a good story-line that it does bear repeated viewings or does create some genuine tension. Surely they can afford a screenwriter capable of achieving that? Skyfall is getting great reviews, and from what I can gather it does introduce some new elements to the franchise, so maybe this whole piece seems rather churlish. But I doubt if it makes all these comments irrelevant.

* In February 2013 I finally caught up with the film. For the first three quarters I quite enjoyed it but couldn't see what all the fuss had been about. There seemed to be nothing particularly to distinguish it from Casino Royale or Die Another Day. And killing off Bond at the start only to have him come back 5 minutes later seemed completely pointless. The last half hour - an extended siege at a remote country house in Scotland - lifted the picture to a higher level. So overall, I would say it's a 'very good' film: 4 stars out of 5.  And maybe it is the 'best Bond ever'. But sad to say 'best Bond ever' doesn't compete with 'best Scorsese ever' or 'best Tarantino ever' or even 'best Richard Linklater ever'.

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