Skyfallby Kavish Chetty / 15.11.2012
Superheroes are becoming instructively aware of their own mortality. As the great, arcing Empire of masculinity slithers into its twilight phase – its invulnerability ruined; its omnipotence in shards – so too do the manly agents who drew power from its mythos find themselves weaker, preyed-upon and ravaged by centuries of a drugged-up phallocentrism that cannot hold. The James Bond of Skyfall finds himself in the murk of similar crisis. In Sam Mendes’ latest incarnation, trilogising the craggy Daniel Craig, Bond is older, strung-out, and pushed up against his limits. The film preludes with an obligatory ten minute chase scene in which two MI6 agents pursue their mark in the most exorbitant and non-economical manner possible – cutting swathes of violence through the streets and rooftops of Istanbul, by Jeep, motorcycle and train. Bond’s partner is a black dame (Naomie Harris) with predictable ghetto sass, campy enough to swap fifty years’ worth of nostalgia with: cheap puns, sexual innuendoes; the cement of the franchise. But – and it would not be spoiling the plot to reveal a dramatic cue which occurs within the first ten minutes – Bond is blasted through the chest and plunged into a river below, portending the start of a film which shares the tenebrous urges of Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises.
Bond emerges from his wounding, as men in the centre of their life-spans do: repairing himself with whiskey and well-upholstered whores. Physically wrecked, with shards of bullet still splintered in his plump pectoral, he lurches back to MI6, discovering a new threat in which to embroil himself. Someone has stolen a hard-drive containing the details of all the deep-cover or embedded secret agents in terrorist organisations, and is planning to release their identities online, prompting their captors to execute them in as gratuitous manner as they please. In addition to this sadistic ploy, the rogue is a savant hacker who launches a remote assault on MI6 headquarters using computers alone. These two failures place the whole enterprise of MI6 under parliamentary critique: they are charged with being cold-war relics, a vestigial organ of endless espionage, unaccountable and irrelevant, dangerously insecure. M (Judi Dench) comes under the majority of the criticism, and hopes to redeploy Bond to get her out of this mess. In a courthouse scene in which she’s being tuned by the Prime Minister – “your organisation is outmoded” etc. – she summons Tennyson to defend herself: “We are not that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts/ Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” This, a bold exhortation to the continued necessity of the “intelligence agency”, forever implicated in their shady proxy wars, lurking beneath the defence of “national security”. Indeed, Ms. Dench goes as far as to ask the Prime Minister: “do you feel safe?”, galvanising that new set of 21st century anxieties: the enemy is faceless, stateless, lurking among us in the empty signifier of “terrorist”, and we should mobilise whatever surplus violence we have to protect ourselves – unto kingdom come. The perfect logic for endless war.
Bond’s quest is to hunt down the hacker before more lives are sacrificed to his perverse game, but stylishly, please. He is placed here in-between two competing urges: on the one hand, to introduce a human dimension to the Bond franchise – dark, realistic, cynical – and on the other, to continue recalling the playful camp of the tradition. Mendes’ strikes an admirable balance – dispatching Bond to the neon firmaments of Shangai central, a sultrily-lit oceanic casino in Macau, and a fog-swathed Scottish estate. He fucks, fights and quips his way over this two-hour odyssey, which includes some brilliantly choreographed hand-to-hand fight sequences, one silhouetted against the futuristic billboard-skies of the Chinese metropolis. At last he encounters his archenemy of the month, Raoul Silva – a Javier Bardem of ambiguous sexuality (the handsome actor has apparently been typecast into roles with idiotic hairstyles – recall Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men – this time sporting a sleek platinum blonde comb-back). He’s an enjoyable villain, laughably idiosyncratic. He’s kind of like a homosexual Tony Montana, and you can imagine a faux-Cubano lisp – sorry, “lithp” – as he delivers an allegory about coconuts and rats: “hey mang, how you gonna getta raht to eatta cohcoh-nut, huh?” (Unfortunately, he’s drawn by the third act into a predictable super-villain revenge routine). Actually, the bad guys as a whole, the nameless henchmen who throng his private army, are an enviably suited bunch of cosmopolitan models in haute-couture. Contrast this to Taken 2, which also centres action in Turkey, sharking through the same side-roads and upon the same dusk-coloured eaves, by the looks of it. There, the enemies are an infuriatingly incompetent gang of fat Middle-Eastern morons, fucking up their revenge plan against the wailing mosquito hum of five o’clock mosques. Here, they hit their targets – characters unpredictably die. It’s a much-needed dose of rogue mortality, creeping into a genre which otherwise becomes despairingly feel-good in its refusal to have the good guys suffer any losses.
The dramatic core of the movie is the relationship between Bond and M (which might well stand for “mother” or “matriarch”, given her dynamics with the other characters and her organisation), but also M and Silva, and it would be quite difficult to not read Bond’s relevance – which must be fought for through his ragged physical condition – as also representing the throb of purpose architected around stealthy outfits like MI6. Dark Knight and Rises apotheosise a set of superhero concerns which probably begins with Watchmen – vigilantes slouching into a new era, of “peace time” as Deputy Commissioner Foley laughably believes. But it is also concerned in oblique ways with the vulnerable points of concentrated power; of power’s instability in changing conditions. Rises references pullulate in Skyfall, from Bond’s stated hobby as “resurrection”, to wild orchestral surges which recall Zimmerman, the return of a battered war-hero, the nods to an origin story… In sum, the film plays out as though someone had watched the videogames Uncharted 2 and 3 – some of the set-pieces, including the train sequence could be plagiarised directly – and adapted them, but injected a few gloomy vials of anxiety and self-reflexivity and finally made its protagonist available to death. Skyfall, for all its occasional sinking back into the urges of the one-man killing logic, is the only way James Bond could have saved himself from a century that will no longer believe in the immortality of Man.