Saturday, November 24, 2012

Skyfall -- retirement and resurrection

Director: Sam Mendes, 2012 (PG-13)

Bond turned 50 this year.  His belly should be bulging, his hair graying, and his pace slowing. Heck, for most men this milestone birthday would spark a mid-life crisis. Not quite for James Bond, considering he is like a time-lord, able to morph to a new visage as the actor playing him actually ages. But in this 23rd official franchise episode, James Bond is struggling with age. In fact, aging and death, retirement and resurrection are the themes that backdrop the superb action.

Like any good James Bond film, the movie starts before the credits and the Bond song (the superbly moving and soulful “Skyfall” sung by Londoner Adele). An extended chase sequence has Bond (Daniel Craig, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) going from cars to motorbikes to trains, supported by Eve (Naomie Harris, 28 Days Later), another Secret Service Field Agent and watched by M (Judi Dench, The Best Exotic MarigoldHotel) back in London. But at the end of this prolog, Eve voices the grim words, “Agent Down,” as 007 falls to his death.

But you can’t keep a good Bond down. And this film offers no exception to that rule.

The villain Bond was chasing has a computer hard drive with the identities of British agents working in the field. If it becomes public it is their death sentence. Eventually, it falls into the hands of Silva (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men), a suave and politely genteel villain whose exterior hides a subtle menace. He is this film’s bad guy.

With this list gone and Bond missing, M’s head is on the chopping block. Her new boss Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges) offers her a quiet retirement but she wants to bring the mission to a close. Here is the first mention of retirement and it won’t be the last.

Craig’s third film as Bond offers a break from the last two. The story is new, no longer a continuation, but Bond veers back to the old ways. In fact the idea, “sometimes the old ways are the best” occurs several times, underscoring its significance as a key theme. Although we learn more about his past here than in any previous Bond film, gone is the brooding and gritty Bond of Casino Royale. Instead, the witty one-liners return. Thankfully, the campiness of the Roger Moore era is still absent, although its presence hovers over several scenes in a latent manner. Gone, too, is Felix, Bond’s CIA friend. But back is the classic Aston Martin with the ejector seat, polished and gleaming, clearly going “back in time,” as Bond tells M.

Q is back once more as the quartermaster. This time, though, the gadgets are few and far between. Indeed, Q (Ben Whishaw), contrasts clearly with Bond. While Bond is aging, with stubble on his chin, Q is barely out of college with pimples on his cheeks. The new and the old co-exist, but with Q pointing to the dinosaur-like agent and telling him he can do more from his computer than Bond can do in the field.

With M facing impending retirement, Bond barely passes fitness tests (physical, mental and emotional) to be able to go back in the field despite Mallory’s attempts to get him to retire also. Retirement is an issue for these two old spies. But neither take it well.

Retirement is a natural fact of life, even if we don’t want to think about it. Time marches on. We get older. We lose physical abilities. Sometimes we lose mental acuity. But as Bond tells Q, “Youth is not a guarantee of innovation.” Retirement is personal. It may be required in some jobs at a specified age, but if we retain our sharpness there should be no reason to step down. Bond shows this here, as we would expect.

Perhaps the scariest thing about facing retirement, and why we avoid it, is what comes after that: aging and death. We wonder if we have left a legacy, or if all traces of us will wash away like the sand on the shore.  We want our life to count for something.

Certainly, Mallory and his Minister are looking to erase the legacy of the 00-program and M’s version of the secret service. For them, the golden age of espionage is pass√©. It needs to go the way of the dodo. But there are things a laptop cannot do, such as protecting a superior when under fire, and that needs a man like Bond.

Of course, what is a Bond film without a Bond girl and a Bond villain? In Skyfall, Berenice Marlohe plays Severine, the Asian-European femme fatale who Bond beds. Her main role is to be his conquest and then to lead him to Silva. She is noteworthy in no other way. Silva, on the other hand, is a terrific villain, with a pointer back to the days of old. In this case, though, Silva is a former agent with a past. Like Bond, he died a figurative death, also at the symbolic hands of M. But both return to life.

Resurrection is a key theme. When Silva asks Bond what his hobby is, Bond answers, “Resurrection.” Bond’s resurrection is to loyalty and duty, to once more serve his country and his superior. His choice contrasts with Silva’s. Unlike Bond, he rose from the dead burning with a desire for revenge. First and foremost in his sights is M and her agency.

Resurrection is the key theme in Christian faith. Jesus Christ ministered on earth for a mere three years before being summarily executed by the ruling power of the day. But this was an exciting prologue to the main event: his resurrection. He came back to life thanks to the power of his father. He returned to life to serve his kingdom and his God. He had no desire for revenge on Pontius Pilate or the errant Jews who had missed the point of their Old Testament scriptures. No, instead he offered forgiveness, even while hanging on the cross, to the criminals on his right and left (Lk. 23:43), and to the executioners (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”, Lk. 23:34).

Skyfall takes us on a journey of locations old and new, from the centuries old buildings of London to the steel and glass skyscrapers of Shanghai. It has a number of fantastic action sequences, bookended by the chase sequence and the final Skyfall shootout. In between it makes us consider which is better: the old or the new. But there is a place for both, as Bond makes clear. Yet when it comes to resurrection, the old is best. JB is certainly no JC!

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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