(This interesting piece was originally penned as a comment. For the sake of a wider audience, I have published it here as a blog post with minor retouches)
Pseudo-noir films have become a problem with Hollywood, of late.
Nolan kick-started this trend, perhaps, with his much lauded (glorified actually) Batman trilogy and Mendes’s Skyfall now has taken this trend to childish extremes.
Contrary to people’s criticism of Nolan for making Batman pretentiously serious, he actually used that only as a cinematic technique in his films.
Nolan realized the source material itself was silly and would likely fail to capture the attention of the audience, which was the case with their 90s predecessors, if he had rendered too literary a translation of the comic book into a movie. Therefore, he just took cues from the comic books here and there, gave the mise en scene a ‘contemporary slant’ and ensconced the characters in an emotional mien that is concretely visible to and highly digestible for the collective psyche.
Boy, has it worked!
Hence the celebration/criticism of his Batman. Nolan either duped himself into believing that his Batman was ‘so serious’ or he actually never seriously meant it to be so.
Despite the semblance of seriousness (or as many people stupidly called ‘darkness’), Nolan’s Batman, at its core, very much remains a cartoon.
However, Nolan got away with the whole thing because he was not exactly a dud in pulling off the narrative of an action film (I watched his ‘Batman Begins’ and TDK so many times for the music and the pace and sometimes action) firstly; and Batman’s character supports that technique to a great extent, secondly, as cartoon characters mostly are intellectual blank papers so that one can so easily interpret them any way to any depth (remember Ang Lee’s brooding Hulk?).
However, Sam Mendes, who boldly announced that he was inspired by the TDK, isn’t so lucky (nor is Bond).
Actually, traces of a humorless, hyperactive and pseudo-emotional Bond first appeared in Dalton’s Living Daylights, back in 87 after Moore retired, the plot of which, nevertheless, followed a beaten path and, hence, turned out to be boring.
The trend intensified with Brosnan (whose body language as Bond I never liked) and reached its acme with Craig.
With Craig, everybody said Bond was at last humanized when in reality he was superhumanized (remember, that exotic foot chase after opening credits in Casino Royale. Fascinating but loud).
The new James Bond does everything the villain(s) could do.
If they run, he runs after them.
If they kick, he kicks back.
If they are courageous, he is indomitable.
If they are iron, he is steel sans any hint of ingenuity (when he sees the bad guy getting away on the train he rams his bike into the parapet so that he could somersault off the impact and land on the roof of the train, nonsense. Even Jason Bourne never did that).
What is being a human anyway?
Is it falling in love or secretly lusting after every next temptress?
Is it being as determined as Evil or flinching in the face of it?
Oddly, the so called human element was more present in the previous Bonds i.e. inclination to defeat the enemy with subterfuge rather than through sheer human resolution. In fact, that’s what made James Bond so popular.
The old Bond had no compunctions in acknowledging superior strength or skill of an enemy and would only mind the final result without giving so much significance to how he’d achieved it.
However, this human element in Bond movies back then was never meant to be truly human.
In fact, the very idea of ‘making somebody human’ had crossed nobody’s mind.
A physically and mentally frail albeit ‘charming’ Bond was only employed as a ploy to amuse the older generation audience with simpler fantastical psyches. Hence an amusing Q, gadgets, girls and a ‘straight bad guy’.
It was a literal circus show in there on the screen; portraying danger as an amusement.
Unlike what somebody said here, old Bond was not at all chauvinistic but only routinely playing out a simple fancy. He was ridiculously fanciful but idealistically unambitious.
But as the technique has worn out over the years and the narrative became increasingly customary, the audience has become immune to the spectacle.
However, with Craig’s introduction, instead of taking tremendous pains of replacing buffoon-like frailty of the old Bond with a graver tone, the makers have altogether resorted to the lazy reconstruction of Bond as a superhero, who does away with transcending Evil as any smart spy should but who now stubbornly wants to compete with it punch for punch.
In the process, the new Bond is right in your face, leaping, chasing, rolling, flying, shooting, ridding himself of all his gadgets, taking tremendous risks that would kill or seriously injure any other ‘human’, wearing a permanent scowl on his face thereby swamping all the other narrative elements of a spy story in the deluge of his pseudo-humanity.
The makers instead of weaving a true espionage duly deducting the buffoonery from the old Bond have opted for a sure-fire emotional superhero shortcut, as vouched for by the success of Christopher Nolan with his reinvented Batman as well as the Jason Bourne series, as it is not only easy to execute but has high probability of success when compared to a painstaking but more-likely-to-fail narrative overhaul.
Nothing epitomizes this mindset more than that utterly hilarious scene of M spouting Tennyson while Bond chases the villain attempting to assassinate her, disguised as a cop in Skyfall.
What the f*** was Mendes thinking???? (by the way, the scene is a straight lift of that similar TDK scene in which the Joker attempts to assassinate Mayor Garcia, disguised as a policeman, while the Mayor’s emotional speech is in progress. There was also another stupid scene of Bond’s Aston Martin firing its frontal machine guns at Silva’s thugs at Skyfall, unmanned, like the Batman’s tumbler).
We usually see this lazy concoction of genres or genrelessness to be precise in the Indian mainstream regional movies, which portray the protagonist as a superhero, strutting around with a smirk, beating up hordes of goons while wearing his glamorous emotional susceptibility as a badge of his humanity. It is alarming to see such a soppy mindset creeping into Bond movies, conveniently using the Bond’s superspy status as a ruse.
Skyfall – Stranded on the Tarmac
The problem with Skyfall is that the movie never took off.
Right from the opening to the end it remained a flat, juvenile action (inaction) film in which Bond remained only as a namesake; the inscrutable spy of an unaccountable past in him helplessly dragged out and strangled by Mendes’s naïve romantic vision of the character.
The same disease extends to the portrayal of the villain too whose presence in the movie just remains a doodle and a sorry excuse for a maniac. Here too, Mendes spoils with his premeditative ideas of a demented villain (an obsession with the Joker??).
An emotionalized and intellectualized villain in a movie, in my opinion, is anyway simply a pain in the ass.
I liked Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale so much because his sadistic intent and selfishness were so palpable (that is what I call human).
There was nothing menacing about Bardem’s Silva as he was just playing a concept not a role.
And what was Bond doing in Skyfall with that mawkish housekeeper and Home Alone artifice as backup to defeat a seasoned secret agent?
Why didn’t a genius hacker like Silva suspect it to be a trap?
Why would a super-smart Bond defiantly run across a frozen pond a la Claude Van Damme when he knew Silva could be hiding somewhere in the bush? Couldn’t he think anything better?
Why didn’t he take MI6’s help if he was so sure that Silva would bite his bait?
What was the need for a last stand at Skyfall at all when he has all the guns of MI6 and entire London at his disposal?
What the hell happened to that list of NATO agents? Did Silva leak the list to someone? Are Silva and M more important for Bond to deal with than the list?
There was a scene in Skyfall in which Bond stands on guard for M shouldering a rifle, staring intensely through the window, his face submerged in the twilight, while talking some nonsense to M.
Who does he think he is? A Terminator or James Bond 007?