I saw it last night, and was quite impressed with the movie on a couple of levels. For one thing, the sociopolitical context is really pretty fascinating and timely. For all the (wasted, IMO) effort to try to find some coherent point of view in The Dark Knight Rises, the Javier Bardem character’s point of view–sort of an Anonymous crossed with Wikileaks with a revolutionary ideology–is a hell of a lot closer to contemporary trends and anxieties than a marblemouthed strongman pulling off a plot to seize a major U.S. city for no reason in particular. The villain of the piece is only an exaggeration of a lot of different things going on in the culture rather than something completely fanciful, which differentiates it from the Batman film, but also from most of the pre-Craig Bond movies. Also, it’s worth noting that the Craig era seems to accomplished the end of the ghettoization of Bond movies, which are now judged more or less against other movies and not only against each other, to such an extent that the movies are able to attract top-tier directors and cinematographers of a caliber unknown to the franchise before. None of the prior entries in the franchise look nearly this good. I’m not sure it’s the strongest-ever story in the series, but it’s quite good, and a liberal dose of great filmmaking really gives the movie a boost.

Incidentally, I also watched GoldenEye this weekend, which made an interesting contrast with the most recent film. Watching now, it’s safe to say that GoldenEye‘s “reinvention” of Bond was almost entirely hype. Sure, Brosnan handles the role differently from how Dalton had handled it, and he’s written to be a little more reflective, but the film has the same basic strengths and weaknesses of the Dalton movies, it just plays more to its strengths. There’s not nearly as much camp as the prior installment (how can you top a Wayne Newton cameo?), and the punny, cheesy banter is a bit more restrained, but it’s really a modest refactoring at best. Still an entertaining movie, though. By the end of Skyfall, all the pieces of the Bond formula are back in place–Q and Moneypenny are back, Bond drinks a shaken martini and introduces himself with the famous phrasing. But everything really is different in the newest movie, and it’s hardly a superficial reinvention. Part of that is the central character. Bond is not invulnerable, for one, and he can’t shoot a couple thousand rounds before he runs out of ammo. He’s obviously not going to die, but he’s something resembling a human being in most respects, including a lot of mundane ones. Probably the best moment is when he learns he’s going to have to jump onto a moving train, and Craig gives a quick but unavoidable “I can’t believe it” face before he does it, flawlessly. It’s impossible to imagine Brosnan or Dalton being able to incorporate a moment like that into their performances, but with Craig’s, it works. He’s more just an everyman with incredible skills than a superman. And the movie lacks much if any of the misogyny the series used to be unable to shake–Bond works with women, for a woman, and it’s never much of a big deal, just a fact. Moneypenny is even allowed to save Bond at one point, something unthinkable in most prior installments. Certainly, Craig’s Bond is more developed than any of the other versions, including a significant amount of time spent on his past in this film, which leads to actual stakes during the action scenes. The damage and the darkness of Bond are put front and center here, as well they should be. Because they are the real defining characteristics of the character, and every version of the character that hasn’t been presented that way has been rejected before too long.

But it’s not only the character that’s rejuvenated the series, it’s the overall concept. The Bond films have enhanced their relevance by doing the most obvious fucking thing, which is to get back to basics. This eluded the series’ handlers for decades, who quite clearly didn’t know what sorts of villains Bond should fight with the Cold War winding down. He fought, among others, computer company heads, druglords, Rupert Murdoch clones, and North Korea. These efforts smacked of trying too hard for relevance more often than not. The thing is, though, that Bond almost never directly engaged the Soviets in the classic movies–he was always battling nonstate actors like terror groups, insane people, megalomaniacs of various stripes, and so on. The Cold War was merely a backdrop for all that, used to make the audience’s anxieties present to be channeled into whatever authoritarian utopian or depraved autocrat the writers dreamed up that year. The current Bond films have actually become much more relevant since most of today’s current threats come from nonstate actors of a lot of different types, and the films so far managed to find things scary enough on their own–and contemporary and relevant enough–to carry the movies. It’s both getting back to basics and keeping up with the trends, which is all you can ask for from a turnaround.

To sum up, this one definitely goes in the “W” column, and I look forward to where the Craig era takes us next.

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