Since the world has been cajoled into celebrating fifty years of exposure to James Bond which, at times, was rather like contracting a contagious disease, I offer the following memory of standing in the rain outside the Odeon in Newcastle, queueing to see Dr No. We Geordies were a hardy lot. Not for us the covered pavements you see in some parts of the world. Our sense of enthusiasm to be infected by all things Bond drove us to risk pneumonia as the wind blew down from the North Pole bringing pre-sleet inundation from the sky. Ah, yes, what better way to introduce Skyfall (2012), the latest outing. At least, for this one, I didn’t need to queue (going at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning solves that problem, and my pensioner discount made it affordable).
So what does this film add to the franchise? The answer is slightly surprising. It’s an exercise in nostalgia where the past comes back to bite us in unmentionable places. In a reasonably positive way, it’s celebrating Bond by shaking the kaleidoscope to create a brand new pattern out of the same pieces of coloured glass. We start with the mandatory prologue as Bond and young woman are in pursuit of a missing hard drive. A foreign adventurer has shot various British agents guarding it in Istanbul (more exciting than leaving it on a bus in Tooting High Street, I suppose, but without any explanation of what MI6 was doing with it in Turkey) and now makes his getaway across the roof of the Grand Bazaar (particularly picturesque at this time of year and surprisingly robust as motorbikes charge all over it) and out of the capital on a train. Thanks to the instruction, “Take the damn shot!”, our tyro markswoman shoots Bond and not the adventurer which, for the second time, leads to Bond reading his own obituary (sadly, the scorpion didn’t sting him even though, thanks to the immunisation therapy he received in Die Another Day, he would have survived that as well with nothing more than a small rash).
Filled with nationalistic fervor, our hero does his Lazarus act when he sees a news flash of the MI6 headquarters in London blowing up. Even though he’s obviously not completely recovered, he’s sent back out into the field in pursuit of the man who should have taken the tyro markswoman’s bullet. This leads to the mandatory fight with the ultimate villain’s henchmen (look out behind you, it’s a monitor lizard — what better way for bad guys to get shaken but not stirred by jaws full of venom) and the sight of the only woman he will sleep with (off camera — proper decorum is shown after the tasteful naked shower scene). So before you can say, “End of Act One”, Bond is being introduced to the ultimate villain. Fortunately, Bond has been equipped with a radio tracking device so MI6 is able to send helicopters to rescue him and arrest the villain. This is, of course, all too easy. Even the poor quality help available from Freelancers.com would search Bond and find the device in his pocket (not his shoe, you note — Q explains they’ve decided not to do silly gadgets any more). So here we have the villain in the same plastic cell that failed to hold Magneto and with the key he bought from Jim Moriarty in Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012) which opens any door, anywhere in the world. Ah ha, it’s all a cunning plot to be caught with Bond the only agent on the planet that could have followed that particular trail of breadcrumbs to catch him. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the villain — the idea he could escape retribution for his naughtiness is inconceivable. In the World of Bond, no bad deed goes unpunished. So that’s it, really. There are an amazing number of bullets fired and explosions both big and small. Many die, as you would expect. And Skyfall is burned to the ground (which is just as well because it was full of unhappy memories).
So there you have it. As frequently happens in any film straying over the two-hour mark in length (143 minutes in total), it flags a little in the middle but, for the most part, it maintains interest and has satisfyingly arty moments. The lighting effects during the fight in Shanghai are rather beautiful and it’s always good to see the mist rising in a Scottish glen. Daniel Craig continues to impress. There’s a wonderful physicality about him that plays out well in these big screen adventure stories. Judi Dench is given a pleasingly robust part and does well under fire, particularly when she has a gillie to lean on. Javier Bardem does enough to be ranked among the better Bond villains. There’s a creepy menace about him which convinces. Ralph Fiennes is introduced as the next M. Now that he’s finished being Voldemort, he can get back to protecting the Muggles. Naomie Harris recovers from the shock of shooting Bond and makes life safer for agents in the field by taking up the role of Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw does a surprisingly good job as Q. Rory Kinnear as the stock character Bill Tanner rounds out the cast.
So this is all good news with the shaking of the kaleidoscope done with great professionalism by Sam Mendes. When there’s nothing you can really do but move the mandatory set-pieces around and make them as pleasing as possible, the themes of personal revenge and the need to take responsibility for past actions without flinching, play out well in these modern times. Everyone on show here has something in their pasts to affect their present behaviour and such a character dynamic makes a welcome change to the Bond catalogue of stock elements. In the next film we may learn how Bond lost his parents and why being an orphan made him into the efficient killing machine we see today. When you put all this together, Skyfall is one of the best Bond films for a while and one of the best thriller, action films of the year.
So let me get Wrath of the Titans (2012) straight. This is about Perseus (Sam Worthington). He’s the one proudly parading in a skirt as opposed to Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) who’s the warrior Princess sporting the full-dress armour you would expect on the battlefield. It seems rather insulting to the LGBT community that men in films can confidently walk around wearing a mini (what did these ancient Greeks wear underneath their skirts?) with their swords in an erect position, whereas modern men seen in public, with or without swords, run the risk of assault and arrest (which in some countries will be the police assaulting the man in the skirt). Except in Greece itself, of course. The modern Greek army, following in the noble tradition of the Scottish regiments with their kilts (and, if we’re to believe the myths, nothing underneath) continues to celebrate heroes like Perseus when turning their soldiers out for guard duty (see below). It brings in much needed tourist revenue during this time of austerity as homophobic men from around the world come to view one of the few national armies retaining gender neutral uniforms, albeit with a female bias — will you just look at those shoes with the bobbles. Having repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, President Obama will no doubt be introducing comparable uniforms to further enhance the morale of US troops, should he win the next election, of course. Anyway, the reason for this fixation with skirts is the way the CGI plays with them in this film. For example, if Perseus were to jump feet-first from a height, you would expect the force of the air whipping past his ankles to wrap the skirt around his waist, thus exposing him to criticism from the film censors. Except, no matter what our hero is doing, the skirt never outrages his modesty (see the poster above).
I begin in this way because the film itself is set at a comparable level of idiocy — on the poster, note how the hero avoids using the forked end to attack the beastie — one spike good, three spikes bad. It all starts with the polyglot approach to dialogue. In the good old days of Hollywood, there were voice coaches who would train everyone involved to approximate the same mid-Western accent. So here comes Sam Worthington with his native Australian, Rosamund Pike and Ralph Fiennes with their cut-glass English, Liam Neeson reverting to type with his Northern Irish brogue and, most hilariously of all, Bill Nighy approximating the Galápagos Islands which are just north of Huddersfield if you approach via Surrey. Ares (Édgar Ramírez), of course, is from Venezuela so he can speak with a funny accent without trying and then there’s Toby Kebbell who wins the prize for the most anonymous accent — it’s the beard that filters out the phonemes as they leave his lips.
As you will gather, Slight Disagreement Between the Gods is all about men in skirts being given silly things to do while pretending to live in the Tower of Babel. The next big truth about this epic is that all but one of the men has Daddy Issues, a term coined by Sigmund Freud to describe sons who would prefer their fathers to be elsewhere. So Helius (John Bell) is annoyed by his father Perseus who won’t let him play with his sword. Perseus is upset with his father, Zeus, because he resents having to save the world whenever Zeus messes things up. Zeus, Hades and Poseidon are upset with Cronus, their father, because he never made time for them when they were baby Gods — just to be sure you understand, Cronus was the Titan lacking in parenting skills, while Chronos was an earlier God of Time. Ares as the God of War just wants to fight with everyone including Zeus his father. Only Cronus has no Daddy Issues because he’s a product of CGI. And talking of the CGI, we get to see Cerberus, a few cyclops, some randomly thrown together nasties with lots of arms and legs, all holding swords, and the horse with wings. When he finally appears, Cronus looks like a grown-up version of Lavagirl without Sharkboy around to liven up the party. He makes all those slow-motion moves much beloved by overweight professional wrestlers who want to look silly when faster-moving, good-looking heroes stop pretending to be hurt and close in for the knockout.
I think the moment I began to feel really ill was when the pride of the ancient Greek army did that everyone-make-ape-noises-together thing that’s supposed to show group solidarity as Perseus had his Pegasus moment wheeling in the sky (the US Marine Corp apparently use the verb to “oorah” as opposed to the “hip, hip, hooray” more commonly used by the British when they want to make a sarcastic comment). If this had been part of a more general attempt to make the film amusing, I would have accepted it as one failed joke. But I think this was intended, somehow, to be serious. So there you have it, Sam Worthington, Toby Kebbell and Rosamund Pike travel to an island that doesn’t exist, go through the labyrinth where the Minotaur makes a cameo appearance, and enjoy a package tour round the Underworld where nothing stays the same until you get to the missing Daddy and the red hot Titan in the soft centre. Wrath of the Titans is completely without humour, interminably boring, and lacking anything approximating intelligence. Even the Gods die in despair — obviously, there’s no convenient Heaven for them to adjourn to when they shuffle off this immortal coil. I suppose this means it’s a blockbuster, but my money says it will sink without trace at the box office once the word-of-mouth spreads.