I went to see the new James Bond movie 'Skyfall' last week, and left the theater a little non-plussed. Some superb cinematography, an opening chase sequence that reminded my heart (after some very tedious trailers and adverts) that it was alive, some gorgeous landscapes. The Bond franchise has always been a repository for action thriller cliches (many of which it pioneered, to be fair) and some pretty lame attempts at titillation in its quieter moments. The best of the films (Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) have shown a bravura sense of style and physical timing, as good as any in their genre. They pretty much invented their genre. Even the worst of them have a couple of uber-cool moments. The one thing the series has never really done is try to take itself seriously. Until now. Until the Daniel Craig (as Bond) versions beginning with Casino Royale in 2006.
But that's problematic. Bond has long been a momentary break for ordinary guys, from the humdrum of their daily lives, its hyper-real feel and innate ridiculousness a shot in the arm for drudgery. He was an antidote for packing boxes and digging ditches and reconciling lines of figures in accounts books. That was his beauty for a male audience. The downside of that was a bunch of lazy sexist undercurrents, with women characters as tassles with body parts attached. But Daniel Craig and presumably the writers of his films have set out to give Bond depth. But it's like looking for nourishment in a slice of Pavlova. The character's whakapapa works against it. It's not impossible that action movies can have depth - for example the Bourne Trilogy with Matt Damon giving a nuanced and sometimes tortured performance as an action hero for whom you felt you could really care - not just cheer.
There are still some moments where the old ugliness breaks the surface. The flippant 'ta da, the helicopters have arrived' follow up to the moment when one of the temporary women 'characters' is killed. That's a troubling miss-step. But give this crew credit for trying. There are some human moments where Bond is clearly aging. His gun hand wavering is a nice touch. But what will the end point of this deconstruction of one of cinema's great mythologized superficialities leave us with. A broken franchise for a a new crew to try and reconstruct, or a hyper real hero with holed socks and a tremor. Whose purpose will it serve? This was always about style over substance. Perhaps that was always its point, that a man can be an awestruck boy again, if only in the brief stretch of time between sitting down in a theater's seats and standing up again. Trying not to think that even at his best, Bond is a sociopathic bastard with a cartoonish sense of patriotism, but with cool cars and some serious chat-up lines.