01/28/2013 02:35 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Of Guns and (Not So Much) Glory: Jack, James and American and British Dreams

"Agent down," the beautiful agent Moneypenny bleakly informs her spymaster M at the end of the opening scene in Skyfall, the magnificently self-aware elegy to the end of the British Empire, cleverly masquerading as the latest James Bond film. And not just any agent. It is James Bond himself who is down, mistakenly shot in the back by Moneypenny herself at M's direct orders. In a strangely lyrical scene we see Bond falling down into the depths of the ocean (or is it his own unconscious, his past, his memories?), while Adele's supple voice sings the apocalyptic line "Let the sky fall" over the opening credits.

Falling is the main theme of Skyfall, both literally and figuratively. Bond falls into death only to be resurrected, but as a lesser figure apparently in physical and psychological decline. The headquarters of MI6, the British Secret Service, is blown up and falls down around its own agents. Their computer system is hacked and falls apart in front of their eyes. In the film's final minutes, Bond's ancestral home, Skyfall, falls into the flames of multiple explosions. And (spoiler alert) the redoubtable M falls too, shot by a former agent whom she had cultivated and then betrayed.

As in any James Bond film, guns are important but, unusually in Skyfall, neither the camera nor the protagonists seem to fetishize them. There is no glamour involved in the inept shooting of Bond or the slow death of M. And the almost perfunctory gun battle that takes part in the last action scene is dwarfed by the fiery demise of Skyfall's walls and towers.

Which, of course, leads me to Jack Reacher, the everyman superhero who has already appeared in 16 thrillers by Lee Child and whose first "major motion picture" came out last December to generally tepid reviews. Perhaps one reason for the film's relative lack of success was the opening scene in which a killer in a parking garage methodically targets and guns down five innocent people, including a nanny holding a little girl. With images of the Newtown massacre still vivid in the audience's minds, watching such a scene required a strong stomach. And even if, by the end, our hero Reacher has caught the bad guys and tied up all loose ends, the movie's many violent episodes are less exhilarating than exhausting.

Bond and Reacher are both conceived as fundamentally heroic characters, and they have other things in common as well. They are highly skilled killers at home with all kinds of weaponry, and yet operate by a certain moral code. They are attractive to women and are kind to children and animals (I just made the last part up, but Reacher goes out of his way to help women and minorities). And, rather surprisingly in the case of Reacher, they are both the creations of educated Englishmen.

But Bond belongs to a different country and even a different world than Reacher. He embodies a kind of soigne aloofness while paradoxically being a company man at the same time. Not only is he handsome, cultivated and witty but he is also, as Skyfall goes out of its way to underline, a patriot, one whose flippant loyalty to England conceals genuine feeling, bound up in his emotionally dependent relationship with M. M clearly represents a lost mother, both to Bond and to the renegade agent whose desire for revenge on MI6 and England is shown as a twisted form of sibling rivalry with Bond.

All this may seem rather hackneyed and old-fashioned. Mother England? Patriotism? How trite. The dream of the British empire is so over.

Enter the loner hero Reacher. Whereas Bond haunts the exotic and old-fashioned locales of Empire, Reacher traverses the locus of the quintessential American dream, the Road. There is no M or MI6 in Reacher's life, not even an Aston Martin. An ex-serviceman with no fixed address or permanent relationships, Reacher crisscrosses America by hitching rides with random people. Where James Bond in Skyfall literally returns home, albeit briefly, to a pre-21st century British Empire, Reacher has no home to go to. He belongs to the Road.

More than the series' often stock protagonists, the road in the Reacher novels is a three-dimensional character. Dusty rural routes, six lane expressways, spiderweb interchanges, bridges, bypasses -- all become part of the bleak poetry that informs Child's vision of America. This is an America that is vast, alienating and always on the move.

And the road is where the guns are. There is so much lovingly described firepower in a Reacher novel that, if the road is a main character, the guns themselves become secondary actors. Revolver toting bad guys kidnap victims at dreary strip malls. Rifle shots ring out from a deserted parking garage. Assassination teams carefully store their assault weapons in the trunk of anonymous sedans as they travel towards their target.

Like Bond, Reacher is skilled in physical combat, and he is also seriously good with guns. One of the most intense and intimate moments in the movie occurs when Reacher demonstrates his marksmanship to the owner of a rifle range, an elderly ex-marine who bonds with Reacher over their shared love of superb shooting. Ultimately, it is the two loners, Reacher and the ex-marine, who take on the bad guys in the inevitable final bloody shootout.

The movie and the novel on which it is based make clear that Reacher and his new buddy are Good Guys. They are just the kind of people that gun rights enthusiasts hold up as model gun owners -- responsible, respectful and reliable. Who wouldn't want them at their back against the bad guys? In the novel Echo Burning, Reacher hears of the grave of a local hero inscribed with the words "He never killed a man who did not need killing." Sounds like Reacher's motto too.

Looking at gun use through the lens of these words, it all seems to make sense. But I can't help returning to the opening scene of Skyfall. Bond's fall into near death is not only symbolic, it is also a reminder of a basic fact: Even the good guys make mistakes and shooting really isn't a glamorous business. Reacher may be the gritty new American hero but in his own way he is as much of a fantasy creation as Bond. And Skyfall, despite its exotic settings and old fashioned values, may actually give us a more realistic picture of the not so glorious world of guns. M would understand.