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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Skyfall

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Bond franchise my whole life. It started as a youngster, when my parents would rent the latest Bond film from our local Blockbuster. I have a distinct memory of watching Licence to Kill and not even remotely enjoying it. I was slightly older when Goldeneye came out to video and it faired better with me. Since then, I’ve tried to find appreciation in the Bond series where I can, fun action, cartoony villains, pretty ladies, whathaveyou, unfortunately so many of the films are duller than an old razor. The Sean Connery films have nice kitsch value and in the early going a great lead performance, but have far fewer hits than misses, the Roger Moore era is a complete misfire for me, and Timothy Dalton/ Pierce Brosnan eras are almost non-factors short of the strong initial Brosnan showing in the aforementioned Goldeneye. Thus we come to Daniel Craig.

The Craig-led portion of the series got off to a great start in Casino Royale, rebooting from the beginning and re-invigorating the franchise for the 21st century. The script had a few speed-bumps, but it gave us a Bond that we actually believed could be a trained killer and one of the better supporting actresses the series has ever had. The film also redefined Bond’s relationship with M, rather than the stately employer-employee relationship of the pre-Brosnan films, or the antagonistic relationship of the Brosnan era, this M (Judi Dench) and Bond have some more akin to a mother-son relationship, and this aspect is very much heightened in Skyfall.

Skyfall picks up, if not in plot, then tonally, where the previous film, 2008’s slight and somewhat disappointing Quantum of Solace left off. In very Bourne-like style, Bond is in pursuit of a terrorist in Istanbul who has mortally wounded one of his fellow agents. This leads into an exciting rooftop chase on motorcycles and a battle atop a moving passenger train that with one erred shot from another agent (Naomie Harris) sends Bond tumbling into a river below and left for dead by MI-6. The main focal point of the plot is about Bond returning to service after an encrypted file with all MI6 embedded field agents’ names have been compromised by former MI-6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a villain who is seeking revenge on M due to being left in somewhat similar, if perhaps more dire, circumstances to how Bond found himself at the beginning of the film.

Along the way, Bond encounters a number of new characters, including the reintroduction of Q (Ben Whishaw), a sex-worker turned operative for Silva (Berenice Marlohe), and M’s boss, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Harris’ Eve also plays a very large role in the film as support for Bond and Mallory’s “eyes in the field”. Silva himself is a very interesting villain. Unlike most Bond foes, he isn’t looking to destabilize the world economy, become wealthy through crime, or destroy and kill, he’s simply seeking revenge against M and MI6, recalling Sean Bean’s 006 in Goldeneye. Silva is a fascinating creation, with the signature Bond villain bleach blonde hair, and a sense of homoeroticism, he certainly is a stand-out character without moving into the cartoonish “Dr. Evil territory” that so many Bond villains fall into, yet he also is far more involving than Quantum of Solace’s duller than dirt adversary, Dominic Greene.

In regard to technical aspects, Sam Mendes is by far the most prestigious director the series has had. This is another boon for the film. Mendes, working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, create an indelible atmosphere, the likes of which we’ve never seen in a Bond film before. I was particularly impressed with a fight scene in a under-construction office building in Shanghai; where Bond and the man he is pursuing fight in one long take in shadow with gorgeous city neon lights flashing past them. This scene is contrasted with a battle taking place in the third act in the Scottish Moors that is shot in such a color-less and literally dry way that it begins to resemble a Western show-down, including a rickety old graveyard and church. If there is an MVP of this film, it is Roger Deakins.
Skyfall is the first Bond film since the late sixties (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) to push an emotional quotient as the main driving force of the plot. We learn more about Bond’s past, including the names of his parents and visit his childhood home, and get a sense of what sort of upbringing he was raised in. We also meet his old Gamekeeper, Kincade (Albert Finney), in a part that was clearly written for Sean Connery, but Finney does a yeoman’s job with this new wrinkle in Bond mythology. This magnifies one of the major strengths for the film, the sense of its events’ permanence or “mattering” if you will. Too often in Bond films will you see the end of the film resolving all of its plot points and the “toys being returned to the toy box” for the next director to take over. This is less so in Skyfall and it’s nice to see some impactful changes occur to the character. Skyfall joins Casino Royale, OHMSS, Goldeneye, and maybe From Russia with Love as amongst the few Bond films that accomplish this goal.

If I could mention any possible issues I had with the film, I think my biggest struggle has to be with the fact that the script clearly took some influences from the recent Christopher Nolan Batman films. Certainly if one were to look at those films, you could find some very clear (and admitted) influences on Nolan from the classic Bond films (Lucius Fox as Q, the Joker’s knife in his shoe, the entire opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises as a direct lift from Licence to Kill, Ra’s Al Ghul characterization, etc…) but Skyfall takes a lot of plot beat similarities from The Dark Knight especially, even if they seem a bit superficial. A second act office park battle in China, a unstoppable and unpredictable terrorist wrecking havoc in a major metropolitan city, a capture that is clearly part of the villain’s plan, an interrogation scene between the hero and villain, a beaten and battered hero trying to fight his way back to working condition, and that doesn’t even bring up the character of Kincade and how he serves as a sort of Alfred to Bond’s Bruce, along with the cave system that exists under his childhood home, a home by the way, he holds a massive amount of contempt for. I’m sure Mendes would take exception to these parallels, but they exist and it’s not really a stretch to see them. In this case, turnabout is indeed fair play.

Additionally, I do wish Silva had a bit more screen-time. Unlike the Joker in The Dark Knight, where we spent a significant amount of time with the character and learned a good deal about his philosophies and what makes him tick, it felt as though Silva was a total unknown beyond the all too short interrogation scene. To some that may be a strength, but when you have a tremendous actor like Bardem, you should use him, at least to give audiences a fuller picture of the villain.
But in all, I greatly enjoyed the film, particularly as a testament to the strength of the original concept of Bond. The film begins much like Quantum of Solace ends, in the previously mentioned Bourne-like, American action mode, but as we begin to move into the second act of the film and into the final third, audiences are given witness to a transformation of the film’s tone, going backwards in time to the more comfortable atmosphere of the Connery era, including the Aston-Martin, and a very familiar office. The final scene is a great treat for long-time fans, as is the film as a whole and is a fitting celebration of the franchise’s 50th birthday. I look forward to the next one, with the hopes that Mendes returns. Action films of the modern era need more directors like Nolan and Mendes to provide a strong hand to their creation rather than cookie-cutter like producer-led vehicles that we see in say The Expendables or the Marvel films. Films like Skyfall give you hope that the genre picture can still produce exciting film-making.
I give it 3.5 out of 4 stars, or an A- if you prefer.
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1 comment:

  1. I was just thinking about Skyfall quite a bit last couple days. As a fan of what could be classified as the spy-fi genre, I get a big grin from thinking that, visually, James Bond now works for John Steed.


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