Saturday, November 17, 2012

Skyfall Movie Review: Bond 23

The idea that the James Bond film series needs to be rebooted doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nearly every film is a reboot because there’s virtually no continuity between films. Daniel Craig’s first outing as the superspy 007 in Casino Royale was a reboot of sorts in the sense that many of the things the Bond series had been known for were ousted. Neither Miss Moneypenny nor Q made appearances. With Skyfall, Craig’s third turn as Bond, it becomes clearer that the new series is something akin to a reboot because many of the old comforts have returned.

There is now a new Q in the person of the young Ben Whishaw, setting up the possibility of a long career as the MI6 gadget man (though how could anyone top Desmond Llewelyn’s impressive run of 17 films as the quartermaster?) Having a younger Q also brings the series into the modern age. It makes perfect sense that a gadget whiz would be young enough to be Bond’s son. Most modern spying involves computer algorithms and hacking – a field mostly dominated by youth. And Miss Moneypenny shows up at the end, promising years of sexual tension and double entendres. Ralph Fiennes has even been lined up to take over the reins from Judi Dench, who, through six films, has performed admirably and stoically as Bond’s superior M. Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, a cabinet minister who has a past in the field of spy work.

The action sequences in Skyfall are clearly among the best ever created for a Bond film. I had my doubts as to director Sam Mendes’s skill as an action director. There’s very little on his resume of character-driven dramas to suggest he could handle a Bond film. His shortcomings as a director of action scenes is somewhat countenanced by the way he can draw our focus to the human drama within them – something all too often lacking in most action films. Through the previous two films there was much more reliance on physical stunts and set pieces rather than an abundance of CGI, a trend that continues here. Die Another Day, with its cheesy computer effects, was one of the worst looking Bond films in the series’ storied history. The opening chase in Skyfall involves motorcycles over rooftops and a fight atop a moving train that passes through tunnels causing Bond and his assailant to drop to their bellies periodically. I’m sure lots of CGI was used in crafting the sequence only because I know that it couldn’t possibly have all be created on live sets, but I feel confident saying that it is hidden well enough that you can lose yourself in the moment and never clearly identify what’s a real background and what isn’t. In that sense I truly believe these characters were engaged in deadly combat.

The plot is all so very Bond-like. Could we ask anything more or less? The villain is classic in stature, a former MI6 agent named Silva with a personal vendetta against M. While it appears early on that his megalomaniacal plan is for some financial reward or political in nature, it turns out to be a grand scheme with the relatively small goal of eliminating poor Judi Dench. At the film’s end I found myself of two minds about this, torn between the tradition of ridiculously complex villainous schemes in the Bond series (the likes of which were hilariously parodied in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and the desire to see a plan that makes some sense. If Silva wanted to enact revenge against a single person and possesses the means and wherewithal to do things like hack into the MI6 mainframe and procure a small cadre of well-armed henchman (another wonderful Bond tradition), why did he need to prepare something years in the making to carry out an act he could easily have accomplished with a single bullet? Of course, the only reasonable answer to that question is that this is what Bond movies do. And we love them for it. The only thing we really need ask ourselves is whether or not we were enraptured, enthralled, entranced and entertained.

Truthfully I don’t really believe that’s quite enough for an action movie, or any movie for that matter. Thankfully Skyfall delivers the goods in the way of a story that fits the times. Screenwriter John Logan was brought on board to join the Bond writing partnership of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and together they’ve given us a Bond film worth paying attention to. Questions arise as to the efficacy of a spy organization like MI6 in a modern world and its adaptation to threats that no longer come directly from nations or governments, but from private individuals who may or may not be backed by larger organizations that are or are not supported politically. Since 9/11 the very nature of spying and intelligence has changed in both the public’s perception and in practicality. Bond has joined the 21st century, but composed so that it remains fun in the way the best films in the series have been.

The look and feel of the film owes a large debt to Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. The climactic action sequence takes place at Bond’s childhood estate in Scotland, an imposing stone manor that ends up in flames at the end. Albert Finney even steps in as the old estate gamekeeper, just like the Wayne Manor butler Alfred. To top it off, Bond stands on a rooftop at one point looking out over the London skyline, just like Batman perched on a skyscraper regarding his beloved Gotham. To not see the parallel to Batman Begins is simple blindness. In that respect, Skyfall is one of the clearest examples of the tremendous influential power Nolan’s trilogy has had on the action genre. He has essentially redefined it for the current generation.

Craig continues to demonstrate that he is a serious rival to Sean Connery as the defining image of James Bond. However, though it’s certainly no fault of his, I preferred the direction of the character in his first two turns to this one, which shows a softer inner turmoil by revealing his family background (he was orphaned – Batman again?). I’m not sure this is the depth of character I want to see in Bond. Javier Bardem as Silva, on the other hand, is quite simply one of the greatest Bond villains ever – or at least in the last three decades. The character itself is really wonderfully written, but the choice of Bardem is just a masterstroke. There’s a rumor that Mendes had originally wanted Kevin Spacey for the villain. How wrong he would have been. How he would have overplayed it and chewed the scenery like so many other larger than life Bond villains. Bardem is quiet and seething, brilliant and patient. His performance transcends the material.

If I can take any points away from the film, it’s that the Bond girl Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) doesn’t leave much of an impression and Naomie Harris as one of Bond’s MI6 partners in the field, fails to generate much in the way of chemistry with him. At the risk of giving away a little secret at the film’s end, this does not bode well for future Bond films. Still, no other Bond film has instilled in me such a strong desire to revisit older films in the series to see how they match up.

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