Worth A Look: 45.28%
Pretty Bad: 5.66%
Total Crap: 7.55%
5 reviews, 23 user ratings
by Brett Gallman
When the familiar insistence that “James Bond will return” greets viewers at the end of “Skyfall,” it’s never felt more reassuring or poignant. Indeed, it seems to be the theme of 007’s 23rd outing, a film that completes the process of rebooting and, more importantly, reaffirming the 20th century icon for the new millennium. “Skyfall” doesn’t merely succeed in doing this--it does so in an incredible fashion by not only tackling Bond’s place in a modern world, but also the function of Bond movies themselves.While it’s a thematic and spiritual successor to “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” doesn’t explore the fallout of those two films. Instead, it picks up with Bond having now served for several years--he’s aged and grizzled, and we catch up with him in the middle of a mission that finds him tracking down a list of undercover identities alongside a fellow MI6 agent (Naomie Harris). The mission is a spectacular failure, as Bond ends up plunging into a river and is presumed dead while the list falls into the hands of an enigmatic terrorist (Javier Bardem) seeking revenge on MI6 and M (Judi Dench).
"How Bond Got His Groove Back"
Despite having the opportunity to live out the rest of his days in anonymity, Bond is returns to service because he must. As it turns out, the world needs James Bond, and, even though he’s edging into “too old for this shit” territory, he’s the center of one of his most thrilling and resonant adventures thus far in “Skyfall,” a film that delivers just about everything that’s expected of a “Bond movie”--007’s urbane wit, sexual entendres, frivolous dalliances, catch-phrases, death-defying stunts, gadgetry, megalomaniacal villains, cool cars--and puts them in the service of something that’s unlike many of the films that have preceded it.
“Skyfall” is all of those ingredients but without the formula; in fact, the story follows a script that’s almost the antithesis of a blockbuster or the more over-the-top Bond adventures of years past. Instead of escalating into a spectacle-laden thrill-ride, the film becomes progressively smaller in scope. A film that begins with Bardem’s Raoul Silva bombing London and holding MI6 by the balls ends up with a much more narrow and intimate focus. The stakes, however, don’t shrink at all, and, while the film’s third act takes more cues from “Straw Dogs” than it does most “traditional” Bond films, it’s an intense white-knuckle thriller all the same.
Continuing the tack set forth by its immediate predecessors, “Skyfall” is a more personal adventure for Bond and the most important woman in his life, M, and director Sam Mendes expertly balances the drama with the spectacle. It’s almost sneaky how the film contorts to the point where the former becomes the engine driving the plot; whereas so many Bond films have tripped over themselves in an attempt to produce outlandish sequences that serve as the main event, “Skyfall” is anchored by a sense of drama and gravitas that’s been absent whenever the series has hit its absolute nadir. While I’m the type of person who can find something to enjoy in all of the films, I’ve gravitated towards the ones that consider Bond as a character rather than a vehicle for cool shit (which, in fairness, is pretty close to how Ian Flemning considered Bond himself--as a “blunt instrument” who had interesting things happen to him).
In this regards, “Skyfall” is arguably the most accomplished Bond film yet, which is not to say that it isn’t chock full of awe-inspiring sequences that Mendes handles gracefully. His first foray into pure action filmmaking raises some obvious doubts about his chops, but these are put to rest during the prologue, a stunningly rambunctious opener that features motorcycle chases, train-top tussles, and the most ridiculous use of a bulldozer in recent memory. There’s a real vigor and verve to it all that never subsides regardless of what mode the film enters, whether Bond is brawling with thugs (and Komodo Dragons) in a gambling den or chasing a suspect through a crowded London subway station.
Best of all, Mendes approaches the franchise studiously without relenting to severity or overcooked profundity. “Skyfall” is a film that engages on several levels, but it’s primarily a big, swinging James Bond movie whose director has a careful grip on the reins. “The Dark Knight” is sure to be a reference point here, but “Skyfall” is more grounded than it is gritty, and there’s a winking awareness of the franchise’s extreme silliness at times. Regardless, Mendes isn’t afraid to let the film be fun and spirited while simultaneously stripping the formula down to its bare essentials. Gadgets are kept utilitarian and believable, and Bond’s more daring exploits are appreciably physical, but the adventurous, dashing spirit is pure Bond as we watch 007 crisscross the globe.
In a series full of eye candy, the exotic, worldly locales have often been a highlight, and I daresay that Roger Deakins has captured the most breathtaking settings so far. Islands dotted by lanterns, a neon-bathed Shanghai, and the rugged, dreary Scottish countryside are among the various stages for Bond’s most visually stunning adventure thus far. Deakins’s accomplishments with the digital medium here are remarkable and effuse a depth and lushness that result in hypnotic, mesmerizing sequences, such as a silhouetted fistfight set against a fluorescent glow. There’s no shortage of style here, and much of it is classical unlike “Quantum of Solace,” a film that saw Marc Forster apply the Paul Green grass “Bourne” aesthetic to Bond to mixed results.
A wealth of substance accompanies all that style, especially in the cast of characters, each of whom carve out their own distinctive space in the film. Dench is the elder statesman here on two fronts; not only has she starred in six previous films, but her “M” is now seen as a bit of a political liability and is being not-so-subtly shoved out of the door by bureaucrats. She’s always been a tough old bird unafraid to stand up to Bond (or anyone else), but a noticeable vulnerability seeps through here since Silva’s attacks shake her personal and professional core as the film examines her role in her agents’ lives (and seemingly inevitable deaths).
Noteworthy additions to the MI6 staff include Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), one of those bureaucrats looking to hold the door open for M. Our impressions of him mirror Bond’s mix of distrust and a begrudging respect for a man who took his lumps out in the field before settling behind the desk. Q, Bond’s familiar quartermaster, has been re-imagined by Ben Whishaw into a smarmy, techie whiz-kid who questions the purpose of having men out in the field in the first place. His youth flips the familiar dynamic between Bond and Q, but it’s filled with quippy, antagonistic banter all the same. Like a few previous films, “Skyfall” allows Q to do more than simply brief Bond and hand over the latest gadgets since he has an active role throughout.
The film makes the case that M is and will always be the most prominent woman in Bond’s life, but there are others, of course--Naomie Harris is MI6 agent Eve, who is half Bond-girl, half sidekick, and her rapport with Craig is spot-on in both modes. The other girl, Severine (Berenice Malohe), is initially presented as the femme fatale, the girl with the backless dress and a handgun strapped to her thigh but is soon revealed to be the damsel in distress. In a series that has sometimes struggled with its treatment of women, “Skyfall” runs the gamut--it’s not expressively about the franchise’s sexual politics, but there’s some interesting stuff at work here since Bond’s stock charms only carry him so far.
In fact, the case can be made that Bardem’s Silva exploits Bond’s penchant for an intriguing girl, and that’s only the tip of the sexual iceberg. Bardem carries himself with an unmistakable flamboyance that goes beyond implication when he makes a full-on advance towards Bond, whose reaction might represent one of the character’s biggest deconstructions for purists. Silva’s sexual wrinkle is made all the more interesting by the fact that Bardem plays him as a campy, broad Bond villain in its purest form. He has a literal island hideout, makes self-aggrandizing monologues, and even has the token physical deformity that marks him a true Bond baddie. He’s got the motivations of Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan harbored in an unwieldy, Jaws-like physique, and there’s a hint of Hannibal Lecter buried in there as well. If there’s a show-stealer, it’s certainly Bardem, who laps up most of the screen but carefully stops just short of devouring it whole.
Then there’s Bond himself, a character that’s often been the coolest guy in his own adventures but rarely the most interesting. “Skyfall” changes that by presenting a man who’s been in the shit for years, and it subtly shows. Craig’s features seem the slightest bit craggier, his demeanor more weathered and weary; like his literary counterpart, this Bond is a borderline alcoholic, a man who drinks to wash away years of physical and psychological abuse, a fact that notably re-colors the character’s rampant drinking throughout the film franchise. Since rebooting with “Casino Royale,” the films have attempted to chip away at the cold exterior of Fleming’s blunt instrument to find the humanity beneath, and “Skyfall” masterfully does this in various ways without getting too caught up in demystifying the character. The film physically explores uncharted portions of Bond’s life, but it’s seamlessly woven into the narrative. Previous films have given a maternal shade to M’s relationship with this Bond, a notion that’s brought to the forefront here and serves as the perhaps unexpected emotional backbone.
Craig’s performance also masterfully cuts through the Bond façade. Make no mistake--he is Bond at this point, and the character’s typical suave and swagger act to round off the natural edginess that the actor brings to the part. All of the weariness is sort of an undercurrent that colors this Bond with enough realism; instead of simply becoming a mascot for his own franchise, Craig’s Bond is able to do all of the fun stuff--the sex, the drinking, the fighting, the wry humor--but he’s not just an empty collection of this stuff. There’s a humanity at the center of this character that isn’t just worth exploring--it’s worth building an entire damn movie around it; in this respect, “Skyfall” finishes the portrait started by “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” because it leaves us with a character that’s been defined by the events in all three films.
Like those previous films, “Skyfall” is about Bond first and foremost, only this one acts as his “Unforgiven” since it tackles his place and usefulness in a modern world. Without straying into obvious moralizing, the film remains topical by pondering the functionality of a man like James Bond in the War on Terror. Just as he was considered a Cold War relic in “Goldeneye,” Bond is again viewed by some as an outmoded instrument in a post-9/11 era that’s grown more complicated and complex since the days that saw Bond simply gallivant across the world and punch the world’s villains in the face.
“Skyfall” doesn’t just make the case that Bond is still relevant within his own world, but also goes slightly meta in its insistence that we still need Bond movies. When we see Craig’s Bond take his lumps in an attempt to get back into the game, it’s hard not to read it as a reflection of the critiques on the series itself. By the end of the Brosnan run, the films had similarly become broken down shells of their former selves before “Casino Royale” began the restoration process. Unlike that film, though, “Skyfall” isn’t just an attempt to hit the reset button; instead, it’s a reboot that’s making a case for its franchise by tackling the formula and clichés instead of actively avoiding them or blowing them up. If “Quantum of Solace” was a full-on nuclear assault on the James Bond film, then “Skyfall” mildly shakes and stirs the formula before delivering a familiar cocktail that confirms one of the film’s refrains: “sometimes, the old ways are best.”
Mendes and company seem to be cognizant of audience expectations for this series, and they engage those expectations without pandering to them. As subversive and deconstructive as these three films have been, there’s also little doubt that “Skyfall’ eventually puts the pieces back together again.When Bond claims to take his next orders “with pleasure,” it’s not to be read with any irony--the years may have taken their toll, and the pleasure may be all ours, but he’s a man driven by a compulsive sense of honor, duty, and loyalty. There will always be a place for James Bond, just as there will always be a place for James Bond movies, even now, 50 years after the film franchise began.Consider the strides since the 40th anniversary--whereas “Die Another Day” traded in a ballsy opening prologue for a parade of empty winks and nods, “Skyfall” is reverent and nostalgic without lapsing into self-parody, respectful without relenting to dour solemnity. It would almost be more fitting if the film closed with the insistence that James Bond is back and better than ever.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23934&reviewer=429
originally posted: 10/27/12 17:40:35
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