Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

"007 reporting for duty."


- Four long years in the making amidst MGM's splintering financial mess, the 23rd James Bond film arrived just in time for the 50th anniversary of the 007 film franchise. Despite the shallow claims that the series was finished, James Bond would return as he always has; but the public would not tolerate anything less than a really good film due to 007's time away from theaters and the not-overly warm reception of Quantum of Solace (2008). Well, Skyfall (2012) is a great film; easily one of the most intricate, thrilling, character-centered and visually brilliant films of the series. Most who followed Skyfall since its inception had a good feeling that the amazing group of people working on it would create something fairly decent. Director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Thomas Newman and a cast comprised of Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and an impressive list of Oscar-caliber supporters could produce nothing less than worthwhile.

The plot for Skyfall is daring, relevant and altogether Flemingesque. Beginning with an opening shot that puts the classic 007 gunbarrel sequence into the context of the film itself, the pre-titles sequence witnesses an action-packed chase scene ending with the apparent death of James Bond. Of course, Bond cannot be dead within the first 10 minutes of the film (unless it was going to turn in a Sunset Boulevard (1950) direction) but it certainly sets the plot off on an interesting footing despite fooling no one. The idea of Bond dying only to return later is reminiscent of You Only Live Twice but is realized in a much more gripping and effective way in Skyfall than that seen in the 1967 Connery-starred film. The roots to Fleming go deeper than this however. Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice provides anchoring material for the film, M writing Bond's obituary is pulled directly out of the novel, and other aspects of Skyfall echo Fleming's final Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun as well.

Naturally, Bond is not dead but quietly "enjoying death" nonetheless with babes and booze in the tropics. But Bond's removed attitude changes when MI6 itself is the victim of a cyber-terrorist attack, the culprit of which continues to expose highly secret and volatile information. MI6 is not a country club and Bond therefore has to prove himself to M and the intruding bureaucratic network before he jumps back into action. As was the case with both Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace, loyalty and duty are at the forefront of Skyfall; the story sees Bond's sense of purpose on an evolutionary journey from fed-up to selfless, culminating to a more permanent attitude and worldview certain to carry on to the next films. The strong sense of character is one of the finest aspects of Skyfall. The film focuses on Bond's commitment to the job and actually goes back into Bond's past further than any film of the series. Most of the Bond actors have all given great performances but Daniel Craig seems to be the most consistent of them all, performing at the same high level in every film. Craig is just as intense and cool in Skyfall as he is in any of his other Bond films and yet there are certain circumstantial nuances that make this top-notch performance unique.

The trail to MI6's attacker leads Bond to some very interesting places, the most memorable of which is China. Macau is a stunning location and the scenes in Shanghai will be forever fixed as some of the best moments in the Bond series. One of the biggest reasons why these scenes are so great derives from the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brilliantly captures the Far East on screen. Shanghai in particular looks amazing. Looking more like a futuristic asphalt jungle along the lines of Blade Runner (1982) than any conceivable modern-day metropolis, Shanghai is painted in the film as a foreboding albeit technologically remarkable place. Bond's fight scene with the globe-trotting hitman Patrice, seen as silhouettes clashing on top of Shanghai's liquid neon lights, is an especially brilliant scene. Deakins' entire work on Skyfall is a visual marvel the likes of which the Bond series has never seen; the scenes in China are but the most memorable, the entire film looks fantastic.

Bond discovers that the mastermind behind the assault on MI6 is Raoul Silva, a former agent whose evil deeds are motivated by a personal vendetta against M. Although Javier Bardem's performance of Silva seems to have been thoroughly embraced by critics and fans alike, I find myself unable to echo similar sentiments. Effectively creepy and convincingly evil, Bardem's Silva is very blunt and subsequently not very interesting. The character is on paper not especially intriguing because he is simply out for M's head. Silva's motives begin on an ambiguous note, as his beef with M momentarily looks credible. However, he is revealed to be a certifiable bad guy with a one-track mind when M's so-called betrayal seems to hold merit on the grounds of Silva's own previous betrayal of MI6. Silva is not made any more interesting through Bardem's performance. Definitely creepy and unnerving at times, Bardem is not particularly subtle in his characterization and hardly offers a fresh or unique take on Bond villains. Bardem is an effective villain without a doubt but not to an extent in which I can agree with the existing level of praise.

I found the rest of the supporting cast to be far more enjoyable to watch than Bardem. Of course, Bardem's role was a one-shot; the rest of the cast had to be better because they will be back in the future! Naturally, Judi Dench exits the Bond series with grace after style taking the role of M to new levels throughout Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. As Dench exits, new actors move into the franchise to carve out their own legacies. Naomie Harris assumes the iconic role of Miss (Eve) Moneypenny in Skyfall with much more of a character to play than any previous actress and a fantastic chemistry with Daniel Craig that will surely be fun to watch in future films. Q is also brought back to the series and updated in Skyfall. Desmond Llewelyn portrayed the character for decades in a way that made Q all his own; one reason why John Cleese never worked in the role was because he tried in vain to recapture the magic. So, in Skyfall, the character is simply revamped. Ben Whishaw gives a great performance as the modern-day Q; a young, gifted and enthusiastic techno spy with a licence to program and a sharp wit that will also be fun to watch in later installments. The reliable Ralph Fiennes also makes a good showing in Skyfall, enough to make us all want to see more of what he will do in the role of M in the future, and the great Albert Finney is clearly having a good time playing the role of Kincade, another unique piece of Skyfall within the larger 007 franchise.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace proved that a Bond movie did not need Moneypenny, Q or anything else on the franchise checklist to be a great Bond movie but Skyfall also proved that the new Daniel Craig era could use them well in the 21st Century. The story is one comprised of elements deeply prevalent in modern times but Skyfall still manages to incorporate many classic Bond elements into its reels. The originality of the story is undeniable yet Skyfall pays homage to every Bond era in a variety of ways as the story unfolds. Gadgets, deadly animals, nasty villain teeth and other classic Bond checklist items make notable appearances after a significant time away from the series. Thomas Newman's great underplayed score goes a long way into the film's larger recognition of the 007 series, drawing from the franchise's rich history of terrific music and, specifically, once again making full use of the Bond theme throughout. Of course, paying homage is worth nothing in and of itself (case and point: the silly, pointless nods to past Bond films in Die Another Day (2002)). However, Skyfall not only finds interesting ways to honor the history of the James Bond series but it does so in a way that cements itself in a classic standing. The creative way in which the classic Aston Martin DB5 is used in the film is the best example of this point.

Skyfall is a film for the modern world and yet Mendes and company also incorporate much of how Ian Fleming and 50 years of cinema defined James Bond to make a great Bond film for the ages. Director Sam Mendes forms a character-centered, atmospheric, thrilling and stylish Bond film with the perfect mix of emotion, action and humor. A major complaint from some fans is that Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace just do not feature enough humor. I always found both films to contain the right amount of thrills and humor but Skyfall finds an even better mix. The mix of tone throughout is great but Skyfall also remains, in my mind at least, undoubtedly the most dark, violent and sadistic film in the series. However, everything that comprises the dark aspects of the film grow naturally out of the plot and are not done for the sake of shock value or cheap thrills. Ian Fleming's Bond novels were quite dark and violent at times though too, so cruel and unspeakable violence is not unprecedented in the world of James Bond. 

Skyfall is a great Bond film but that does not preclude it from falling into some genre traps. For example, some of the plot points are quite predictable. Bond's failure of the tests but M's acceptance of him anyway is anticipated as soon as M speaks of the need for Bond to be tested for admittance into MI6. Also, I knew that it was only a matter of time before Silva escaped his cage as soon as Q started messing around with Silva's computer. Perhaps I have just seen too many movies.

The quality of the film's climax can be measured in two conflicted parts. On the one hand, the final act is one of complete satisfaction since it is so well-executed on screen and simply unique within the franchise. Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is one of over-the-top proportions - even for a Bond film. Bond made a logical move in taking M to Skyfall because it was a secluded place that he knew like the back of his hand; an ideal spot for baiting Silva. However, the idea of Bond taking M to his parent's old estate to hold out against an inevitable attack, blowing it up and then emerging from its bowels reborn (another one of Bond's favored resurrections) is a bit too on-the-nose to be particularly effective. The metaphor is simply too obvious and in our face to be taken to heart. The Home Alone-meets-007 nature of the preparation for Silva's attack does not help the matter.

So Skyfall is not without an occasional eye-brow raise or two. But I dare you to find a Bond movie (or any movie, for that matter) that is without the inevitable blemish that results from human-created art or that does not momentarily drift away from the shackles of reality. Even if the film's climax does not fire on all cylinders, the film's epilogue ends Skyfall on a great note that holds significant implications for the future of the franchise. Bond follows Moneypenny into an office well-known to those who are familiar with the series, engaging in banter of which we are accustomed, proceeding through a back-padded door to greet M who is sitting at the focal point of the dark-wood-paneled room holding a top secret document. Ah, just like old times! The Daniel Craig era seems to have positioned itself towards more recognizably classic territory; all Bond was missing was a fedora! Considering the amount of time that the Bond series has effectively offered up films that operated outside the traditional tone of the series, this is technically unnecessary but nonetheless welcomed ground. The more things change, the more they stay the same. James Bond will return.

CBC Rating: 9/10


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