Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall

I was worried there for a while.  I am a pretty big fan of James Bond, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good Casino Royale turned out.  After the pretty-good-as-a-sequel-not-so-good-as-a-Bond-pic Quantum of Solace came out, I was hoping for another Bond movie right away, so Daniel Craig could finally get out of his "James Bond Begins" mode and start carving his own identity as the suave super-spy/complete bastard.  But then MGM had money problems and went bankrupt in 2010, which made another Craig Bond outing seem unlikely.  But then somebody somewhere said, "Hey, if we need money, why don't we make another James Bond movie?"  Even better, they decided to get an Oscar-winning director to helm the film and an Oscar-winning actor to play the villain.  That's important, folks.  The gap between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall is the second-longest in 007 film history, after the last Dalton pic and the first Brosnan --- this needed to be worth the wait, like Goldeneye was.  The first hint that they got it right was with the theme song.
When was the last time a Bond theme came from an artist that was still relevant in popular music?  I'm pretty sure the answer is A View to a Kill's Duran Duran theme.  Yeesh.  Way to take 30 years off, Bond producers.  What I liked better than the choice of a popular artist, though, was the fact that Adele clearly fits with what fans identify as that classic Bond theme sound; I'm not saying that this was better or any more ridiculous than anything from Shirley Bassey or Lulu ("Skyfall" isn't the silliest Bond theme chorus --- I vote "Thunderball" for that --- but it's way up there), but Adele singing with brass and an orchestra behind her?  Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.  The filmmakers deserve some extra kudos for piecing together a pretty cool credit montage to coincide with the music, as well as the first (I think) Bond credit sequence to actually show the faces of the actors, instead of just silhouettes.  But enough about the music!  What about the movie?


When we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig) --- it doesn't matter what happened before, he's chasing a bad guy now!  Apparently, some nasty man has stolen the computer files that hold the identities of every MI6 agent that is currently working undercover, throughout the world.  Not only does that spill the beans on a number of double agents spying on other nations, but it throws everybody working in deep undercover within terrorist organizations under the proverbial bus.  Who do you send to re-capture these files?  James Bond, 00-bleepin'-7, of course.
Eyes on the prize, gun pointed at your heart.  Or junk.  Whichever works.
But what if Bond doesn't grab the files?  In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario, Bond's superior, M (Judi Dench) ordered Bond's supporting agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to shoot at the bad guy, even as he tussled with Bond.  The shot missed the baddie, hit Bond, and he fell into the ocean, presumed dead, while the bad guy escaped.
But not until he straightened his cufflinks, like a true badass
Time passes.  Bond lies low and licks his wounds with a tongue that probably still has tequila on it.  Meanwhile, M finds herself under pressure to retire for allowing the secret files to escape.  That's when things start to get ugly.  Half a dozen undercover agents have their identities blown, with more promised in the coming days, and those agents are summarily executed.  As M heads back to her office to (presumably) drink copious amounts of scotch, her office gets a little explode-y, and several other agents die.
Realizing that he's needed, James Bond, super spy, decides to reenlist.  He pops up in London, looking haggard as all hell, and is approved for duty, despite a wretched performance analysis.
Ugh.  Gross.  Roger Moore didn't look this old and bloated in A View to a Kill.
Eventually, after meeting with the new Q (Ben Whishaw) and a sexy dragon lady (Bérénice Marlohe), Bond finds himself face-to-face with the mastermind behind this nefarious plot: former MI6 agent Sean Bean Silva (Javier Bardem).  Can James save MI6 and M from someone who is a shadowy reflection of himself?  If so, can he do it in a way that explains the title of the film satisfactorily?  Yes and yes.

The acting in Skyfall is some of the best the 007 series has ever seen.  That's not saying a lot, given that most of the actresses in the series had their lines dubbed over, but it is pretty darn good.  This is the most emotional James Bond viewers have ever seen, and Daniel Craig does a wonderful job.  It may be worth arguing whether or not his emotions are truly Bond-ian, but Craig managed to be super-cool, dangerous, whistful and angst-y, all while playing an icon.  Not bad.  Javier Bardem was easily my favorite Bond villain in at least 30 years.  Bardem --- who has consistently impressed me since Before Night Falls --- manages to do the nearly impossible.  He manages not to be sexy here.  Instead, he channels a blend of The Joker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman from Mission: Impossible III.  Is he a crazy, evil genius?  Obviously.  But he's also tired of having to prove it to everyone, and that somehow makes him a magnetic presence on the screen.  He's a little ridiculous and over-the-top, but Bardem embraces the role and winds up being the most memorable villain since...well, I'll get into that later.
It's like a caveman bleached his hair and bought ugly clothes
Skyfall is the first Bond movie to make any real use of M, Bond's MI6 director; ever since Judi Dench took the role, she had gotten significantly more screen time than any previous M, but this was the first film that actually required her to act.  Since Judi Dench is a British national treasure, it shouldn't be surprising that she was easily up to the challenge.  This film also served as a passing of the torch, of sorts, to Ralph Fiennes, who seems to enjoy playing small parts in ridiculously popular franchises (that's an interesting, if condescending, look at his recent career) instead of taking on roles worthy of his talent.  For what it's worth, Fiennes is pretty good as the kind-not-really nasty politician-type.  The new Q is Ben Whishaw, and he was suitably nerdy, and his nerdiness was directed away from ridiculous gadgets and toward computers.  That makes sense, and Whishaw was actually pretty charming, but I was a little disappointed that he was so...practical. 
"I don't need gadgets, I need and anti-STD spray"
Albert Finney played an elderly groundskeeper with ties to the Bond family and a truly impressive beard.  I don't think I need to explain this, but Finney was more than a match for his bit role.  The Bond girls in this picture took the traditional good and bad girl parts.  This was the first time I had seen Naomie Harris (of 28 Days Later and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels fame) in a while, and she was pretty good.  My wife totally called the "twist" on her role early in the film, but I have no problem with her having a recurring role in the series. 
SPOILER ALERT: she's Bond's barber
The more classic Bond girl was played by Bérénice Marlohe, and she was sexy and dangerous.  Sadly, her character did not have a ridiculous or punny name to go along with her tragic-but-completely-boneable persona, but Marlohe was fairly decent in her part.
With a look like that, how is her character's name not Ivana Hatefukyoo?

Skyfall may just be the best-acted Bond movie of all time.  Since this is the 24th entry in the franchise, that sounds more impressive than it really is.  I will argue that this performance solidifies Daniel Craig as the best Bond since Sean Connery.  That's a loaded statement, I know, but I am more than willing to argue the point.  Javier Bardem also gave one of the best Bond villain performances ever.  His is easily the best villain since the 1970s (with Sean Bean as a distant second), and arguably fits comfortably within the top 5 of all time.  Even more astounding, the supporting cast is actually decent!  This is not one of those Bond movies where you scoff at Denise Richards being as nuclear physicist --- the lesser roles are played capably and realistically.
Assuming, of course, that people sail into neon dragon mouths to gamble

A lot of the credit for Skyfall's success belongs to director Sam Mendes.  It's been a quiet dozen years for Mendes, following American Beauty --- he hasn't been idle, but the acclaim hasn't matched that of his debut.  In a lot of ways, it feels odd watching a James Bond movie filmed by a capable director.  There are not a lot of clearly show-boat-y action sequences in Skyfall.  There are, though, several scenes with impressive cinematography.
Yes, this scene was cool
There was also quite a bit of character development in this film.  Bond movies are not really built for "development" --- does anyone really want to listen to Bond lamenting all the lives he's taken? --- but this was handled extremely well and turned out to be pretty interesting.  Obviously, the high quality of acting is a reflection of the best direction the series has seen to date, but I was also impressed at how well Mendes was able to capture the action and destruction scenes.
He didn't aim small
With directors known for character work, showy action and spectacular stunt scenes can sometimes feel contrived or poorly executed, but I though  Sam Mendes did a great job behind the camera in Skyfall.

As a longtime fan of Bond movies, I have to briefly address a few of the homages in Skyfall.  I liked the deprecating remarks toward Q branch when Craig finally met his Quartermaster.  Q has long been a source of the more ridiculous moments in a series known for silliness, and I liked the understated Q weapons this time around, especially when coupled with the goofier ones in the classic Aston Martin.  That's right; Skyfall somehow calls back to the Connery days by having Craig Bond own the classic Connery Bond car, complete with ejector seat.  It makes no logical sense, given the reboot, but continuity has always taken a back seat to fun in this series, so why sweat the details?
Only James Bond can sulk while standing by an Aston Martin DB5

Alright, so I liked this entry in the James Bond series.  That means that it is fun, but not necessarily good.  However, Skyfall surprised me by being genuinely, objectively enjoyable.  Like, conceivably-Oscar-nominated good, not a let's-have-fun-with-it good.  This is easily the best Bond movie in ages and deserves to be watched multiple times.  Great direction, great villain, and multi-layered lead performance means...

6 comments:

  1. Multi-layered performances have little room in Bond movies. I did not like this one nearly as much as you. I think the pace was a total mess. Rehashing the whole Bond gets hurt in the beginning of the flick - CAN HE STILL CUT IT?! thing was wholly unnecessary and added to a big problem for me: almost two and half fricking hours long. I understand that every (?, I think so) Bond clocks in at over two hours, but it does not make it a prerequisite. While the better Bonds can clock in at 2+ hours and feel lighter, this one felt as long as it was. Something that would really help the newer episodes is taking the giant opening action sequence and moving it in a little, giving all of the action a bit more meaning and have a snappier beginning. (That said, the opening sequence was a ton of fun.) And thank Christ (SPOILER ALERT) Judy Dench is done with the series. Why recent entries in this series have decided that M needed a role bigger than: here is your mission, witty quip-quip - is beyond this moviegoer.

    With that said, I did enjoyed the flick overall. I agree with you that Craig is the second best Bond (but given more time, I believe Lazenby would have given him a run for his money) and I will go ahead and say that Bardem is the best Bond villain ever (even with the horribly awkward rat speech - what the hell were they thinking?). Nostalgia would point to one of the fore-bearers from the first four or so entries, but Bardem was a perfect villain (minus rat speech). I only wish he would have been introduced earlier and had more dialogue. Who would go with as your #1? My favorites are probably the "old boy" in From Russia with Love or Goldfinger.

    My favorite part of the movie was when M said something down the lines of no one knew that they had a list of the agent's real identities all on one file. NO SHIT! Why would you ever do that AND THEN put it on a laptop hard drive?! But that kind of logic is the stuff that makes these movies wonderful.

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    1. This one definitely felt long, I agree. It's the second longest Bond, after Casino Royale, with OHMSS in third place. The rest of the films average just over two hours. I didn't mind the pacing in my first viewing, although that will probably change once I buy the BluRay.

      I didn't mind the cliched "can he still cut it" stuff, actually. Yes, it's obvious and can be seen as filler for the longtime Bond fan who knows the answer is "DUUUUUUH." Still, this is the first time we have actually seen Bond recovering from something, which I found interesting.

      I don't really care one way or the other about the increased role of M in the series. If you have a top-caliber actor in the role, you should use them. If not, don't. With Fiennes taking over, I doubt we will see a return to the "here's your mission," punch the clock-style M.

      After a single viewing, my current top 5 Bond movies are:
      1. From Russia With Love
      2. Goldfinger
      3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
      4. Skyfall
      5. Goldeneye
      Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and (for some reason) Die Another Day also remain personal favorites.

      As for top Bond villains, it's still Goldfinger for me. He's so petty, so straightforward, and ruthless. Plus, he has the best henchman. Silva is in 2nd place for me right now. Bardem was just so damn good. I didn't mind the rat speech (the first time through, although I'll look forward to it next time), but I felt like his character was kind of a Heath Ledger-Joker version of Sean Bean's Goldeneye character. He's awesome, no doubt, and hilarious, but that cheapened the achievement for me a little. After that, I'd probably go with Robert Shaw in From Russia and then the villain-by-committee effort for Bloefeld.

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    2. Hey, hey, hey, we see him "recover" in the beginning of Thunderball, which along with your top three, is one of my favorites. (I have no defense for it.) I would also throw in Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, Die Another Day, and Octopussy (joking). Goldeneye is that good, eh? It has been a long time since I watched that one. A Bond marathon is probably in order soon enough.

      I forgot to comment previously, I loved how they handled the throwback references to the old Bond flicks in this one. The DB5 was so wonderful, yet sad at the same time, because you knew it would not have a pretty ending.

      And how about the new Q's hair?! Its effing dreamy. His hair was in Cloud Atlas as well. I see a big future for that hair.

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    3. Goldeneye is consistent. It doesn't have the ridiculous highs of the lesser Connery movies, but avoids the awful lows of the 70s and 80s.

      I'll keep an eye out for Q's hair to intrude upon my movie watching in the future.

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  2. I loved this film just as much as you, it seems. I can't fault it at all (well, I didn't like the song much, but I'm not an Adele fan), and it was far better than I could have hoped. The opening sequence, leading up to the train-top-tussle is probably my favourite, and Bond checking his cuffs after jumping through the carriage may well be the coolest thing I've ever seen.

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    1. I'm not much of an Adele fan, but she's got that Bond theme style, so I thought it fit well.

      And yeah, the cuff check was ridiculously awesome.

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