Saturday, 27 October 2012

Review: Skyfall

Probably more than any other franchise, the James Bond series has a clear-cut, familiar formula which most of its movies follow. For a series that has run for 50 years, not very many films have dared to do something different. In the late 90's, early 00's at least, a director suggesting to do so was laughed out of the offices of Albert Broccoli's EON Productions. Thank heavens times have changed enough for us to get Daniel Craig's version of the character that goes a little deeper than to be just sheer escapism and male power fantasy.

Skyfall is very, very good. It's a worthy successor to 2006's Casino Royale. Whereas that film pondered how exactly did Bond become such a ruthless killing machine and a cold lover/sex-addict, this one writes the circle to the end and finds the reason behind several of basic elements of Bond. Casino Royale looked at Bond's tendency to get the bad end of relationships and his need to stay unattached to women. Quantum of Solace was how he in principle is a selfish character that being in the pressure points of world politics does help change the world (I think).

Skyfall has two main themes: the first is to ponder whether James Bond and his methods have ran out of their course in the modern world. The second theme is about his loyalty to authorities and higher-ups, and his troubled relationship with his foster-parent character M. These issues have been dealt with previously, most clearly in Goldeneye. But whereas the past Bond movies (particularly in Pierce Brosnan's era) just threw a bunch of ideas into a canvas and didn't mind what stuck and what not, in Sam Mendes's direction these themes are ambitiously and thoroughly followed from start to finish.

To get to the bottom of the main themes, Skyfall delves into Bond's past and present, find out the demons that worst haunt him, and hit him where it hurts. Craig's Bond goes to hell and back in this one - several times.

And his love for classic cars, which causes the film's best reaction shot.

While on a mission in Turkey with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond attempts to track down a stolen file which contains the names of every NATO agent undercover in terrorist organizations around the world. While Bond is battling the thief on top of a train roof, Bond's chief of operations M (Dame Judi Dench) orders Eve to snipe the villain. But this bullet misfires and hits Bond, while the thief escapes. Our hero goes missing, presumed dead.

M has to answer for the loss of the top secret file to the British government and her job is at stake. At the same time a mysterious mastermind behind the whole plot targets the whole MI6 organization and M herself in a terrorist attack. Bond must return from hiding and stop the madman before it's too late. He finds out that the culprit is a disgruntled ex-agent Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a bone to pick with M. Bond must go to great lengths to protect his mother figure, who may be the only person he truly cares for.

Is M worthy of 007's loyalty? Or 007 of M allowing his flaws to slip through the radar?

I thought the making of M to a mother-figure to Bond (which, granted, puts Bond's rebelliousness to a whole new light) went to a bit of an overkill in the last movie. But here, although dealt with it even deeper, it service the story and is a clear focus point. His relationship to M is truly the right place to dig to find new sides to reveal about everyone's favorite agent. As I've said before, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig just have a great chemistry, bickering away like an old married couple or buddy cops. It's also nice to have M get a lot more screen time, and early to halfway through the movie she is almost more of a protagonist of the film than Bond is.

But the Bond universe gets expanded with also the introduction of the new Q (Ben Whishaw). He is shown to be the antithesis of Bond, a modern young hacker that can do a lot more espionage with his set of skills than Bond with his. These rivaling agents learn to cooperate towards the end and both of them are seen to not be invincible or flawless. Whishaw's cold approach to his character makes his dry humor and snappy bickering work even better.

Javier Bardem as the main villain of the story seems to get a lot of praise all around. His Silva does have some interesting homosexual tendencies, almost a North Korean style sadism, and manages to be totally ruthless and a bit cheeky at the same time. He is pretty great, although his always-one-step-ahead, years-in-planning terrorist mastermind type starts to feel a bit outdated the more time has passed since 9/11. As Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were heavily influenced by the Jason Bourne series, this one has a clear Dark Knight vibe to it.

The greatest collaborator of the movie just has to be cinematographer Roger Deakins. The man who has shot most of the Coen Brothers' films just does tremendous work, and just makes one wonder why on earth don't more multi-million dollar blockbusters hire the best Directors of Photography available? I mean, look at how horrible a film like The Expendables 2 looks! Deakins on the other hand never misses on an action, and his stunning photography keeps things interesting (and beautiful) even when there isn't an explosion or a fist fight on sight. He also deserves praise for simply the most beautiful exploding helicopter scene I've ever witnessed in my life. I literally dropped my jaw.

Director Sam Mendes has done a film heavy with plot and themes, but delivers on the action too. Particularly great is an assassination scene in a Shanghai glass skyscraper, where Bond hides by turning the reflection of glass doors opposite his opponent. Mendes has also brought back the hands-on brutality in the brawls, and when people get punched, it really packs a wallop. And when things explode, hoo-boy, do you feel that too! The stunning finale, that goes to some quite unexpected paths, is one of the most effective ones in Bond history.

I'm starting to ramble on like a fan boy, but today, the day after seeing this, I feel like this just might be the best Bond film ever made. It feels like it one-ups even the heights of Casino Royale, and has the sort of escapism inherent in films like Goldfinger and The Spy Who Loved Me. For those who think Bond has grown too serious, there's a scene in a casino, where Bond and his opponent drop into an open cage of Komodo dragons. Bond manages to leap out by getting a leg up from the back of a giant lizard while his opponent is devoured alive. Happy 50th birthday, Mr. Bond! You sure made it a memorable one!

★★★★ (while reflecting on other Bond films, ★★★★★)

UK/USA, 2012
Language: English
Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Roger Wade
Cinamatography: Roger Deakins
Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris

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