Monday, April 15, 2013
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 143 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
As far as 007 opening sequences go, they don't more thrilling than the one in Skyfall. So far, we've had 23 Bond installments. Let that sink in for a minute. It's a lot. But what's more remarkable is that we've still yet to see one that succeeds as something more than just a franchise entry and can stand on its own as an accomplishment in any genre. Too often the series is hamstrung by tradition as the producers are afraid to step out of the box and take genuine risks that might upset the core audience, but result in a superior finished product. Does anyone remember anything that happened in Quantum of Solace? Skyfall is the closest we've come to perfection and its opening minutes reflect that. It's less shocking in hindsight when you consider Bond can't just die but this entry completes a transformation that's been hinted at for half a century, but really started building since Daniel Craig put on the tux in Casino Royale. He's now a full-fledged, reality-based superhero. In other words, the character's basically evolved into Batman.
Much of the picture's first half plays as a classic Bond tribute, at least until director Sam Mendes pulls the rug out to deliver what might be the craziest entry since On Her Majesty's Secret Service. As a non-fan of the franchise, it was a much needed diversion, since the more often a Bond film veers from tradition, or at least puts an exciting spin on it, the better the result. Helping a great deal is that it's visually more impressive than any previous outing and features a villain that's genuinely terrifying and dangerous. But let's just call this what it really is: Bond as The Dark Night. Mendes has acknowledged the similarities, but what's surprising is just how much of Christopher Nolan's influence seems to be all over the picture, even lifting a specific plot point. There's no denying the strategy worked. It's the strongest entry in years, and the first in a while that doesn't feel behind the times.
After being left for dead in an enthralling pre-credit train sequence, James Bond (Craig) is back after a short seclusion, though certainly not better than ever. Wounded, weak, and even lacking his usual confident swagger, M (Judi Dench) controversially decides to put him back on active duty despite not being even close to ready. His job is to retrieve the hard drive that slipped through his fingers earlier and contains the names of undercover agents placed in terrorist organizations. Standing in his way is cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a creepy sociopath whose actual motives remain cloudy from the get-go, yet become painfully clearer as his twisted plan unfolds with brilliant precision. Despite help from M., MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris), nerdy, gadget-savvy Q (Ben Whishaw), M's Intelligence superior Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and possibly even Silva's mysterious mistress Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe), this marks one of the few times Bond seems legitimately outmatched by an adversary.
Since Craig took over the role, much fuss has been made about the franchise's detour into more serious territory, all but abandoning the series' cheekier aspects that have been so prevalent over the years.This badder, meaner Bond reached its self-serious peak with Quantum of Solace, which was so derivative and slickly packaged it became indistinguishable from your latest Bourne installment. It was also a real bore that featured a dour Craig performance, making me wonder whether a return to some cheesiness was in order. But if you watch most of those old Bond movies (particularly the Roger Moore entries), they are very much a product of their time, and not in a good way. Sam Mendes could be on paper the most accomplished director to tackle 007 and proves it here by getting serious right. There are some minor pacing problems in the early going, but the plot isn't a slog and supporting characters are actually fleshed out.
Mendes makes it feel like a contemporary action vehicle, but also a Bond movie willing to take risks while still maintaining loyalty to the Ian Fleming source. Perhaps borrowing from Nolan's recent portrayal of Commissioner Gordon, this is the first time Dench's M has been given anything more to do than stand behind a desk and act as a figurehead. She's not only showcased as an important piece of the puzzle here, but even promoted to a Bond sidekick of sorts. She also does some unlikable things and makes questionable decisions that causes Bond (and us) to rightfully doubt her judgment and consider whether she's exceeded her expiration date. But the bigger question might be whether 007 has exceeded his with Craig given the rare opportunity to play a weakened, vulnerable Bond, or at least the most vulnerable he's been since the concluding events of Casino Royale.
If these movies tend to only be as as good as their villain than Javier Bardem's bone-chilling work as Silva goes a long way. Strangely effeminate and almost flamboyantly wacked out, Silva's like no other Bond baddie we've recently seen, and comes complete with a backstory that's intricately fleshed out and surprisingly personal. There's a lot of juice behind his motives and Bardem takes full advantage, relishing the chance to play Silva as a bizarre cross between Heath Ledger and Cesar Romero's Jokers and Anton Sigurh from No Country For Old Men. He'd walk away with the film, if not for the fact that, as lensed by the still Oscar-less Roger Deakins, it's the most visually pleasing Bond entry of all-time, with hardly a shot undeserving of being framed and hung in a gallery. This is especially true of a captivating Shangai assassination sequence and the film's finale, in which Silva physically lends even more credence to that theory that some men just want to see the world burn. Even if you detested everything else about the film, just the cinematography alone would still be reason enough to recommend this to anyone without hesitation.
If there's a weak plot link, it's Marlohe's Bond girl, who serves little purpose other than to hop in the sack (or in this case, shower) with him, which given the all business nature of this installment seems particularly ill-fitting. If she's there to merely fill a quota, Naomie Harris proves to be the exact opposite as MI6 agent Eve and, without giving too much away, proves in her few impactful scenes to be worthy of sticking around. If she's more than a field agent, than Bond is finally shown in this installment to be something more than just number, complete with a personal history that's inventively woven into the screenplay. A bearded Albert Finney is Kinkade, the caretaker of Bond's childhood home and though he plays the role well, it's impossible not to imagine that it was tailor made for the retired ex-007 Sean Connery. But no conversation about Skyfall is complete without mentioning Adele's Oscar-winning title song, a classic throwback that earns her a spot in the Bond theme hall of fame alongside Shirley Bassey, Carly Simon, Paul McCartney and Duran Duran.
The general consensus is that each time a new Bond entry is released, it's treated as a reboot, disregarding much of what came before in order to re-energize the franchise so it continues to stick around for the long haul. But this is the first entry in a while that really does feel like a full reboot, despite its heavy influence from another series of recent films. It's also features stronger plotting and a more distinctive visual style than Casino Royale, which garnered much of its praise because of a massive change in tone, the debut of a new actor in the role of 007 and one of the franchise's more compelling love interests. While it proved exceptional at re-introducing Bond to contemporary audiences, it's still really hard not to prefer Skyfall, which simply does more with what it has, inching closer to that seemingly impossible holy grail of a perfect James Bond movie. It definitely puts Craig back in the driver's seat but sometimes you have to wonder how much of this franchise's success depends on that. It always seems to be everything else that's changing around him.