Tuesday, January 8, 2013

For the 50th Anniversary of the Series, Skyfall Offers an Excellent, Meta Take on James Bond

Skyfall focuses on Bond's relevance and his place in the shadows.
Six years ago, Casino Royale relaunched the Bond franchise amid questions of whether or not James Bond was still relevant in the Post-Bourn world. With a more realistic tone and Daniel Craig’s altered take on the super spy, the film was well received, both commercially and critically (I wrote highly of it and ultimately included it in my top 5 of 2006), seemingly putting that talking point to bed.

For Bond’s 50th year on the silver screen, Craig returns for a third go around in the tux (following the successful, but unfairly-maligned Quantum of Solace), and this time the decision has been made to go meta, as the film itself focuses on the relevancy of Bond, as well as the entirety of MI6.

It’s an interesting direction for the series to take in the current international landscape, and the film sees Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) comes under fire in a public inquiry after being told by bureaucrat Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) “This is a democracy. We're responsible to the people we're supposed to defend! We can't walk in the shadows anymore. There are no more shadows!” She responds with an impassioned speech in which she claims villains are attacking us from the shadows and expresses the need for an agency adept in that realm.

Judi Dench is front and center in her seventh outing as
M, and takes full advantage of the extra screen time.
It’s a great scene for Dench, whose prominence has grown throughout the last seven Bond films. Here, she’s a second lead character, and although it’s not a sexual relationship, and there are a few traditional babes on hand here, she is Skyfall’s Bond girl. M’s relationship with Bond, as well as with the villain Silva (Javier Bardem), forms the backbone of the film.

For his part, Bond too is being questioned. An early assignment gone wrong leaves Bond shot and left for dead, and after he resurfaces, he is required to prove he is fit for duty. Although M forces him through, he actually fails his exam, proving a shoddy marksman and, worse, a psychological mess.

Throughout his tenure as Bond, Craig and the filmmakers have made atypical choices in their interpretation of Bond, making him a bit of a brute and yet entirely vulnerable. Shortly after being introduced in Royale, Craig ran through a wall, and despite the cultured sense of style, he’s consistently rough around the edges with a chip on his shoulders that love interest Vesper Lynd suggested was due to his status as an orphan (a plot point that gets a lot more development here and is the origin of the film’s title).

Although he now takes his martini shaken not stirred (as opposed to not giving a damn in Royale), he has still yet to become the detached, indestructible Bond we’re used to. Skyfall marks only the second time in the 23-film series that the super spy has been shot, and it continues to show Bond having tender, real connections with women (here it’s M, but the love and pain he felt for Vesper were integral to both Royale and Quantum).

Bond’s presented as being a lesser specimen than Silva, M’s former protégée, who was cut loose for being a loose cannon and is now seeking revenge against the woman he calls “mommy.” He’s an interesting counterpart to Bond, who himself is determined to be dispensable by M during the opening reel.

For his part, Bardem proves one of the most memorable Bond villains in the series’ long history. From his bombastic entrance over halfway through the film to his painfully raw last scene, it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Silva is an evil mastermind, but he’s also understandable, and Bardem does a good job showing just how a Bond-like agent could morph into an unstable Bond baddie. Bardem has received some awards attention for the role, and I’m hoping he garners the first acting Oscar nod for a Bond film. If Anton Chigurh wasn’t already proof enough, Silva proves nobody plays a bad guy quite like Bardem.

Javier Bardem submits a bad guy performance that can 
stand toe-to-toe with his own Anton Chigurh, Heath 
Ledger's Joker, and Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa.
Silva may be better, but the one thing going for Bond is highlighted in the last words of M’s speech during her inquiry, a quotation from Ulyssess: “Though much is taken, much abides, and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are... One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” In fact, when asked by Silva what his hobby is, Bond’s one word answer is “resurrection.”

I realize now, I’ve come very far into this review and have merely scratched the surface of the film. It’s worth noting just how prestigious the crew is. Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was convinced to direct the film by Craig, who starred in the director’s Road to Perdition, and he brought along his regular cinematographer, living-legend Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Oscar-nominee John Logan (Hugo) also joined the writing crew this time out, and Adele contributes the main theme song.

All make their mark here. Mendes shepherds everything nicely, while Deakins submits several beautiful sequences, particularly a fight that takes place entirely in silhouette against the backdrop of an LCD building in Shanghai (not only does it look great, but the scene is one of many images that plays off of all the talk of fighting in the shadows). Meanwhile, Logan has already been tasked with writing the next two entries in the series (this is the swan song for Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have worked on each of the last five Bond films), and Adele submits the best Bond song in years.

Before closing, I should mention, Skyfall serves as a caper to what could be called the Bond origin trilogy, resetting everything in the mold of the early Sean Connery films. It introduces us to Q (quirkily played by Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (an enticing Naomie Harris), and much of the film is a loving homage to those early films. The gadgets are retro, the iconic Aston Martin plays a key role, and the film proves the least Bourn-infused of the Craig era. Albert Finney even fills an important last act role that one imagines may have been originally intended for Connery (at the very least, the decision to make the character Scottish plays as a tribute to the actor). At one point in the film, Moneypenny says, “sometimes, the old ways are best” and, if Skyfall is any indication, she has an excellent point. A