Movie Review – Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall (2012) is the James Bond movie you never knew you wanted full of awe-inspiring cinematography, gripping performances and a return to classical filmmaking devoid of any excessive use of shaky cam or nausea-inducing editing that has plagued modern action films which includes the awful previous Bond installment, Quantum of Solace. Director Sam Mendes has managed to keep enough of the core Bond elements intact while fusing them with a viscerally riveting cinematic experience that works wonders as never before precisely because the film does something totally unexpected by focusing on talking over action.
In this regard Skyfall is the exact polar opposite to the lamentable Quantum of Solace which attempted to take Bond action to another level yet only accomplished to churn out a risible final product that disregarded a logical narrative in lieu of flashy action sequences. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson as well as scriptwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan all must have realized their folly in crafting Quantum of Solace thus went back to the drawing board and surprisingly settled on an astonishing strategy in that they gambled that in only their third film with Daniel Craig that it was time for a reboot.
Make no mistake, Skyfall is as much a series reboot as Craig’s first film, Casino Royale which makes Craig’s Bond output slightly odd being involved in two movies that attempt basically the same strategy. Skyfall is the type of film you’d almost expect would be Craig’s farewell to the role once he hits Roger Moore’s retirement age yet to have it take place in his third film shows that the series showrunners have a lot of gumption and are gambling that audiences are going to love this new direction especially since Quantum soured many fans who had climbed onboard after the exemplary Casino Royale.
The one area where Skyfall feels much like Quantum of Solace is in regards to the overall plot which ditches the overblown grandiose plans of the past where villains intended to take over the world or perhaps kill everyone and repopulate the planet in favor of something much more down to Earth and plausible. Quantum featured an antagonist who merely wanted to buy land and Skyfall is essentially a revenge tale relating much more to M’s (Judi Dench) past than to Bond. In fact one can argue that Bond is merely a chess piece this time around and that everything revolves around M.
As the movie opens Bond is in pursuit of an assailant who has managed to steal a list that contains the names of every secret agent and their covers currently deployed around the world. Obviously, such a list would be damaging on a grand scale and Bond does everything to retrieve it from a rooftop motorcycle chase in Istanbul to taking command of a construction crane that is firmly latched to a train. Needless to say, much destruction ensues yet the pre-title sequence shows how much the focus has shifted from Bond to M when it forces her to make a command decision authorizing another agent named Eve (Naomie Harris) to gamble and shoot the assailant with her sniper rifle even though she cannot get a clear shot. She fires and instead hits Bond blowing him off the train before plunging into the river rapids below. Clearly this is an “agent down” yet M shows no outward emotion.
Skyfall features a Bond who is clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel seemingly castaway and adrift by his apparent betrayal. Obviously, he survived the fall and subsequent near-drowning, yet instead of making his way back to MI6 finds himself boozing the night away and partaking in young women. His sojourn is only interrupted when he hears a CNN newscast that terrorists have brazenly attacked the MI6 headquarters forcing him to travel back to London to confront M. It turns out that the attack was far too “perfect” in its audacity as only someone with prior intimate knowledge would be aware of all the security and safeguards in place to prevent such an attack which automatically leads M and MI6 to suspect that they have a mole or a rogue agent. While Bond is none too happy with his near death experience he rejoins MI6 and is assigned the case to track down the true perpetrator and bring him to justice.
It is apparent from the very first second that this is a Bond film like no other and instead of the customary opening featuring 007 shooting at the camera this one begins with an out of focus desaturated shot of a corridor as a silhouetted figured quickly enters frame while a quick Bond music cue blares announcing the start of the film. The hand of Sam Mendes is all over this movie and though he proves no slouch shooting action he is first and foremost an actor’s director and it shows. Bond has never seemed as vulnerable as he is here and for once viewers are going to feel as if they truly understand what must be going through his mind beyond the cool demeanor and tip-top tailoring.
Daniel Craig really comes into his own in this movie far more than the previous two installments but a large part of his success can be attributed to the fact that he is actually called to seriously interact with characters especially M. Skyfall takes a massive risk in this regard for it completely blows up the regular Bond girl routine that the series is so famous, or infamous for. Sure, there are two Bond “girls” this time played by Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe yet their screentime is tiny and in their place is Judi Dench which takes center stage.
It has been a long time coming but Dame Judi Dench finally is able to spread her considerable acting wings in the role of M and it benefits everyone in the movie. At the same time Mendes and the scriptwriting team are surprisingly hard-hitting by making M someone who is a serious pragmatist whose decisions are firmly based on the needs of the many over the few. In other words, audiences can understand her way of thought albeit being slightly taken aback by her cold-hearted calculus.
In fact one can look at Skyfall not as a hoary old clichéd love triangle between Bond and two women but this time a matriarchal figure of M between Bond and the villainous Silva played with delicious madness by Academy Award winner Javier Bardem. Mendes and the various scriptwriters have ingeniously kept the Bond girls yet completely shifted focus to the interplay between the primary main cast of Craig, Dench and Bardem. At the same time the script takes great pains to show varying degrees of morality on display as even Bardem’s character, although seriously mad, has a smidgen of audience sympathy that no Bond villain has ever managed to attain. This is a movie which attempts to show that especially in this line of business that there are no easy answers.
Bardem is at his best although his overall screentime falls on the short side of the scale. His Silva, with electric blonde hair, might appear like a modern Max Zorin ala A View to a Kill but whereas Christopher Walken oozed over-blown cheese Bardem is refreshingly malicious. His interactions with Bond might initially feel as if he is following the time-honored cliché where villains tend to spill their evil plans to our heroic Secret Agent yet this around there’s actually a powerful reason attached to his ramblings. It’s too bad that he isn’t given a bit more screentime to seriously interact in a meaningful dialogue with either Craig or Dench.
Although the overall plot can easily be broken down into something as simple as “it’s a revenge movie” it belies the film’s greatest strength as Mendes and his team have accomplished what no other series installment has including Casino Royale by firmly planting Bond in a raw reality and gasp, humanizing him and the supporting cast. While the action does admittedly ramp up it still never falls into what I call the “Moonraker Trap” by going totally overboard into the realm of the absurd. Although there are a few scenes where Craig is filmed with a green screen the movie is filled with a lot of physical stunt work that really stands out and harkens back to some of the best sequences from previous Bond films.
In addition, Skyfall has striking cinematography that also shows off each location in a different light from the moody greys of Scotland to the neon coloured flickering lights of Shanghai. Each set seems to radiate atmosphere and Mendes’ eye to detail gives the film additional visual oomph. Sam Mendes even manages to concoct standout sequences in places you’d never expect such as Silva’s grand entrance which is shot in an extreme long shot over Bond’s shoulder as he appears as a tiny stick figure emerging from a faraway elevator. Mendes doesn’t bother to cut the scene up and relies on his stationary camera allowing audiences to experience Bond’s point of view while also permitting Bardem to show off his acting prowess mainly with his tone of voice as he menacingly moves closer to the camera.
Instead of following tradition Skyfall takes only the bare essentials content to throw everything out and start fresh. In fact part of the narrative focuses on the concept of renewal and the changing of the guard as old parts are exchanged with the new. Even Bond, M and Silva find themselves caught up in this new modern paradigm as their worth/services are now openly being questioned in a environment that deems spies an antiquated tool of the old world.
The biggest example of this new direction comes when Bond meets the new Q (Ben Whishaw) who looks every bit the geeky nerd he always did except he’s now incredibly young so much so that Bond can’t help but smile and say, “You must be joking” after Q introduces himself as his new quartermaster. After indulging in some chit-chat Q passes Bond his gadgets for this particular mission and as every diehard fan begins to salivate and wonder at what new tricks Q has up his sleeve the rug is suddenly pulled from under the entire audience when it is revealed that all Bond is given is a basic gun and a small radio tracking device prompting him to remark, “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” However, the scene works wonders in both deconstructing previous Bond mythos as well as allowing the film to further ground itself in reality by not allowing more flamboyant aspects of the series to take over.
It’s definitely a new Bond “world” that Mendes has created with much tinkering to the core concept that will certainly not sit well with every diehard fan especially those who expect every Bond movie to follow a set traditional path. However, by the final shot it quickly becomes apparent that Mendes has turned the franchise toward a totally fresh path for the foreseeable future with the myriad plot and casting changes. Then again, like I mentioned earlier, this is the sort of structural renewal that one only really expects once every so often and I doubt whoever takes the reins of the next installment will attempt such a radical rethinking of what constitutes a good Bond movie. Skyfall is not the type of movie that will have audiences cheering in delight due to imaginative action sequences or one-liners laced with sexual innuendo and it’s all the better for it. It might certainly be incredibly gloomy, gritty and raw for many but I expect many more will fall in love with what Mendes has accomplished here. Bond is back and better than ever.
**** out of ****
2012, USA/UK, 143 Minutes, PG-13, MGM/Columbia
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan
Produced by Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
Executive Producer Callum McDougall
Original Music by Thomas Newman
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Film Editing by Stuart Baird
Daniel Craig: James Bond
Judi Dench: M
Javier Bardem: Silva
Ralph Fiennes: Gareth Mallory
Naomie Harris: Eve
Bérénice Marlohe: Sévérine
Albert Finney: Kincade
Ben Whishaw: Q
Rory Kinnear: Tanner
Ola Rapace: Patrice
Helen McCrory: Clair Dowar MP
Nicholas Woodeson: Doctor Hall
Bill Buckhurst: Ronson
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