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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Series Report Card: James Bond 007 (2012)

23. Skyfall

The twenty-third James Bond film, like seemingly all the movies in the series, did not have the smoothest of pre-productions. MGM was hampered by financial problems, the old studio approaching bankruptcy. This, combined with the somewhat negative reaction to “Quantum of Solace,” made fans wonder if a 23rd Bond film was coming soon at all. Would Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond be cut short by outside factors, the same way Timothy Dalton’s was? There was no need to panic. MGM got their shit together and a new entry in the series, eventually entitled “Skyfall,” rolled into production. The delay might even have been a good thing. First off, it allowed the movie’s release to tie in with the series’ 50th anniversary. Secondly, it gave everyone involved more time to put together a better film.

A mission to recover a stolen hard drive, containing the cover identities of MI-6 agents in the field, goes horribly awry. Bond is shot off a train overpass, M and everyone else assuming 007 to be dead. A few month’s later, Vauxhall explodes in a cyber-terrorism attack. The man responsible has a similar story to Bond, a former MI-6 agent abandoned by his agency, now back for revenge. Bond, despite having a broken body and a troubled mind, returns to his job. As the villain’s identity is revealed, everyone soon realizes that M herself is the mastermind’s target. Bond’s quest to protect his boss also has him facing his own past.

As James Bond’s unconscious form careens down a waterfall, his body floating under the waves, the film smoothly transitions into the opening credits. “Skyfall’s” opening sequence nicely combines the more stylized credits that have become the standard in the Craig era with the more classical Bond trademarks. Partially nude women covert around the water, seemingly tormenting the drifting Bond. The credits reference Bond’s injury, with bleeding cut-outs of his face, and the film’s settings, with its burning Chinese dragons. The villain’s status as a dark reflection of Bond is shown by Bond facing off with his shadow and a hall of mirrors. There are two scenes here I really like. First, during a scene patterned after a Rorschach test, dancing women shift into knives and skulls. At the beginning of the credit, we see the Skyfall manor, the face of a young Bond inside. At the ends of the credits, we see the crumbling Skyfall, the face of a grizzled, adult Bond inside. The accompanying song is also something of a throwback. Adele’s big, brassy vocals works nicely with the traditional Bond style. The lyrics are poignant and well-constructed. The production is slightly overdone but, for the most part, this is a great Bond theme.

As the 50th anniversary film, “Skyfall” throws in many references to the series’ past. However, unlike the superficial easter eggs in “Die Another Day,” “Skyfall” actually builds its story around the past and how it interacts with the present. “Sometimes the old ways are the best” is a key line of dialogue. Craig has gotten enough age on him that its believable his Bond might have taken too much punishment. Characters actively wonder if, in the age of cyber-terrorism and radicals acting alone, if there’s any room for an old fashion man of action. Meanwhile, the characters are haunted by their pasts, M by the mistakes she’s made and Bond by his troubled childhood. Lastly, “Skyfall” works to return many classic elements to the Bond series, going a long way towards reestablishing the original formula. The film is respectful of the series history, updates some of the dearly missed trademarks, while also making some surprisingly profound statements about regrets and the past. Also, it brings back the Aston Martin DB5, probably one of the coolest callbacks I've seen in recent memory.

Another smart move on “Skyfall’s” behalf is making M a major character. Judi Dench’s M had been with the franchise for more then a decade at this point. Despite casting a highly respected, Oscar-winning actress like Dench in the part, M mostly sat behind a desk and gave mission briefings, especially during the Brosnan years. M was given a bigger role once Craig came on. “Skyfall” goes so far as to build the entire plot around her. The film questions the morality of M cutting her looses with captured agents. What if this came back to haunt her? Something else the film touches upon is M’s maternal instincts towards her spies. Throughout the film, everyone calls her “ma’am” but the accents make it sound like “mom.” Silva is like an abandoned son with Bond as the favored brother. The film isn't subtle about this, the villain saying “Mommy was bad.” Yet it adds an interesting layer to the plot. It also allows Dench to show off her considerable talent as an actress.

Since the Daniel Craig era of 007 is grounded and realistic, you're not going to have Bond running around at 57, blasting goons and inventing snowboarding. Instead, only on his third film, Craig’s James is already experiencing the wear and tear of his life-style. His always-implied alcoholism is more-or-less confirmed, with Bond depressingly chugging some scorpion liquor. His shoulder is shot, the film emphasizing his vulnerability. He can’t even shoot straight anymore. The only way he gets cleared for fieldwork is because M pushes him through. Moreover, “Skyfall” explores Bond’s childhood. By taking us back to Skyfall, his childhood home, the spy acknowledges his status as an orphan, his parents’ death, and his lonely years in a sprawling, gothic manor. Bond wasn’t a happy kid and that birthed a wildly dysfunctional adult. Considering how invested in the character’s inner life this period of the series is, it’s no surprised we’re exploring Bond’s childhood. It’s greatly appreciated either way.

Many of 007’s most memorable adversaries have been characters that darkly mirror Bond himself, such as Red Grant and Alec Trevelyan. “Skyfall” continues in this tradition. Raoul Silva is also a former MI-6, a double-0 like Bond. Like Trevelyan, he was left for dead, this time by M. Like Bond, he was M’s favorite. (In a cute joke, his years of service roughly line up with the period between Timothy Dalton and Brosnan’s films.) Instead of fighting for queen and country, Silva fights for himself, selling his skills as a hacker to the highest bidder. He’s as deadly and calculating as Bond, targeting M with the same harsh determination Bond targets his opponents. Javier Bardem as Silva gets a great introductory scene, where he presents himself to a captured Bond, explaining his plan. Bardem plays the character between psychotic mastermind and foppish dandy. He’s viciously efficient in his villainous plan while also carrying that classic Bond villain style. To hammer home Silva’s status as a classic Bond bad guy, he’s even given an ugly facial deformity. Yet Bardem creates a deeper performance, a villain with psychological problems and personal motivation.

How about the Bond Girls? Naomie Harris is introduced as Eve, Bond’s partner in the field who accidentally shoots him in the beginning. Harris and Craig share several scenes and the two have great chemistry. The meeting they have in Hong Kong, Eve helping Bond out with his shave, the two flirting in the casino, are a stand-out moment. It wasn’t hard to figure out that Eve is actually Eve Moneypenny, another classic element reestablished, but I still really enjoyed the reveal. The other Bond girls in the film invited more controversy. The glamorous Berenice Marlohe plays Severine. Severine is the dangerous, troubled girl linked to the film’s villain. As expected, Bond sleeps with her and then she dies. However, we also discover that Severine is a former victim of sexual slavery, a disturbing subject matter probably unsuited to a Bond film. What Bond does next ruffled plenty of feathers. She smiles when Bond comes into the shower, obviously enjoying his company. However, is it PC that Bond takes advantage of a former sex slave? Probably not but Bond has never been a PC character. It’s the sort of thing he would do. His curt dismissal of her death is right in line with his personality as well. For the record, Marlohe is fine in the part and beautiful to boot, looking gorgeous in the stylish dress.

Another classic Bond story element “Skyfall” returns to the canon is Q. The campy, plot-resolving gadgets of the Moore/Brosnan era wouldn’t fly here. Instead, Q is a wildly revamped character. Ben Whishaw is a young, hotshot kid, something Bond is eager to remind him of. The devices he hands out are low-key and realistic. The first is a modified Walter PPK with hand grip printed to Bond’s hand. The second is a tiny radio transmitter. That’s it. Both fit in nicely with the realistic style of the current series. Q still plays a larger role in the play. Being a young hacker type, he decodes Silva’s encrypted map and helps near the finale. Like Craig’s 007 in “Casino Royale,” Q is also young and inexperienced, making a pretty dumb mistake at a key moment. Whishaw is nice addition to the cast. The first meeting between Bond and Q in a museum plays out really nicely.

“Skyfall” is not as relentlessly action-packed as “Quantum of Solace.” However, it still has plenty of notable sequences. The opening chase scene through Istanbul is fantastic. The rooftop motorcycle chase is something we haven’t seen before. The fight between Bond and the assassin atop the train makes great use of the setting. Yet the best moment during this extended scene is when the bad guy first leaps onto the train. Craig’s Bond, not being one to stand for this sort of shit, jumps in a steam shovel and takes chase. Digging the shovel into the train and using that as a bridge to climb aboard is a clever set piece. It’s certainly a more effective sequence then the tumble Bond has in a casino. Yes, I’m talking about the CGI komodo dragon, a surprisingly sketchy special effect. Now, I like the judo flipping but Bond leaping on the reptiles’ back negatively brought Roger Moore to mind. Silva’s escape from MI-6 and Bond chasing him through the tube system is very suspenseful, has plenty of humor, and pays off nicely. Though, yes, it is ridiculous that the villain knew a train was coming at that very moment.

The last act of “Skyfall” cleverly inverts the typical Bond formula. Instead of the hero sneaking into an evil-doer’s lair and destroying it, Bond retreats to a fortress. Now the villains have to come to him, the heroes defending their home from invaders. A fantastic, late addition is Albert Finney as Kincade, the Bond estate’s watchman. Finney contributes a lot to the finale, providing humor while being equally badass. The action in this sequence is the best in the film. The Aston Martin DB5 gets a beautiful reintroduction and those headlight-mounted machine guns really come in handy. The cleverly used mirrors and improvised bombs recall a grittier sort of action film then your usual Bond movie. 007 has to defend his former home and boss with only a handful of shotguns and his own ingenuity. Some of these stunts are bigger then others, such as when two exploded fuel tanks toss enough shrapnel into the air to take two helicopter pilots! The race across a frozen lake is another stand-out stunt, especially the way deals with it. The conclusion to “Skyfall” is fantastically orchestrated.

Another element that elevates “Skyfall” is its gorgeous cinematography. Roger Deakins photographed the film and creates some truly spell-binding images. Such as the fight between Bond and the assassin in Hong Kong. Set inside a glass tower, the two fighters are silhouetted in cool blue against the flickering images outside. The siege of Skyfall is similarly shot in ominous blues, lit orange by the near-by flames. The Scottish countryside is beautifully photographed in general. “Skyfall” is probably the best looking film in the entire Bond series.

In contrast to “Quantum of Solace’s” overly venomous reaction, “Skyfall” was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Some went so far to declare it the best Bond ever. The public seemed to agree. “Skyfall” became the highest grossing film in the series’ long history, was number 2 for the entire year, and currently holds the title for the highest-grossing film in the UK. Since the internet runs on such a fast feedback cycle these days, a backlash happened immediately, people eager to point out that “Skyfall” wasn’t that good. Yeah, there are some minor plot holes and at least one plot element owes a lot to “The Dark Knight.” So, no, “Skyfall” isn’t the best Bond movie of all time. However, it is a very good addition to the series, beautifully photographed, tightly characterized, with great performances and plenty of fun action. Moreover, it successfully updates some familiar elements to the series that we haven’t seen in a while. As the film ends, Bond is eager to start his next adventure. The audience can’t wait either. [Grade: B+]


[] Destroys Evil Doer’s Lair
[X] Drinks or Orders a Vesper Martini
[X] Gets Captured and/or Tortured
[X] Introduces Himself as “Bond – James Bond”
[] Teams-Up with Felix Leiter
[X] Uses Judo or a Walther PPK to Dispose of an Enemy
[X] Wears a Tux


James Bond will return. Though the actors playing the part grow old and the movies go in and out of vogue, the character will never die. When I'm old and my hypothetical children are adults, they'll still be making James Bond movie. Production on the 156th Bond movie will be rudely interrupted by the heat-death of the universe. Bond will live forever.

Most pressingly, James Bond will return soon. "Spectre" comes out November 6th of this year. Luck has it that the teaser trailer just hit Friday. Not only does the film promise the return of SPECTRE, the evil organization, and probably Blofeld, Bond's archenemy, who will probably be played by Christoph Waltz. The trailer is exciting and I'm fairly pumped for it.

I'm pretty proud to wrap up this Series Report Card. I've done bigger projects before but this one seemed especially complex. I'm not quite done with 007 just yet. Return tomorrow for a proper conclusion to this Report Card. See you soon, readers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fun fact: Ben Whishaw's glasses in Skyfall immediately became the best-selling make of eyeglass in the world. I wear them myself.