Friday, November 30, 2012

SKYFALL Is Craig's Coolest Bond Film, But Falls Short of a Bullseye


Another year, another James Bond movie. I'll admit, I was feeling pretty 007'ed-out after the underwhelming Quantum of Solace from a few years back, and I was once again questioning my overall position on the Bond films. I've always enjoyed Bond, to the point where I'll be mildly excited for each new entry in the series. But  ... I've never really *loved* the 007 franchise. And certainly, the things that most appealed to me about Bond were the series' more stylized elements - the over-the-top villains, the crazy gadgets, and the exotic locales. So even though I could recognize, say, Casino Royale as a well-made action film ... it ultimately felt pretty bland to me. What's the point of Bond if he's just a gritty, Bourne-esque bruiser? Luckily, SKYFALL is nothing if not stylish. Director Sam Mendes infuses the franchise with a dose of its old pop-art and pseudo-psychedelic sensibilities, making this the best-looking Bond, by-far, in decades. It's also a Bond that's a little more playful and comic-bookish than we've seen recently, embracing a sense of nostalgia for the series' 60's heyday, and introducing an uber-villain, played by Javier Bardem, who is one of the series' most flamboyant.

Skyfall opens with an awesome action sequence that shows us how Bond ends up off-the-grid, presumed dead. However, he ultimately returns to MI-6 in order to thwart the plans of a sinister agent-gone-bad. But 007 comes back older, more grizzled, and not quite in top super-agent form. And so the movie plays with a running theme of "I'm too old for this $#@&" ... introducing the old-school Bond to a new-school spy world that's hipper, higher-tech, and less forgiving of 007's roguish ways. The agent-gone-bad is Javier Bardem, playing a sexually-ambiguous, eminently-creepy terrorist named Silva. Seems he was the victim of a prematurely-aborted mission in his spying days, after which he was left with some fairly traumatic physical and mental damage. And now, dammit all, he's out for sweet, sweet payback.

Javier Bardem is definitely one of the best parts about the movie. His character isn't inherently awesome, per se, but Bardem makes him awesome by virtue of acting the hell out of him. With an Anton Sigurgh-esque voice and speech pattern, Bardem is a lot of fun in this one - and even genuinely disturbing at times. What also makes him work well as a villain is his personal vendetta against Judi Dench's M. Dench is obviously an incredible actress, and in Skyfall, she gets to stretch a bit and really grab a bit of the spotlight. Skyfall focuses in a lot on M and her stubborn crusade to hold MI-6 together in the face of chaos. And it also gives ample time to her motherly relationship with 007. Dench's heavy involvement in the plot gives the movie an injection of gravitas and drama that was missing from some previous installments. We often see Bond fighting to save a girl he's only just met, or to prevent large-scale, impersonal disasters. Rarely do we see people he's known for ages and whom he cares deeply about under threat. Point being - this isn't a save-the-world-from-nukes story - it's a very personal one. As for Daniel Craig - he brings his A-game to his third go-round as Bond - quipping effortlessly, brawling stylishly, and getting deep and serious and reflective when need be. Craig is the Bond who is in a sort of constant existential crisis - what is his place in the modern world?, must he exist?, why does he do what he does? - and Craig is well-equipped to bring that sense of man-out-of-time intensity to the role.

There are some nice supporting turns as well. Ben Whishaw brings Q into the modern age - a GQ-ready geek for 2012. Naomie Harris is coyly charismatic as Bond's MI-6 colleague Eve, and Berenice Marlohe has all the right moves as exotic femme fatale Severine. Ralph Fiennes also puts in a nice turn as M's steely MI-6 boss who finds himself at odds over her constant support of Bond.

But really, Sam Mendes is the star of the film. The director has always had a knack for evocative, almost surrealistic scenes that use color and light to mind-melting effect. But what he does with Bond is just plain badass. That opening action scene I mentioned is fantastic - a rip-roaring battle aboard a moving train that leaves you breathless. Later, there's a stunning fight scene in a neon-lit skyscraper, with shadow-brawls in silhouette over a future-shock blue backdrop. And then, in the climactic showdown with Silva, the firefight between warring combatants is a gorgeous fireworks display of gleaming explosions. There's also the trippy opening title sequence - set to a haunting theme song by Adele. It's one of the coolest in Bond history, I'd venture to day. All in all, Mendes outdoes himself here.

But despite the high praise for Mendes, I'm still reluctant to hail Skyfall as some kind of pop-art masterpiece. The movie stubbornly refuses to go to that next-level of greatness from a character and narrative perspective. Bond is tricky, because tradition states that there's minimal continuity between the films - so any major character developments tend to feel ephemeral. There are some interesting attempts to add to the Bond mythos, and give 007 a bit of an origin story. But again, it's a balancing act of telling the origin and not revealing too much so as to de-mystify the enigmatic, iconic Bond. I guess that after seeing so many Bond films, frustration tends to set in. Is there any sort of Bond cannon, or is every film just it's own thing, with winks and nods to the series' history that are, ultimately, just fan-service and nothing of real substance. And that's what makes me less enthused about Skyfall than others, at the end of the day. It's a fine example of a director playing in a toybox and making a beautiful arrangement of the pieces given to him. But when a last-act twist revealed a key character to actually be a Bond franchise staple incognito, I sort of sighed. It's all well and good to have fan-favorites pop-in, but when they tend to be such non-characters, it's hard for me to get all that excited (I did however get excited for some of the film's more over-the-top touches, like a so-crazy-it's awesome den of lethal komodo dragons).

I felt a similar sentiment about the film's use of women. Severine seemed to have a lot of potential at first, but her character proves one-note and disappears from the movie before her character arc gets a chance to fully develop. Meanwhile, Eve regresses from badass field agent to Bond sexcapade partner and MI-6 pencil-pusher. It's 2012 - can't we have some female characters in the Bond-verse who kick just as much ass as 007 and who have actual personalities?

That said, Skyfall is, overall, my favorite 007 film of the Daniel Craig era. It's easily the most purely entertaining, has the best villain, and is definitely the coolest from a visual standpoint. But this is a franchise with limitations. Even when everyone's putting their best foot forward, they run up against the wall that is the state of Bond. It's a franchise that wants to be both one-and-done pop-art, but also a serious, character-based universe in the same manner as the Bourne and Batman films. You can't necessarily have it both ways, and so Bond is stuck, currently, in that frustrating middle ground - introducing new backstory and layering on the mythos, yet also constantly hitting the reset button. No wonder Craig's version of Bond is always in the midst of existential crisis.

My Grade: B+

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