Sunday, December 02, 2012

"Skyfall"-- A Dark and Elegant Bond Reboot

It's official, Daniel Craig is the face of my favorite incarnation of Bond. I know it's a heresy to put anyone at the top of the list other than Sean Connery, but the old-school sexism of the 60's era Bond never quite gelled with my 80's era upbringing. Daniel Craig's Bond does still have the tendency to treat women as useful accessories, but the backstory of the character has been fleshed out enough over the last three films to give the audience an understanding of his personality and that makes all the difference.

When the name James Bond is mentioned several things usually come to mind: fast cars, women, gadgets, tuxedos, and martinis (shaken not stirred). It's easy to think of the franchise in terms of  clichés rather than certain story-lines and forget that much of the consistency of the films also has come thanks to the presence of actors like Desmond Llewelyn ("Q" 1963-1999) and Judy Dench ("M" 1995-2012). "Skyfall" is a transitional film that somehow pays homage to one actor (Dench) that has been part of the story longer than any leading man while still taking the story back to the beginning and essentially hitting the 'reset' button on the whole thing.

From a structure standpoint "Skyfall" is much like any other Bond film. The opening action sequence is as muscular as Craig as Bond rides on a motorcycle across the rooftops of Istanbul and literally rips a hole through the top of a train in order to jump on board in pursuit of a man in possession of information that can expose MI6 agents embedded inside terrorist organizations. The encounter doesn't go well for Bond and he is presumed dead. Seriously injured, Bond lets MI6 believe he is dead as he attempts to recover from the physical and emotional wounds he has suffered in a job that is quickly grinding him down.

But the failed mission has more repercussions than one injured agent. The information that had been stolen is used to fuel an attack on MI6 that strikes at the heart of the organization and it soon becomes clear that M is the main target. Bond, still haggard and not ready to return to active duty, is unable to ignore the threat to MI6 and returns to London.

M not only comes under fire from the mysterious entity attacking MI6, but she must also defend the decisions she made that presumably killed Bond and one other agent in Istanbul. The chairman of The Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pressures her to resign and declares her methods irrelevant in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology and less so on human interaction. But M, not cowed, refuses to quit and, against Mallory's recommendation, puts Bond back in active service.  Before long Bond threads together the clues that lead him to the instigator of the attack on MI6 and learns that a former agent Raoul Silvia (Javier Bardem) is seeking revenge against those he believes betrayed him within MI6.

"Skyfall" is the kind of film I wish all James Bond movies could be. Certain aspects have to be in play to keep them in the Bondian tradition: like the disfigured villain, exotic locations and beautiful women-- and they're all here.  But director Sam Mendes makes the personalities of the characters the real center of the film even as he still manages to incorporate some stunning action sequences. It's a moody Bond, much like "Casino Royale" but more reserved in its pacing and the car chases and fist fights don't move the narrative in place of the dialog-- something I really appreciated.

M, always a stern character, is shown to be implacably so this time around. Questions about her age and competence come into question and both she and Bond are thought to be part of an antiquated era by many of their counterparts. "Skyfall" isn't a gadgety film and the new Q (Ben Whishaw) is the kind of young, hipster computer geek that is sure the world now operates in the realm of cyber expertise and security cameras. Q, like Mallory, is somewhat dismissive of Bond and sends him out into the field with nothing more than a gun and a distress beacon.

Javier Bardem finds new ways to project menace as Raoul Silvia. You may have already heard that his character is gay, but it's not something that's made too much of and only really used by his character as a means to unsettle Bond. His bleached-blond hair has garnered him comparisons to Julian Assange but Bardem's character is too complex to make more than any superficial connections there. He's predictably vengeful, but also extremely intelligent and a worthy adversary to Bond (unlike the horrible villain in "Quantum of Solace").

My favorite aspect of the film has to be the way it reveals some key aspects of Bond's past. "Casino Royale" made a point to mention the fact that Bond is an orphan and it's something that is expanded upon here. M could never be described as a mother figure because of her willingness to put her agents in harm's way, but the story hints at the possibility that Raoul could have seen her that way as he, too, may have been an orphan and his rage at M is very personal. Much of the movie is built on his attempts to kill M and Bond's efforts to save her and there's a certain symmetry to the way the two men relate to her.

I've read some reviews that try to say this Bond is more modern and feminist than its predecessors- but the old incarnations were so sexist that you wouldn't have to go far to appear pro-woman in comparison. I would give credit to the franchise for putting Judy Dench in the role of M, but I wouldn't say that many female characters rise to a level of competence that puts them on equal footing with their male counterparts. For example, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) ends up in an office because of her ineptness in the field. Though, to be fair, Q doesn't come off much better. If there was anything that I didn't like about "Skyfall" it was the indifference with which this film's "Bond Girl" Séverine (Bernice Marlohe) was treated.

However, "Skyfall" definitely brings the Bond franchise back to life. Daniel Craig has been, in my opinion, the happy beneficiary of a wonderfully re-imagined Bond; and the franchise has benefitted from his manly portrayal of Bond. In some ways his character is being brought into the modern world and yet retains the sometimes unsavory characteristics that are integral to the character. If his Bond is callous toward women, we now at least know why. "Skyfall" is elegant in its plotting and brings the story full circle in a way I didn't think possible. I don't know if I would say it's better than "Casino Royale" but it is definitely good enough to rank as one of the best Bond films ever made.


Howard Sherman said...

Me and wifey saw Skyfall the day after it came out and we were floored. If I see the inside of a movie theater once a year that's a lot so my decision to go see Skyfall should tell you I'm a very serious Bond fan.

Heavy duty Bond fan that I am, I agree that Daniel Craig is the best 007 yet. You and me are not the only people to think so.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have heard many good things about it. I admit I'm more stoked to see it than any other Bond film in the past 20 years.

SQT said...

@Howard- There are always a few movies I'll go see at the theater every year. This year I had to see "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises" in addition to Bond. But most of the time I'm happier watching my movies at home. It's gratifying when you get your money's worth and "Skyfall" definitely delivered.

@Charles- I think the newer Bonds (with the exception of "Quantum") have been some of the best. Hopefully they can keep up the momentum.

Carl V. said...

I said the same thing to start my review, Daniel Craig IS James Bond for me. Easily the best in my opinion. I was very impressed with Skyfall, it lived up to and exceeded my expectations, which were high.

Fab said...