Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

Directed by: Sam Mendes.
Written by: Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan.
Starring: 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).

In order to effectively break the rules, you need to know them first – and the crew behind the latest James Bond film Skyfall knows the rules inside-out. I’ve never been a huge Bond fan – I’ve most of the films over the years, loved some, didn’t like others, but by and large was fairly indifferent to the series as a whole. Daniel Craig’s first outing as 007 Casino Royale (2006) suggested that perhaps the Bond series was ready to mature a little bit – become something at least somewhat more grounded in reality, that took the character seriously, and didn’t let the films get bogged down in silly gadgets, girls with ridiculously sexual names, and super villains with outlandish schemes. The follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was little more than a straight ahead action movie – no gadgets, sure, but pretty much just one parkour inspired fight scene after another – and was a disappointment. But they took their time with Skyfall – four years between installments – and got this one right. If Skyfall isn’t the best Bond movie of all time, it’s pretty damn close. This is because the filmmakers know who Bond is and what fans of the series are expecting when they go see a Bond film – and then gleefully plays with those expectations. Sometimes, they give you precisely what you are expecting, sometimes just a sly wink in that direction, and sometimes they subvert expectations all together. And yes, the filmmakers take Bond – and all the characters around him – seriously, and make them into real characters. It isn’t that the movie doesn’t have all the things you expect in a Bond movie – it has them all and more, and all in an expertly crafted, intelligent, superiorly acted package. Skyfall is one of the most entertaining films of the year – and then some.

The film opens with a bravado chase sequence through Turkey, where a bad guy has stolen a valuable hard drive, and Bond and his partner Eve (Naomie Harris) have to get it back – otherwise all the identities of undercover NATO Operatives the world over would be put in jeopardy. The chase scene has everything you would expect from a Bond chase scene and ends, of course, with Bond engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the baddie on top a train. M (Judi Dench) is monitoring the action from the safety of her office, and when Eve tells her she has a shot – but Bond may be hit – she coldly orders the shot to be taken. Of course, the bad is missed, Bond is hit and plunges off the train and into the water below – presumably dead. But just as in all the other movies where Bond is presumed dead, he isn’t – although he does stay away for months in an alcohol fueled haze, until he sees on the news that MI6 has been attacked – and he comes back and reports for duty. He’s lost a step or two though – and may not be ready. But he’s all M has, so back into the field he goes.

I find it impossible to believe that any fan of the series will feel let down by Skyfall. The movie gives you everything you could possibly want from a Bond movie. I don’t think that Craig has ever been charming as Bond – especially in his scenes involving Naomi Harris’ Eve. The two of them share an instant sexual chemistry, and their flirtatious scenes walks that fine line between charming and over the top just about perfectly. Harris is Craig’s match in every way in these scenes. Craig’s Bond is more modern than any of the other Bond’s – more respectful of women, although if it’s available, he’s not going to turn it down. Not only does Bond have great scenes with Harris, he has a few good ones with Bérénice Marlohe’s beautiful Sévérine as well. So the classic Bond woman is well represented here.

Javier Bardem makes one of the best Bond villains ever as well. He doesn’t show up until over an hour into the movie, but when he does, he definitely leaves an impression. Bardem’s got an evil smile, that turns downright ugly, and a maniacal cackle – and he certainly seems to be having a blast playing his bad guy. But he’s also more grounded than most Bond villains – no evil plans to take over the world, just a demented, violent man with mommy issues hell-bent on revenge. As an out and out villain in this type of movie, he’s tough to beat.

I could on highlighting the classic elements of the Bond movies that are twisted a little, and done to perfection – Ben Whishaw’s Q for example is a hell of a lot of fun and has one of the best lines in the movie (“What were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore”) that highlights the difference between this new Bond, and the Bond of the Pierce Brosnan years which jumped the shark well before they introduced an invisible car. And I haven’t even mentioned how great Ralph Fiennes or Albert Finney are in their small roles.

But what makes Skyfall one of, if not the best, Bond film is how seriously the filmmakers take it. Bond himself is given more of a backstory than ever before – the filmmakers do not overdo it, but do provide at least some grounding for his character. And for the first time, he isn’t just a superman – there is insecurity here, and Craig plays it perfectly. And then there’s Judi Dench as M. Since her first Oscar nomination 15 years ago for Mrs. Brown, Dench has been one of those perennially nominated actresses – ever time she makes a classy biopic or period piece, her name is among the nominees. But her work here is as good as anything she has ever done – making M at once a heartless bitch and a sympathetic woman, fighting for her way of life, and her own survival. I cannot recall being as moved by a Bond movie as in the final scenes in the movie involving Dench.

This is what you get when you hire a real filmmaker to make a film like this, instead of just a competent craftsman, like most Bond directors have been. Skyfall was directed by Sam Mendes, better known for Oscar bait movies like American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road than action movies. And it was co-written by John Logan, who often works with Martin Scorsese. If these two are going to spend their time on a Bond movie, they want to elevate the series, rather than just make a passable entry in the series. Like Christopher Nolan with the recent Batman movies, studios seem to be beginning to understand that if you want a great movie, even a blockbuster, you need a director with more skills than simply staging an action sequence – although Mendes proves himself to be incredibly adept at that as well. Add in Roger Deakins excellent cinematography, and this is one of the best looking Bond movies to go along with being one of the best written and easily the best acted. Sometimes even when you’re making a blockbuster everything comes together just about perfectly – Skyfall is one of those movies.

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