Skyfall Back in Bond Form!
By Kristin Battestella
I’m more than happy to eat my words about the first two installments in Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond – because this third 2012 outing Skyfall gets it right. %^&#$)* finally!
After being wounded during a mission by new field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), 007 James Bond (Craig) is presumed dead while he recuperates with wine and women. Cyber threats against MI-6 chief M (Judi Dench), however, and physical attacks on the Intelligence Service itself bring Bond back to London. Unfortunately, whether he is fit for duty must be proven to new Intelligence Chairmen Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and the Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) outfits the ready or not Bond with a gun and a radio. 007 sets out across the globe in pursuit of former agent turned cyber terrorist Raoul Silvia (Javier Bardem) and ultimately faces his orphaned roots in Scotland.
Yes, I have a love hate relationship with Casino Royale. It’s a good spy movie, but too removed from a traditional Bond film for me. Although I think we can all agree that Quantum of Solace is meh at best, Skyfall fortunately gets the long running franchise back on track. Humor, sexuality, and returning characters add a much needed brevity; Skyfall has that aforementioned gun and a radio simplicity instead of 21st century statements, politics, and heavy. The action is sound, memorable, and yes, bombastic at times, but it doesn’t compromise the unfolding character dramas and isn’t so ridiculously over the top like the Die Another Day infamy. In fact, the fast-paced excitement accentuates the meaty topics with the expected Bond wit and swiftness. Certainly, the plot is a predictable spin on the theme – 007 begrudgingly on a mission with several girls and/or henchman encounters in foreign locales or casinos soon lead him to an initial impressive chat with villain where each tries to outsmart the other. There were times in Skyfall, however, where I was unsure how Bond was going to save the day thanks to intense voiceovers, one-step behind arrivals, and potential agent on the inside twists. Bureaucratic interference and the direct targeting of M are also not often seen Bond elements – or haven’t worked previously as in The World Is Not Enough – and Skyfall is topped off with an even more unusual for Bond homemade siege. One might think this is a far too easy, overlong, out of place or even ridiculous turn for a 007 picture. However, the mix of high tech meets gloriously simple works wonderfully in itself as Bond revisits his roots in explosive fashion and literally wipes the slate clean. I sincerely hope director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) does indeed return for the next installment along with long time Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and new writing blood John Logan (Gladiator, Coriolanus). This do-over makes one wonder why the franchise ever went the gritty, angry reboot way it did with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.
Daniel Craig…yes! Bond says, “Bond, James Bond,” gets some girls, and looks suave doing it. They certainly have him shirtless enough, but the beard, excellent quips, and tuxedos allow for the anticipated 007 screen presence – Bond rocks it even in a sweat suit for goodness sake! This charisma has been so desperately missing from the first two Craig editions, but in Skyfall, Bond has chemistry with everyone he meets. From the first nameless babe (yes, the character really is credited as “Bond’s Lover” only!) to the last diatribes with Silva and everyone in between, each conversation has charm and innuendo. This glib glee, sweet action, and subtle sexy is the reason why Craig was hired as Bond. Its Layer Cake meets 007 at last, and now my only poo poo is that it took three films to get this delightful combination of slick but badass Connery and tongue in cheek but sexy Moore. Craig won’t be any younger for his next two contracted Bond films, and if Skyfall hadn’t been so glorious, I would have most likely been done with Craig as Bond. Why were his first two outings increasingly dark, bleak, and dismal when we could have had this on form sophisticated allure all along? Bond gets his Walther PPK – updated with handprint recognition – a micro radio, and a car in Skyfall. That’s all we ever needed to see about how Bond became Bond. Though not as bad as the drawn out Star Wars prequels, in retrospect, I feel like too much of Craig’s tenure has now been wasted in the dated politics and origin tales trends of the turn of this century.
Well, well Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) is deliciously Lector-esque in Skyfall. His flamboyant Silva can feel homoerotic, sure, but any time things are sexual between a villain and his captive, it’s about power. He wants to ruffle Bond, get under his skin, find out what makes this new spy model superior to him, and use 007’s pros and cons to his own advantage against M. Silva is crazy and has issues with M, but he’s not to be underestimated thanks to access to all sorts of technology and control – the tools he didn’t have when betrayed in the line of duty. Our first meeting with Silva is at his super villain island fortress in keeping with Bondian clichés, but it’s great to see the antagonist expertly placed into his real lair – MI-6. Though some plans and plot elements do happen too easily for Silva – where does he get this ready and waiting UK army? – it is simply radical to have a villain so deeply entrenched and face-to-face in Bond’s own home. Pieces of the damaged, megalomaniac nasties of old remain, but Silva’s scheme doesn’t feel based on a whim or something ridiculous. He has a deformity like all Bond villains of course, but it’s also special to see not just something physical, but a deep seeded mental warp. Gadgets are also a huge part of Silva’s plan, granted, but his coolness is more about using MI-6’s own framework against itself. Bardem’s international flavor brings a fine mix of personal and global, too, and Silva is a wonderfully intimate cut from the same cloth parallel for Bond.
Skyfall also provides a delightful swansong for Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown) as M in the finest use of the character yet. There is a certain respect and mothering element from M for both Bond and Silva, yet Dench firmly keeps M a strong, chippy woman at work. She’s going to see her job thru to the end despite the fineto, too old, time to retire screw up scandal happening around her. It’s ironic that Dench as M was introduced by calling Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a dinosaur, for now the tables have turned. Is M washed up? Does Silva’s revenge merit her being put out to pasture? Though it was a bit confusing to carry over this M for the reboot – we never receive any clarifications on her name or timeline – it’s a pity to see Dench go. Her ups and downs with Craig as Bond have been the sweet bright spots amid the darkness, flaws, and un-Bondness of his debut duology. Naturally, Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) is likewise begrudgingly brought in to Skyfall to start. We hate him as the stuffy representative of bureaucracy, politics, and committee – Mallory even embodies red tape and punishment by his assigning Eve to a desk job. However, this former SAS lieutenant colonel should not underestimated either– as Dench’s M is being marred in Skyfall, so must Mallory get down and dirty. He assists Bond where needed in action and technicalities and proves his likeability. Yes, it’s obvious what future role Mallory will play in the franchise, but it’s great to have someone high up and crusty back as Bond’s boss. It’s a real treat to see that leather door, too! It always bothered me that the Casino Royale re-start was not a period reboot, yet I dare say Skyfall sets up the opportunity for an abstract time follow up. Minimize computer uses, continue simplistic gadgetry, and go with Mallory’s seemingly Bernard Lee sixties Mad Men style. It’s ironic – after going off the deep end to make Bond edgy and dark for a new disenchanted 21st century world, who knew it would eventually be popular again to begin the beguine with retro?
More Obvious Spoilers! Naomie Harris’ (Pirates of the Caribbean) Eve is sassy, modern, sexy, cute and most importantly, believable as both a rocky field agent and the eventual high-level assistant under Mallory. It was easy to predict she would be Miss Moneypenny and not just another sexy bad Die Another Day Jinx clone. Why go there again when Skyfall needed this kind of freshness? Eve gets pretty damn intimate with Bond, too, and it’s an excellent touch to restart Bond and Moneypenny with these sensuous close calls and a checkered history. I personally think they slept together as well. Maybe the steamy isn’t shown, but the camera cuts to fireworks – if that isn’t classic 007 innuendo then I don’t know what is. Although I was quite pleased with the casting and outcome of Moneypenny, I was initially hesitant to see Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) as a young, nerdy Q. Fortunately, the portrayal is not cliché at all but works wonderfully thanks to Q’s cranky, reverse generational banter of old with Bond. Several great dialogue references also nod to the beloved past Q – exploding pen quips and all that. Likewise, Rory Kinnear (Broken) as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner provides solid MI-6 support, and Ola Rapace (Wallander) matches as Bond’s slick and scary henchman foil Patrice. Stunning French actress Berenice Marlohe is also not just sexy and lovely as an obligatory Bond Girl should be, but her mistress Severine is useful and contributes to critical plot points. Granted, Severine does fit the anticipated Bond pattern and Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich) may seem tacked on and out of place for the finale as an old school gamekeeper. However, his fatherly, crusty jabs with Bond are also an unexpected treat.
Skyfall also showcases new locales and designs along with pleasant homages to previous Bond films. There’s a rogue agent ala Goldeneye, and the Shangai light shows and reflections recall the mirror sequence in The Man with the Golden Gun. The Bond family motifs, his unmarried status, and the cemetery symbolism also carry a whiff of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the beginning of For Your Eyes Only. The multiple foot chases, car races, and train pursuits in the Istanbul prologue not only have the audience catching its breath, but the man down uncertainties recall the opening fake out in You Only Live Twice. It’s a wonderful acknowledgement of the man and the franchise when Bond claims that his hobby is “resurrection,” and these subtle nods to the past work perfectly as a smooth 50th anniversary statement – unlike Die Another Day’s rehashed, obvious sampling and knock offs for the 40th celebrations. Modern London locales make for great crowded subway scenes and intense tunnel action. Computer intricacies keep the technology contemporary and relevant, yet the gadgets aren’t so steeped in the fantastic or product placements as to detract from the picture. No, I don’t even care about the Heineken appearances so long as it remains believable and serves the plot points as needed. The Aston Martin, however – oh my god, my heart skipped a beat!
I’m surprised some viewers feel these past winks and re-introductions are forced. Did you not expect a 50th anniversary film to pay homage? Where you not interested in seeing original franchise characters appear? The main titles are morbid but very cool and foreshadow the plot with smoke, water, and death. Those who find Skyfall’s standoff finale out of place or tacked on should note the graveyard and knife motifs right there in the returning Daniel Kleinman’s title design. I can forgive that we see a martini shaken and not stirred rather than Bond expressly saying it, and I’ll even let go of my wish for a Bond in uniform with a revived hat toss thanks to the smart appearance of his rank onscreen and a coat rack in M’s new tricked out office. Adele’s excellent, Oscar winning music also returns Skyfall to classic Bond themes whilst remaining edgy and modern along side the 007 scoring and cues. We have the music! We know when Bond is doing something cool! I think Skyfall could have won more awards, although I’m surprised it won the Sound Editing Academy Award, as this is another one of those action film offenders where the bombastic is so effing loud and the voices so damnably low. Fortunately, Skyfall feels more sexy, violent, juicy, and dangerous than the PG-13 rating actually allows thanks to revealing babes, smoking, and nail biting deaths. The audience isn’t underestimated – people curse, blood is shed, critical folks are wounded, making this picture a refreshing in between buck against the youthful and watered down trends.
Outside of the rental blu-ray having no features, what’s not to like here? Perhaps Skyfall doesn’t have a lot of repeat value, but this retro return to form is where Bond should be, not chasing bleak, dark diasporas. Skyfall isn’t a complete turn around back to what makes Bond Bond, but it’s a charming, spirited step in the right direction for the franchise. Rein in all that brooding and take all the good of Skyfall to the next level for the 24th outing. Those who liked the edgy realism of Craig’s last two might find this an unusual, lighthearted backtrack thanks to the straightforward revenge and siege plot. However, Skyfall’s reset is a better continuation point with more room to maneuver – unlike the gloomy corner into which Quantum of Solace backed itself. Heck, the Quantum organization can now return in as serious or camp a villainy as need be. With Q and Moneypenny now in place, next I’d actually like to see a revisit of the Tracy Bond storyline. Independently, Skyfall might end up as a middle of the pack Bond picture, yet it’s spit and polish on the current tenure opens the door for some simply awesome possibilities. Bond returns from the grave, trains, drinks, and faces his roots for this reboot of the reboot. I held my breath, laughed, almost wept, and happy sighed. Skyfall is how the 21st century Bond should be.