Review: Skyfall

stives, jason stives reviews the latest bond…

To me every few years when a new James Bond film is released it feels like a belated (or early) Christmas present; something that always brings joy to the cinema world even as the times and taste of movie goers slowly changes. If 2006’s Casino Royale proved anything it was that Bond still had a place in film that recently had been hounded by super heroes and hard edge spy thrillers like the Bourne series. Royale was a reboot that was necessary in order to preserve an aging legacy that now sits at 23 films in 50 years. Some saw 2008’s Quantum of Solace as a step back as a film trying too hard to mesh with the status quo by being loud, abrasive, and too close to the pupils who followed in its footsteps. For the record, I’m not a hater of Quantum but I’m also not the biggest fan. It wasn’t a great Bond film but it sure as hell wasn’t a disgrace (if you want to see a bad Bond film I suggest watching Die Another Day or half of Roger Moore’s Bond films).

As each decade has proven in order for it to survive the Bond franchise must mutate just a bit to fit with the changing times. Cold war based espionage died out 20 years ago but Bond found a way to survive focusing on real world threats like terrorism and corrupt corporations. While Casino Royale acted as a reboot that brought Bond back to its roots, its latest incarnation, Skyfall, is without a doubt a Bond for the 2010s and beyond. It’s no small fortune that Skyfall climbs leaps and bounds above a lot of recent Bond films (save for Royale) for being both a call back to the legacy of the franchise and also a substantial platform structure wise to carry these films into (hopefully) the next 50 years.

Our reintroduction into the world of everyone’s favorite MI6 agent is afforded a stellar opening sequence. Bond discovers that a mission in Turkey has gone completely wrong and has left several agents dead and a hard drive missing containing the names of every NATO operative stationed within every military and terrorist organization. The action takes us to the streets where Bond and his partner Eve (Naomi Harris) are in pursuit of a man carrying the hard drive. The proverbial kitchen sink is thrown into the action with 007 pursuing his suspect on motorbike across rooftops, through crowded streets, and eventually atop a moving train. Afforded the opportunity to take a shot at the hard drive thief Eve is instructed by M (Judi Dench) to “take the bloody shot” and hits Bond instead who falls seemingly to his death from atop the moving train. As he sinks into the water we are treated to another classic Bond title sequence with a title song by Adele that harkens back to some of the classic theme songs of the past.

For the first 45 minutes we are given the “Parliamentary procedures” of setting up a Bond film and for awhile it felt like business as usual. After MI6 is attacked from the inside leaving 6 agents dead, M’s status as head of British Intelligence is put into question by Intelligence and Security committee chairman Gareth Mallory played with sardonic gusto by Ralph Fiennes. Bond, seemingly retired, is off the grid popping pills and alcohol to ease his wounds but comes out of forced retirement after the attack on his fellow agents. While never cleared mentally and physically by doctors to return to action, M knows Bond is the only radical person to get the job done in hunting down the man behind these recent and future attacks.

Again, all of this feels run of the mill in set up and then Javier Bardem enters the picture as Raoul Silva, an ex MI6 agent, once M’s top operative, now out to seek revenge on the Queen and country that left him scarred physically and mentally. In recent interviews one of things director Sam Mendes said he wanted to bring back was the over the top villains of old. Indeed in the past 20 years there have been very few truly memorable villains in the Bond franchise and with such a serious context someone needs to chew the scenery. Bardem is a superb choice as Silva when you consider he has played one of the greatest screen villains of the past decade in No Country for Old Men. Silva rides the line of being a flamboyant psychopath and the classic archetype of a Bond villain, outlandishly over the top and charming all in one package. There are times when he is downright creepy and it’s normally when he is trying to come off the most sincere and vulnerable.

There are many nods to the Bond films of old but mainly not in references but by the reintroduction of some key characters. Ben Whishaw is delightfully adept at playing the new Q, bringing the wry sense of humor against Bond’s aging espionage mentality. It’s fitting to have a young tech savvy Q because who better to outshine the old guard then someone who looks like he would be playing World of Warcraft on a Friday night. Ralph Fiennes also does a bang up job as Mallory, bringing the right mix of by the book decisions and sarcastic decision making. If there is one element that Skyfall clearly pushes to the side and it may be a sign of the times is the idea of the Bond girl. Only one woman romances with Bond in the guise of French actress Berenice Marlohe as the alluring Severine. While very appetizing to look at (sorry if that seemed very misogynistic) her character is very throw away and it’s obvious that in this more realistic world of James Bond, the women are just expendable as the men.

Of course, we need not forget Bond and Daniel Craig in his third outing has really cemented his portrayal as everyone’s favorite secret agent with a license to kill. Those concerned from his two previous outings that Bond had become too gritty and dark can rest assured balance is brought to Bond as he cracks the occasional joke and is less stiff than before. Bond upon his reintroduction in Casino Royale needed to be portrayed as a merciless individual as he is just starting out. In Skyfall it’s clear that some time has passed as Bond works had to get the job done but has now developed a moral compass that doesn’t act out of impulse and more out of the results. It helps that Judi Dench as M is so confident in her portrayal and after seven films she knows how to play off someone like Bond who she has seen grow and morph from his reckless early missions. We also get a bit of back story about Bond this time around and in the latter half of the film, which ends up at Bond’s family home in Scotland, 007 is tough skinned for a reason. We are treated some great one liners from Albert Finney here as he plays Kincade, the gamekeeper of his estate. Bond has suffered great tragedy in his life and this strengthens Bond’s need to protect M from Silva has he sees her as a maternal figure without the actual emotional attachment.

The focus of Skyfall beyond the relationship between Bond and M lies in its portrayal of the changing times in the spy universe. It’s fitting that years ago Dench’s M was the one calling Bond a misogynistic dinosaur that was a relic of the Cold War because in Skyfall M is defending the line of people like Bond and the ones that came before showing that the human brain is just as palpable as modern technology in fighting unseen enemies. Here lies the very obvious themes of the film, the old way versus the new way and it’s addressed front and center through various talking points. Everything of the old school way of espionage is put on trial as M faces persecution from the Ministry of Defense who believe spies have been overtaken in purpose by advancements in technology. M argues the importance of the living spy because technology doesn’t always find what the human mind can. In a world where countries are no longer enemies and our greatest threats are in hiding technology can locate but not always destroy the threat it takes a living individual to take the biggest risks to infiltrate from the inside regardless of the repercussions. Silva is a result of being expendable in world of MI6 as he details a very morbid tale of taking a cyanide capsule that didn’t ultimately kill him. The Bond series has covered many psychological notions in the past but here it feels the most domestic. It’s great when a villain has a vendetta acting as a cause rather than a villain with a global scheme. Having the story focus on the home front of Bond’s world made Skyfall seem far more personable.

For all the doubt most people had that hiring Mendes as a director would turn Bond into an art house picture, he is a very serviceable director and his work on Skyfall shows he can handle the action thriller genre. The continuous tone shift of the film services the movie well and while I can see some seeing the climatic raid on Bond’s family estate as a bit ludicrous (I did quote a Home Alone line when the set up began) it reminded me greatly of the classic Sam Pecknipah film Straw Dogs, an army of few being extreme against an army of many. The action veers from being too over the top but it still packs a punch with the fight scenes being less rough around the edges than they had been before.

There are also a lot of little jabs here and there to the franchise that depending on what you want might be very tongue in cheek or very unnecessary. When Bond brings back his classic Aston Martin DB5 for the latter half of the film I couldn’t help but have a huge smirk on my face but that’s something that could easily be deemed unwarranted but it grounds Bond back in its surreal world at best. Considering this is the 50th anniversary of the franchise I’m surprised that they didn’t try for more nods to the past but then again when they tried doing that ten years ago in Die Another Day it came off really poor and cheesy so maybe it was for the better.

I can easily see where some will detract from Skyfall and that’s understandable because it’s less like the Bond we first encountered two films prior. Casino Royale is still one of my Top 5 Bond films and its hard edged formula was necessary after some of the more embarrassing elements of the Brosnan-era but when Quantum of Solace tried too hard to be like Bourne it felt less like James Bond and more like a series trying to get with the times. Skyfall will no doubt have a love hate relationship with some of the audience and that’s fine but for me it brought Bond into a more realistic world while still matching its surreal pension for cars, gadgets, and outlandish action. It’s no Casino Royale but that’s a very unfair comparison because this is not that movie. This is a movie that focuses on the personal problems at hand instead of wrapping our hero in the throngs of a global problem. If this is the route the series is going then Bond will no doubt still find its audience and even at its worst moments (which this is not by any means) it’s still a quick ticket for fun, excitement, and thrills.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Excellent)