Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Skyfall" by David Pretty

After watching Skyfall, it's really hard to believe that this is the twenty-third entry in the 007 film series. Director Sam Mendes and his writing partners Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have delivered a film that somehow manages pay homage to Bond's cinematic history while generating some of their own.  And all they needed to do to accomplish this was turn their backs on the sort of convention that's been sustaining the series for the past fifty years.     


This time out, Skyfall's pre-credit sequence is actually relevant to the plot.  Cyber-terrorists have stolen a computer hard drive which contains the names of every MI-6 agent embedded with shady organizations around the world.  M (Dame Judi Dench), obsessed with making things right,  relentlessly spurs 007 (Daniel Craig) on in a desperate bid to recover it.

After M tells Bond to ignore a mortally wounded fellow agent, she orders him to stop the thieves by any means necessary.  007 manages to corner his final foe on top of a fast-moving train that's constantly ducking in and out of tunnels.  As the advantage swings back and forth between the two, M commands Bond's partner Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a shot.  Unfortunately, she hits the stalwart agent, knocking him off the train and into the water below.

Bond eventually turns up alive, living anonymously in a small village and using the veil of death to ponder his grim lot in life.  Eventually four months tic by and M is forced to declare that he's legally dead.  Meanwhile, the head of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) begins to hound M about the loss of the hard drive and the demise of several key agents.

Gareth Mallory:  Eleanor, be sensible. Retire with dignity...
M:  Dignity! To Hell with dignity! I'll retire when my goddamn job is finally done.  

Things get even more dire after a major security breach results in more fatalities and the destruction of MI-6 headquarters.  When news of the attack reaches Bond, he grudgingly comes out of hiding and returns to London.  Before he can be re-instated, however, 007 is forced to endure a series of condescending tests which call into question his capabilities.  Despite the spotty results, M is determined to get her star agent back into the field as soon as possible.  Not long after she dispatches him to Shanghai in order to recover the still-missing hard drive.

After a thrilling rematch with his train-top sparring partner, Bond recovers a mysterious token which leads him to an exotic casino in Macau.  It's here that our favorite super-spy meets the alluring Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a former prostitute rescued from the trade by the mysterious Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).  Convinced that Silva is the brains behind the scheme, 007 persuades Sévérine to bring him back to the villain's headquarters, located on an abandoned island.

Silva turns out to be former MI-6 agent and computer genius Tiago Rodriguez.  We soon learn that M willingly gave Silva up in exchange for six other captive operatives.  When Silva attempted to take his own life, the cyanide capsule caused horrendous internal injuries instead of killing him.  Seeking revenge over what he sees as betrayal and abandonment, Silva is now determined to exact his revenge on M.

At the half-way point in the film, Mendes and company convince us that it's going to be a very short film.  Bond outwits Silva and the villain is brought back to London under heavy security.  But it's soon becomes apparent that this was the fallen agent's plan all along.  Silva escapes and the rest of the story becomes a cat and mouse game with M's life hanging in the balance.

Along the way, Skyfall delivers some truly manic action sequences.  It begins in traditionally ludicrous fashion, with a motorcycle chase along the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.  It then segues into the creative use of a back-hoe as well as a round of fisticuffs atop a speeding rail car as it vanishes in and out of tunnels.  The scene in which Bond fights a goon in the Kimodo dragon pit of the Macau casino is also goofily retro.

But then something wonderful and unexpected happens.  Knowing that it's futile to try and trump fifty years worth of mind-blowing set-pieces (as well as Skyfall's own prologue!), Sam Mendes lowers the volume on everything and the effect is still riveting.  In fact, the extended foot chase between Bond and Silva throughout London and the villain's final assault on the titular manor are equally arresting.

My favorite example of this is the scene in which Silva attempts to assassinate M right in the middle of a public hearing.  What results is a fantastic extended gun battle between Silva and his goons against Bond, Mallory, Eve and the building's security.  Not only is the scene stripped down, raw and realistic, it's unbearably tense and also gives the characters a chance to be tactical.  I also appreciate that Mendes and his editors Stuart and Kate Baird actually let us see what's going on during the firefight.

This low-fi approach to the action culminates when Bond whisks M away to his ancestral home in Scotland to try and protect her.  This move works on several levels.  First off, it gives 007 an excuse to blow the dust off of an old toy.  Secondly, we learn more about Bond in this sequence then we have throughout the course of the previous twenty-two pictures.  And finally, it sets up the ultimate battle in which the adage "the old ways are sometimes best" is conclusively proven.

This last sentiment becomes the film's central theme.  Throughout most of the story, Bond and his MI-6 division are feeling increasingly antiquated.  The main villain, after all, isn't a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. agent, a mad industrialist, an ubermensch or a Cold War rogue; he's just your average, run-of-the-mill cyber-criminal.  Even Bond seems let down after his freshly-scrubbed new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) hands him nothing more complicated then a customized Walther PPK and a homing beacon.  "What did you expect, an exploding pen?" he asks James after noting his disappointment.

But by the film's final act, Bond has been vindicated and revitalized.  Daniel Craig manages to sustain the character's changing climate throughout several stages.  His dogged determination in the pre-credit sequence is quickly neutered by what he initially sees as betrayal.  During the certification sequence, Craig is clearly wrestling with a palpable sense of self-doubt.  You can actually see a glint of fear in his eyes after he fails a basic marksmanship test.  On the flip side, his transcendental return to form is a lot of fun, reminding me somewhat of Kirk's epiphany at the end of Star Trek II.

Javier Bardem's Silva succeeds as character because he's essentially Bond's flip side.  As members of MI-6, both of them have been burned by mindless acquiescence.  The main difference is that Bond has convinced himself that M had no choice, while Silva still clings to feelings of betrayal.  Bardem's performance is a joy to watch, rife with cast-away details and juicy nuance.  Much will be said of the character's fluid sexual orientation but it's handled very tastefully and ends up creating some memorably original exchanges between Silva and Bond.

And who else but Dame Judi Dench could bring such an unflagging stiff upper lip to the role of M?  The character becomes a major player in Skyfall, even reaching the grand elevated status of "Bond villain MacGuffin".  Her role as Bond's surrogate mother is also heavily emphasized and you can tell that her consistent disapproval over her "sons" actions are designed to keep him at arms length.   "Orphans always make the best recruits," she confesses to James after he talks about the early loss of his natural parents.

Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as Gareth Mallory.  In any other color-by-numbers script, Fiennes would be relegated to the role of irredeemable dick.  Instead, Mallory's opinion of MI-6 actually changes and evolves as he gathers information about the situation and gets personally affected by Silva's insanity.  Fiennes sinks his teeth into his character's transitions, making each revelation genuinely surprising yet refreshingly welcome.

The secondary cast here is also fantastic.  Naomie Harris so winsome and charming that her reveal at the end of the film is applause-worthy.  Bérénice Lim Marlohe is inhumanly gorgeous as Sévérine but she isn't just a pretty face.  In fact, the actress really manages to tap into her character's desire to get away from Silva's aura of madness and revenge.  Her performance is both fragile and genuine and it's a real shame that she didn't get more screen time.

Skyfall's youngest and oldest cast members also provide some welcome diversions.  Ben Wishaw as Q instantly shatters expectations.  As soon as we see him, we immediately expect a jittery, socially inept computer geek but instead we get a well-spoken, fallible kid who's wise beyond his years.  Finally, veteran actor Albert Finney is a blast to watch as Kincade, the aged caretaker of Bond's ancestral manor.  Although I loved hearing him bellow "Welcome to Scotland!" as he blew away a pair of Silva's thugs, a part of me really wishes that Sean Connery had played this role.  It would have felt right somehow.

But it would also have felt obligatory and this entry is all about shattering expectations in lieu of a new paradigm.  Skyfall is to James Bond as the original Swedish version of Let The Right One In is to vampires.  Just when you think you've seen everything, some talented and bold film-makers come along and thumbed their collective noses at convention.

Honestly, before going into Skyfall, I wasn't all that keen to watch Daniel Craig punch out the rest of his contractually-obligated Bond films.

But now I'm friggin' stoked.    

   Tilt: up.

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