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Saturday, November 10, 2012

DAMN Good Movies -- SKYFALL


You know, for a guy who just turned fifty, James Bond still looks great.

Yes, time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on the film Skyfall, the latest in the James Bond series.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...Time to report for duty...

It's been four long years since we last saw Agent 007 in Quantum of Solace, primarily because of studio MGM's financial problems that delayed production until December of 2010.  The break was probably a good thing though, considering Quantum was a pretty disappointing follow-up to Daniel Craig's stellar debut in Casino RoyaleSam Mendes, a guy best known for the films American Beauty and Road to Perdition, was brought in to helm the Bond film's 50th anniversary series that began in 1962 with Dr. No.  To make this production even more unpredictable in terms of quality, screenwriter John Logan (who gave us Gladiator but also Star Trek: Nemesis) joined the returning Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.


With Skyfall, Mendes seemed determined to tell a different type of Bond story.  It's not a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action, but more a character drama that really digs into the world of James Bond the way that few of the films have.  This hurts the movie a bit, especially with a a two and a half-hour running time that drags things down around the middle before finishing with a strong climactic ending.

We start off with an exciting chase sequence involving motorbikes across Turkish rooftops along with construction power shovels and trains.  Bond and a fellow agent known only as Eve (for now) are in pursuit of a stolen hard drive, but circumstances force Eve into the dilemma of possibly shooting Bond instead of her intended target.  Bond's superior at MI6, M, orders Eve to take the shot anyway, which she does, but Eve hits Bond who plummets off a very tall train bridge and is presumed dead.

Not a bad teaser, hunh?  This naturally leads right into the opening credits, with a very welcome and traditional Shirley Bassey-style song by Adele.  Themes of death abound, with Bond plunging deeper into dark water and smoke, images of guns and daggers, and gravestones and skulls.  All of this hint at the film's tone of course, but you don't realize how much until the final credits roll.

I'm probably not giving a lot away here to reveal that Surprise! Bond isn't dead.  No, he's just burned out and understandably a little bitter over his boss ordering a killshot that left a nasty scar just below his right shoulder.  Oh, and he may be a bit emotionally damaged in the process.  The disturbing signs are there, from his sudden fondness for sporting graying beard scruff instead of his typical immaculate appearance to his shaking trigger hand.

An attack on MI6 headquarters by the Thames River in London forces the spy organization to relocate to a series of hidden underground bunkers used by Winston Churchill during World War II.  This, of course, brings Bond back into the game, aided by M, Eve and Q, now portrayed as young tech prodigy by Ben Whishaw.  Armed with nothing but a new Walther PPK/S coded to his palm print and a small transmitter radio, bare-essentials Bond goes after the film's revealed villain, the dangerously intelligent and sexually ambiguous Raoul Silva.

This film is an intricate albeit somewhat overlong ride, making use of London more than any other Bond film while giving us some incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins.  The sleek, blue metropolis of Shanghai is blended with a floating casino in Macau and ultimately, the majestic highlands of Scotland.  It's there where Bond and Silva have their final, surprisingly brutal showdown, revealing more than we've ever known about the man with a license to kill.

And then at the end, after threats are vanquished and the bodies are buried, do we understand Mendes' true goal -- concluding the James Bond origin trilogy that began with Casino Royale.  Things are right where we want them to be, in M's office with the traditional padded door, with M's dependable assistant Moneypenny at the ready and Q available for arsenal and tech support.  With everything at last in its proper place, we finally see Daniel Craig earning the famous gunbarrel opening that's been missing since 2002's Die Another Day.  Happy 50th Anniversary, 007, and many more.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

JAMES BOND -- Daniel Craig is James Bond.  In fact, it might be time to finally say he's the James Bond.  Once again, Craig brings depth to the role that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan so glibly charmed their way through.  His burned-out and damaged take on the character gives a number of scenes far more weight than they normally would, but his interactions with M, Moneypenny and others show how Bond approaches different people in different ways.  It's going to be interesting to see where he takes Bond next.

RAOUL SILVA (TIAGO RODRIGUEZ) -- With his previous performance as a psychopathic assassin in No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem was a solid choice as this film's villain.  His character Silva is essentially what Bond could be, if pushed down a divergent road by M that ends up in darkness and a bit of insanity.  I was a little thrown that Silva doesn't enter the picture until halfway through, but once he does, he's an extremely formidable threat.

M -- As much as Skyfall belongs to Bond given certain revelations, it also belongs to Dame Judi Dench's final outing as M.  The actress who's been serving since Brosnan's debut in 1995's GoldenEye probably couldn't ask for a better sendoff.  The movie's plot essentially revolves around her character and it was fascinating to see this tiny old woman fend off just about everything that's thrown at her.  But Dench's era as M has passed, bringing us to...

GARETH MALLORY -- Ralph Fiennes steps in as the new M, probably grateful for the change after playing Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort in makeup for so long.  Although initially a tad bureacratic and weasally, Fiennes' Mallory gradually eases into his intended position and proves his worth.  We won't have a good handle on him until Bond 24 arrives, but for now at least, MI6 looks to be in good hands.

EVE MONEYPENNY -- Naomie Harris really impressed me with her introduction as the fourth official Moneypenny.  Far more than just a mere secretary, Harris' Moneypenny is at last a full-fledged MI6 agent capable of assisting Bond in any kind of future mission.  She also brings the electric sexual chemistry with Bond that Lois Maxwell and Samantha Bond (no relation) brought so well.  And as it turns out, she's very skilled with a straight razor which is always a plus.

Q -- Faced with the unenviable task of carrying on for the beloved Desmond Llewelyn, I'm glad the producers went with The Hour's Ben Whishaw.  It makes far more sense to MI6 to utilize a young, computer-savvy ubergeek in this technological-dependent age and it brings this fictional MI6 in line with its real-life counterpart, the Secret Intelligence Service.  As Q himself remarks, modern espionage isn't impressed by exploding pens.

SÉVÉRINE -- Despite being the central Bond Girl, Bérénice Marlohe doesn't really get that much to do apart from directing Bond toward Silva and being the victim of Silva's William Tell target practice using a shot glass of Scotch.  (As a side note, I hope everyone caught that the bottle of Macallan single-malt Scotch is dated 1962.)

KINCADE -- Albert Finney turns up in the third act as the former gamekeeper of Bond's childhood home and the film plot's family historian.  I have to admit, it was a bit strange to see the guy who played Daddy Warbucks in Annie blowing bad guys away with a sawed-off rifle but I thought he did rather well at it.  Even better, he wasn't killed off so there's always a chance of Kincade returning at some point.

All in all, Skyfall is the satisfying 50th film anniversary that it needs to be.  Yes, it's about a half-hour too long and doesn't quite match the impact of Casino Royale, but it's an important film in terms of Bond characters and the overall legacy.  For a movie that essentially serves as house cleaning and rebuilding, it solidly entertains with a terrific cast and some powerful visuals.  While I'm not sure I want to see Mendes return as director the way I do Martin Campbell, I'm glad he managed to put the finishing touches on the series reboot as well as he did.  Most important of all though, James Bond will return...

And for those who may be wondering, here's my ranking of the twenty-three official James Bond Films:


1. Goldfinger (1964)
2. Casino Royale (2006)
3. Skyfall (2012)
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
5. You Only Live Twice (1967)
6. GoldenEye (1995)
7. Live and Let Die (1973)
8. From Russia with Love (1963)
9. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
10. The Living Daylights (1987)
11. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
12. Doctor No (1962)
13. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
14. Quantum of Solace (2008)
15. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
16. Moonraker (1979)
17. The World is Not Enough (1999)
18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
19. Thunderball (1966)
20. Octopussy (1983)
21. Licence to Kill (1989)
22. Die Another Day (2002)
23. A View to a Kill (1985)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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