Thursday, November 15, 2012

Love: Skyfall

I went through a gigantic 007 phase when I was a kid, in the Pierce Brosnan days when puns and bawdy innuendos still ran wild.  Like every Bond fan, I have my own set ideas on nearly every element of the franchise.  When it comes to my secret agents, I'm partial to the old school. The 1960's rocked the espionage film best, and everything else has been struggling to harness that style ever since.  So, unlike most folks, I didn't fall head over heels for the cold, hard reboot of Casino Royale (though I loved Eva Green's Vesper Lynd).  It was Dark Knight-ed, Bourne-d, and cynical to the point that even its villain was almost an afterthought.  Casino Royale was the exact opposite of everything the franchise had become, a flat denial of the old ways in favor of something with a newly sharpened edge.  Quantum of Solace was a blip in its wake, proof that a continuation of those ideas wasn't exactly what the series needed, though it subtly tried to move towards something different. Skyfall needed to be the something different.  It had to succeed.  Thankfully, it has.  Fan obligations have paid off at long last, as somehow everything finally came together.  Skyfall is what I've wanted, this is what a Bond film should be.
In taking the helm of the 23rd installment of the series, director Sam Mendes has found a way to blend the best elements of the Daniel Craig era's embittered cynicism with the wink and nudge of the old classics. I find it unlikely that anyone ever argued against James Bond as a jaded, troubled killing machine -- he has to be. It's his job.  But part of what keeps him sane must manifest itself in some semblance of a sense of humor, not smug douche-baggery, but a belief in what's right and an ability to see beyond the flesh and bone. Skyfall attempts this via a furthering of the psychological elements at play in the past few films, but grounds them in doubt.  The franchise is celebrating 50 years, and for its anniversary it chose to mark the occasion with meta-commentary and existential reflection: in a world firmly rooted in tech warfare and online espionage, what use is an old school agent with a Walther PPK?  M (Judi Dench) is standing trial attempting to prove MI-6's relevancy, Q (Ben Whishaw) is a floppy-haired computer geek all but glued to his laptop, Bond himself is a scruffy, misanthropic ghost.
 The film's opening follows decades of predictable patterning. Before the sweeping, design-heavy credits begin rolling we find Bond within moments of another potential death, stalking yet another international criminal in possession of yet another object with the potential to bring down whole governments.  This time, things escalate in a way that seems almost like parody. Bond is so fixated on taking down this villain that the chase jumps from car to motorbike to moving train (with construction cranes and low-hanging tunnels in between) while fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) attempts to keep up from the ground.  At a crucial juncture, MI-6 issues orders to sacrifice Bond's life in the name of destroying the target, and we see 007 plummeting from fatal heights as we transition effortlessly into the strains of the slick, appropriately melodramatic Adele theme.  Bond is missing, presumed dead.  M (Judi Dench) has written his obituary and Bond doesn't bother to let her know otherwise, but a ghost with obligations as deep as his can only sit idly for so long before returning, and when MI6 itself is compromised by the sociopath Silva (Javier Bardem), Bond leaps into action: a little older, a little weaker, and with quite a bit less certainty.
It's a love letter of a set-up, an elegant construction built up around a deep, abiding homage payment to traditional formula. The over-the-top nature of every aspect of the opening ups the stakes enough for us to read it as fresh, yet succeeds in encapsulating the territory before it so well that it's a delightfully fun assortment for even the most casual of fans.  Indeed, Mendes continues down this path for the duration of the film. Where Skyfall begins with a verbal denunciation of "the old ways" it winds up cleverly employing them for a new generation.  Where the last two films have worked at digging into the psychology of the Bond character, Skyfall succeeds in finding a way to marry a more dimensional version of the character to the potentially cheesy formula elements that make up "a James Bond picture."  Reasons are devised, for example, to unearth the Goldfinger-era Aston Martin DB5 and make mention of the ejector seats, attention is given to trap doors, pits filled with predators, and women draped in gold.  The one liner returns with clever vengeance, too, alongside a particularly flamboyant, loud-mouthed, plot-dropping villain.  Bardem's Silva is campy, but frightening.  While the actor's ability to channel a truly sadistic sociopath is hampered by the film's PG-13 obligations, Silva's psychological instability shades itself as the dark version of Bond's possibilities.  He's what happens when a double-oh goes truly rogue, when a character like Bond falls prey to his own dark past.  It's the perfect Freudian excuse to bring in the maniac and keep hold of our new, slightly different Bond.
Daniel Craig has stepped up, too. With Skyfall he ascends in the ranks to be, almost undeniably, the best Bond since Connery and certainly the finest actor.  Mendes understands his actors well, knows the value of allowing the camera to linger on a moment, and finds the pain in Craig's square jaw.  Dench, too, is given new opportunities to take M beyond her stuffy confines.  M and Bond work well together, and their complicated relationship is played against Silva's psychology with surprisingly powerful results.

Of course, you shouldn't let all my talk of pain, psychological depth, and relationship issues convince you that Skyfall is something other than the action film it should be. No, it's simply a superior version of that action film.  Skyfall is serious fun, often beautifully photographed, and oddly feel good in its progression.  After 50 years and 23 films, 007 can still find ways to surprise us, and if that's not the mark of a great thing, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Skyfall as well, I only wish it had a more interesting Bond Girl. I think this was the first film where I really liked Daniel Craig (Casino was a bit of a shock, and I find Quantum completely forgettable). Also, it's beautifully shot.


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