Now on DVD: “Skyfall”

February 11, 2013

[To coincide with the DVD release, here is my original review of Skyfall]

Bond is back.

Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the 007 franchise, comes to us six years after Daniel Craig’s debut as James Bond in Casino Royale, and four years after the interesting, but developmentally-compromised Quantum of Solace, and with itwe finally get the James Bond film we have been waiting for: a return to all the things that make this franchise so beloved—gadgets, girls, foreign locations, intrigue—but also a film possessed of an emotional nuance not seen before in the franchise. It’s also finally recognized what the past 17 years of Bond films have mostly missed: the best Bond girl is Judi Dench.

The movie begins with a breakneck pre-credits sequence set in Istanbul, in which Bond and a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris—now, proud holder of a place on my list of “Chicks I Want to Live on My Island and Bear My UberChildren”) race to recover a stolen hard drive containing the identities of various deep-cover agents. Throughout the first of many thrilling action set-pieces, several fateful decisions are made, which will resonate throughout the rest of the film. The most obvious being Eve’s errant rifle shot, which clips Bond by mistake and sends him plummeting into the sea.

Things are good on the island, Naomie. We have a Komodo dragon pit

A few weeks and one elegiac, Adele-themed credits sequence later, we find that Bond has chosen to go AWOL and convalesce by escaping to a beach-town, drinking-heavily, and banging beautiful women (really, what else would you expect?) When the mysterious terrorist who stole the aforementioned drive blows up MI6 in a statement to M, Bond returns from retirement.

Alas, he’s a bit rough around the edges. His bullet-wounds have healed poorly, he’s in a lousy physical shape, and he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his Walther PPK if he was standing inside it. He also harbors no small amount of resentment toward M for the decisions she made during the Istanbul mission (he’s cool with Eve, since she was just following orders, and, hey, she’s hot). M, under pressure from Thomas Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the Minister of Whateverthefuck, clears Bond for duty and sends him after the drive.

This mission will take him to Shanghai, and then Macao, before Bond confronts Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, clearly having a blast), a betrayed spy, who aims to make M pay for a past betrayal. It’s here where the film breaks with tradition in making the bad guy’s quest purely a personal one. Yeah, sure, Sean Bean was also motivated by revenge in Goldeneye, but that was a part of a larger plan, In Skyfall, Silva just wants to make M pay.

That’s a nice watch.

So, where do you start with Skyfall? First off, this is easily the best-looking Bond film ever made. Quantum had some striking images, but A-list director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), has created a visual palette that matches the sensualist heart of the Bond franchise. The films have always been travelogues, but since The Spy Who Loved Me, they’ve mostly fallen down in terms of immersing us in exotic locations—generally settling for a couple of dazzling stock-footage skyline shots. In Skyfall, Mendes plunges us into locations, so brilliantly-filmed you can practically taste their air. Shanghai is neon-drenched mega-city. A high-class casino in Macao is an Orientalist fantasia, gorgeously lit in rich reds and umber, and featuring beautiful Asian women and a Komodo dragon pit (because, apparently, Mendes has seen the inside of my brain).

Pictured: My happy place (not shown: Gong Li, Komodo dragon pit)

Skyfall also makes good on the promise Craig brought to the franchise in the wake of a several high-performing, but uninspired Pierce Brosnan 007 entries. By casting an unconventionally-attractive actor, the producers hoped to bring new life to the formula with a more complex portrayal of what had become a stock male fantasy figure. We got a bit of that in Casino Royale, but in Quantum of Solace, most of Craig’s performance got lost in the film’s bullet-to-the-head immediacy. With Skyfall, the filmmakers allow Craig to exercise his acting ability beyond just breaking someone’s limbs by giving us an injured, conflicted Bond. It’s an idea they’ve played with before (The World is Not Enough, License to Kill), but usually chucked in favor of not disturbing the formula too much.

This film, in contrast, pretty much demands that Craig invest Bond with a realism and naturalism not seen before in the franchise. Above all, Skyfall is about regret, and to that end, it explores the fraught relationship Bond has with M. Introduced in Goldeneye as a largely-humorless foil for Bond, a mother/son dynamic slowly worked its way into Dench’s portrayal. That pays dividends here, as the story establishes the prickly, professional bonds that bind them. Bond isn’t just an outlet for M’s stymied maternal instincts, but more like the prodigal son whose nature of challenging her at every turn has endeared him to her above all others—though she’d rather die than admit that.

This picture has nothing to do with the preceding paragraph. It just looks cool.

All of this culminates in a climactic conflagration that both lays our main characters open emotionally and readjusts the franchise, putting it back on familiar ground. The film’s coda isn’t quite as satisfying as Bond canoodling in bed with Naomie Harris, but it’s reassuring all the same.

If all this seems unrelentingly grim, I should point out that Skyfall is lighter and funnier than the last two films put together. More than a few people have commented that the biggest problem with Craig’s portrayal of Bond is that he never seems to be enjoying himself (as if Timothy Dalton was a barrel of monkeys), but that’s nicely rectified here. If Craig really does want out of his contract (no, please God, no), he certainly doesn’t show it.

Dan, I have thirteen bucks in my wallet. It’s yours if you promise to do the next two films.

Yes, I have my quibbles with Skyfall. I wish it wasn’t so Glock-happy (really, Hollywood, there are other, better handguns out there), and I wish the gunplay had been as realistic as it was in Casino Royale. Bond’s liaison with the sexually-damaged bad girl Severine (the stunning Bernice Lim Marlohe) is over almost as soon as it begins, and he really should have spent more time in bed with Naomie Harris. I can’t emphasize that enough.

How does she *do* that?

Nonetheless, Skyfall is an amazing movie. A truly self-possessed Bond film that gives us a moody, introspective plot, a complex hero in James Bond, and the most satisfying character arc we’ve seen maybe ever. Fifty years after Ian Fleming saw his creation created onscreen (and lamented that the film was so terrible it would destroy his reputation), the James Bond franchise shows us that it’s not only capable of still delivering the goods, but of exploring uncharted territory. Hell, there’s probably another 50 years left in it.

Plus: Komodo dragon. Seriously, Komodo freaking dragon!

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