Oct 30, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

A note on spoilers: I will not spoil any of the things that shouldn’t be spoiled about Skyfall. However, it’s not possible to write a good review without discussing some plot points of a film, so I will be doing that. If you want to remain completely virginal and you’re avoiding all reviews, avoid this one, too, until after you’ve seen the film. But if you just want to avoid the big actual spoilery spoilers, then you needn’t fear. And those things are worth discussing, so I may well revisit Skyfall once the film has opened in North America on November 9, but until then I shall refrain from discussing such things, and I would appreciate it if commenters from territories where the film has already opened also avoid doing so until then. There's plenty to talk about besides!

There’s already been ample hype and hyperbole touting Skyfall as “the Best Bond since Goldfinger!” or “the best Bond movie ever!” and whatnot. Is it that? Well, obviously such judgments are in the eye of the beholder, but most likely no. I mean, there have been a lot of good Bond movies over the years, right? So I’m not going to leap straight to such ecstatic claims, but I am going to say that this is definitely one of the good ones; Sam Mendes has made a damn fine Bond film! It offers up heaping doses of classic 007, along with plenty of exciting new things we’ve never seen in a Bond movie before in nearly equal measure—which is no mean feat. And it feels thoroughly satisfying in the end, which I’d say guarantees numbers in America to match those we’ve already seen in Britain. Skyfall is going to be huge. And deservedly so. But I was by no means certain of any of that as the film began.

All of the good reviews that I had read or heard, all of the hype, all of the fantastic trailers… that all went out the door as soon as the film began. Because it began, like Quantum of Solace before it, without a gun barrel. I said it all before when I reviewed that film, but apparently it bears repeating: to me, the iconic gun barrel sequence, the dripping blood, and accompanying music are thrilling in their own right. They get my blood pumping for that perfect blend of unequaled action and unrivaled globe-hopping glamor sure to follow. They tell the audience, “You are watching a James Bond movie, so fasten your lap-straps!” That’s why the gun barrel comes up front, not at the end of the movie or in the middle or upside-down or inside-out. There are certain aspects of Bond that no filmmaker should mess with, and that is one of them.* Without a gun barrel sequence, you could be in for an off-brand imitation like the ’67 Casino Royale; with a gun barrel you know you’re in EON’s capable hands, expecting brand-name Bond and guaranteed a good time in the theater. And audiences expect that promise up front. I certainly do. So when I sit down for a Bond movie and it fails to deliver on that expectation, I’m instantly disappointed. Consequently, in those opening seconds, director Sam Mendes undid all of the goodwill I brought with me to this movie. He dug a hole for himself that he would have to work hard to get out of. Marc Forster did the same thing in Quantum of Solace, and he never managed to get out. He never won me over. Luckily, Skyfall is not Quantum of Solace (not by any means!), and Mendes did manage to win me back fairly quickly with a rousing, Istanbul-set pre-title sequence that surely ranks among my favorites of recent vintage. (Even so, though, even as I was watching action I loved, I was still rankled in the back of my mind by the lack of gun barrel. Hopefully that won’t affect me upon a second viewing, and hopefully this warning will alleviate similar discomfort in other viewers.)

I’ve discussed my love of Istanbul as a spy film backdrop plenty of times before (most recently in my Taken 2 review), and Mendes makes the best use of the city I’ve seen in a long time. Remember that cool but somehow somewhat underwhelming foot chase along the rooftops of the city’s grand bazaar in The International? Well, now imagine it on motorcycles. It’s no longer underwhelming in the least! And, happily, Mendes directs the action in such a way that (for the most part) you can tell exactly what’s going on. And editor Stuart Baird (Casino Royale) cuts it in such a way that you can tell what’s going on. There’s none of the muddled confusion that plagued all of Quantum’s setpieces. Furthermore, this opening sequence, like the one in GoldenEye, depicts 007 working in tandem with a fellow agent rather than on his own or with sexist after-the-fact female assistance ala Thunderball or A View to a Kill. And, personally, I like seeing that. It also involves M more integrally than ever before in a pre-title sequence (even Tomorrow Never Dies), setting up a greatly expanded role for Judi Dench in the film to come.

By the time the now-familiar opening notes of Adele’s theme song kick in (by the way, Movieline has an in-depth, must-read analysis of said song), I was fully on board with this Bond outing. Daniel Kleinman’s title sequence is also first-rate, a real return to form after the lackluster job MK12 did on Quantum of Solace. Like Kleinman's work on Casino Royale, this isn’t a straightforward Maurice Binder pastiche; he brings in fresh elements appropriate to the story while retaining essentials of the past. And the movie that follows does that as well.

In a way, Skyfall is so schizophrenic that it almost shouldn’t work—but it absolutely does work. It’s torn between the past and the future, parading all sorts of classic Bondian elements dating back to the Sixties (some of which haven’t been seen in quite a long time) only to then tear them down with deconstructionist lines reminiscent of Daniel Craig’s “Do I look like I give a damn?” when asked in Casino Royale if he wants his vodka martini shaken or stirred. But then, after rejecting them, it somehow builds these classic elements back up again. Mendes desperately wants to have it both ways—and he gets what he wants, and makes it work. Somehow, the 50th Anniversary references to past Bond movies end up working amidst all the deconstruction. (There was, however, one throwaway line of this sort about Q gadgets that almost made me cry as well as laugh because I miss the gadgets so!) At times I worried that by playing on fans’ nostalgia for the series’ classic elements (like one sequence that combined The James Bond Theme and an Aston Martin in such a way as to arouse audible cheers from the whole audience), Mendes risked damning the whole series to Trotsky’s dustbin of history as much as celebrating it. Bond movies shouldn’t rely too heavily on nostalgia, but Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan are clearly well aware of this, and always auto-correct. The mixture of nostalgia and post-modernism, in fact, is almost as thrilling and suspenseful to watch unfold as the action on screen. I kept gasping in fear that the film would veer too far in one direction as it came precipitously close, only to then clutch my seat as it suddenly careened the other way.

The actual action is equally thrilling, but comes in surprisingly spare doses. There are lengthy stretches where Mendes gives full attention to other aspects of Bond, like the spycraft (including more le Carré-esque bureaucracy and politics than we’ve ever seen in a Bond movie before—and even a subtle visual reference to Tomas Alfredson’s film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or the scenic travelogue shots, which in the more-than-capable hands of master cinematographer Roger Deakins look more beautiful than they have since the Sixties. The only classic Bond element that, perhaps surprisingly, isn't really played up is the sex. Despite Craig’s Bond sleeping with more women than he did in either of his previous outings, Skyfall is more interested in Bond’s professional relationships than his intimate ones, and boldly gives them precedence. The gamble pays off.

Performances are quite good across the board. Sam Mendes is an actors’ director, and, sure enough, he coaxes the best out of his stars. Cubby Broccoli is oft-quoted as saying that it takes three films for Bond actors to really come into their own, and I think history bears him out. Thanks to the reboot aspects of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig has had a slightly different journey than his predecessors, but Skyfall marks his most comfortable performance as 007. (In part this is thanks to the welcome return of the series’ trademark humor, largely absent from the last two outings.) He's fantastic. With more to work with than ever before, Judi Dench rises to the challenge and delivers her best turn to date as M. Is it possible that she could actually score an Oscar nomination for acting in a Bond film? I think it is. After a decade of appropriate histrionics as arch-villain Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Ralph Fiennes delivers an unexpectedly subtle (and quite impressive) performance as a government bureaucrat. I was somewhat dubious about Bond Girls Bernice Lim Marlohe and Naomie Harris (I'm not sure why), but ended up really liking both of them quite a lot. (Neither of their roles proved to be what I had expected, either.)

Javier Bardem relishes his villainous turn as the mysterious Mr. Silva (displaying notable shades of Walken and Brandauer in the pantheon of Bond Villains), but his character proved the most frustrating to me. If Elliott Carver owed something to Rupert Murdoch, then Silva’s closest real-world cousin is Julian Assange, which is certainly topical and timely, but the flashes we get of backstory for him prove ultimately more frustrating in their fleeting nature than rewarding. In the end, he feels like a sketch of a great villain rather than a deeply-nuanced Caravaggio painting of one. A small part played by Albert Finney also proved frustrating, but for an entirely different reason, and certainly no fault of Finney’s. The role seemed so clearly written for Sean Connery as a sweet 50th Anniversary nod that it was frustrating not to have him actually playing it! That would have been priceless. Oh well.

Overall, all of Skyfall’s well-fleshed-out characters, rich performances, beautiful photography, exotic locations, visceral action, Komodo dragons (yes! I said Komodo dragons!), and equally entertaining nods to the past and future alike add up to a pretty incredible Bond film. If Quantum of Solace owed a debt to the Bourne movies (which, in turn, of course, owe a tremendous debt to Bond), then Skyfall’s debt is to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (which, in turn, also owe a huge debt to 007; as Craig says, “That’s the circle of life.”). This will no doubt be widely remarked upon, but the real debt owed here, as with both Bourne and Batman, is to James Bond himself. Sam Mendes may have seemed a somewhat unusual choice to direct a Bond film, but he proved to be just the man for the job, and it’s his avowed love of this series’ past that makes this movie work so well, and, by the end, sets the series on a clear course for its future. When the final credits role (accompanied by Thomas Newman’s entirely satisfying score, which I’ll no doubt write more about in the future), Bond fans will likely feel an intense satisfaction. I know I did. Skyfall is a very gratifying movie, and an excellent course-correction after the disastrous Quantum of Solace. Everyone should see it. And trust me—I haven’t even mentioned the best stuff!

*The one exception is in the 2006 Casino Royale, which, being an origin story, has its reasons for situating the gun barrel elsewhere. And even then, it’s still near the beginning! But for some reason the one-time success of tinkering with the gun barrel position has led EON to believe it bears experimentation every time.

9 comments:

GEORGE said...

I'm still not sold on Craig as Bond, but I did not find QoS exactly "disastrous"...anyway, interesting review, I'm looking forward to watching Skyfall next week.

Simes said...

I enjoyed the film very much, certainly an improvement on QoS.

As I said elsewhere, I liked Newman's music score in the film. I also heard the CD today and it's surprisingly listenable from start to finish, which is surprising considering that there isn't really one tune that is hummably memorable. And yet I thought it completely worked as a listening experience. I'm just starting to listen to it again.

My only reservations.....I'm still not convinced by Daniel Craig OR his acting. That said, I'm not clamouring for anyone else to replace him either.

Also, traditionalist that I am, I wasn't that struck on the new Q. But I'm sure he'll grow on me.

An entertaining film on the whole though, possibly a tiny bit on the long side, and perhaps a little overhyped by the ecstatic reviews in the national daily papers here in the UK. A little bit more 'fun' wouldn't go amiss, though I'm not asking for a return to the campy Bond of the Moore days....

Tanner said...

I thought it delivered a good amount of fun... probably more than any other Craigs. But I agree, they could go a little further.

Sorry, Simes; I meant to reply to your Newman comment on the other post, but now I'll do it here. I absolutely agree that it completely works in the context of the film. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of listening to the album first, and I was not that impressed hearing it outside the movie before I'd seen the movie. I didn't listen to it again; I wanted to see it in context. And in context it's much better, and now I enjoy the album, though I'm a bit annoyed by all the beepy noises. (Not as bad as in GoldenEye, of course...)

George, I really wasn't a fan of QoS. I'm glad to hear you liked it more though! In the whole pantheon, Craig's CR ranks as my second favorite these days, and Skyfall will probably end up pretty near the top, too. Quantum, on the other hand, ranks dead last for me. Of course dead last in a list of Bonds is still well ahead of lots of other movies! I love Bond across the board, and I love all Bond movies on some level. But I love that one least.

The Rush Blog said...

I couldn't care less about a gun barrel or the lack of a gun barrel. It's meaningless to me.

Also, I rather liked "QUANTUM OF SOLACE", despite its uneven pacing. It ranks 10th place out of the 22 movies before "SKYFALL".

However, I was really upset on learning how "SKYFALL" treated the female leads in the story. It seemed as if the Bond franchise has taken a backward step for its female characters. I'm too angry to continue.

Tanner said...

Rush Blog, are you talking about what I say about female characters (just that the emphasis is more on Bond's professional relationships than on intimate ones) or about stuff you've read elsewhere? Or have you seen it? [POTENTIAL SPOILERS:] It's not territory that I can really go into without spoilers, but there are definitely some potentially problematic things on that front. But not necessarily. It's something that will merit a lot of discussion once more people have seen the film. If you haven't seen it yet, though, I'd recommend reserving judgment until you have. You might not be so upset once you do. But whether you are or aren't, please drop by again at that point, because I'd love to hear your further thoughts on that subject!

Love SMS said...

We saw it with loads of hope. The 1st 50 minutes is pure Bond; but after tht the movie sags...Sam Mendes v cleverly posted that "Train top fight shot clip" 2 months ago vetting the appetite of millions (and so million saw it and are watchingit - making millions for this movie); BUt really plainly speaking - The last 1 hour (In Skyfall Villa) are one of the most predictable ./ rather boring screenplays sequences. Dont get me wrong; DC as Bond is great / charming, but the movie is a Ripoff - we felt cheated, all of us infact who had gone..But one thing its much much better than QOS,

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Bob said...

I saw the film this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed the film. With Deakins cinematography, this has to be the best looking Bond film ever filmed. The Shanghai sequence with the neon lights and silhouettes is just stunning and then he follows up with the Macau casino scene that is stunning.

This time they have a very good script with parent/child/orphan themes. Also themes dealing with the guilt of your decisions and their consequences. The performances are all good. I read this is only the second time Bardem has portrayed a villain and both performances are well remembered. (It must be his hair in both films.)

Finally, the nostalgia of the Bond franchises with the inclusion of the Aston Martin DB5 and the James Bond theme loudly signaling it's arrival is a lot of fun.

Tanner, for me, Die Another Day will always remain the worst Bond film with it's horrible CGI work. QOS is certainly lacking in script and would be certainly in my bottom five.

Tanner said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Bob! Yeah, this is a really good Bond movie, isn't it? Deakins did an amazing job. I hope he can be coaxed back to Bond in the future. It's interesting that Bardem accepted this role, since, as a friend recently reminded me, he'd previously turned down the part of Renard in TWINE. But even somewhat half-baked in his backstory, Silva is clearly a better written character than Renard, who might be the series' blandest baddie.

DAD was lowest on my list until Quantum came out, and still second-to-last until this summer, when I saw a double feature of TWINE and DAD and, to my surprise, found myself enjoying DAD infinitely more than TWINE! At least the first half of DAD is quite good, before the CG waves and Robocop technology. And even when it gets bad (and it DOES get baaaad!), it's still at least ENTERTAININGLY bad. TWINE, on the other hand, actually bored me. Sure, it's got some good elements (like Sophie Marceau), but overall it's a snoozefest, and so it fell beneath DAD to the second-to-last spot on my list. But as I've said before, even a least favorite Bond films is still a film I like, as much as I love this whole series! So let's not focus on the negative when right now we're faced with one of the Best entries!!!