Thursday, December 13, 2012
Directed by Sam Mendes
I'd been staying away from Skyfall despite the craze over the latest James Bond film. Not because I had some reservation about the franchise, or that I had found that - based on trailers and reviews - that I didn't think the movie was that good. It was more because I have such unfamiliarity with the franchise (with Die Another Day being the only other film that I'd seen), that I didn't want to jump in with a story without true appreciation for its past and history. Kind of how I'm weary of watching the TV show The Wire because I find the concept of watching 60 one-hour episodes unbelievably daunting. But after the constant imploring of many friends, I finally buckled and saw the movie (over a month after its initial release, but I digress) discovering that the franchise's past films do not really hold any stock in just how remarkable a film it is.
Daniel Craig returns for the third time as Bond, the MI6 agent - famously listed as "007". In the beginning this one, Bond finds himself in a precarious situation trying to stop a terrorist from stealing a hard drive that is crucial to the MI6 operations. (As a side note: look how far we've come. Could you imagine Sean Connery chasing someone for a hard drive?) This first mission leads to a battle along a moving train and ends with Bond getting shot and falling down a waterfall. He's pronounced dead by his superior, M (Judi Dench, reprising the role from the previous films - and doing it incredibly well), who actually ordered the shot that struck James. Another agent, Eve (Naomie Harris) has the enemy in the cross-hairs but has Bond as well. M orders the shot, stakes be damned. Bond is fallen and the thief (and the harddrive) get away.
The fallout is rough. M is not only accused of being too old for the job, but her entire espionage unit within MI6 is criticized as antiquated and unnecessarily dangerous. Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the new head of MI6, tells M that she better think about an earlier-than-expected retirement if she doesn't want to get publicly let go. But M defiantly stays on, even though their is pressure coming from as high as the prime minister to shut down the espionage unit and all of the 00 agents. Bond, meanwhile, sits in an unnamed tropical locale, healing and drinking and shacking up with beautiful women. But when he hears of a terrorist bomb exploding in the MI6 building, he finds that it's time to return and help find the ultimate boss who got his hands on the harrdrive which contains the names of several of the MI6 agents.
This ultimate boss? It is a man named Silva (Javier Bardem) who was a former 00 agent himself. He's such a computer-hacking genius that he's able to get an entire island abandoned just with the tap of his keyboard and a click of his mouse. Silva is demented, with abnormally blonde hair and eyebrows, and a sinister smile and giggle that brings chills. A sociopathic bloodlust speared by his hatred for M (which, in and of itself, is based on a field situation very similar to the one Bond was in in the film's first sequence), Silva is one of the most intelligent and powerful film villains that I've seen in a very long time. And while we always know the way a Bond film is going to end - not unlike any other superhero movie - it's particularly tantalizing to think how he is going to be able to face off against Silva, considering all of the madman's advantages.
As I tried casually slip in at the beginning of this review, I know close to nothing about James Bond and his films. Die Another Day, as many have continuously have told me, is one of the very poorest of the bunch, and to have that be my only Bond movie experience was pretty much the biggest hindrance one can have with the franchise. Evidenced by the fact that it took me over a month to see it. I know this is a trend that began with 2006's Casino Royale, but this is a much different Bond than the one most of us had been used to. Craig is not sleek and clean the way Connery, Moore and Brosnan were. There's a grunge factor that comes along with Craig - the way his eyes look painful, and his face weathered - that brings a vulnerability that doesn't go along with the Bond-is-unflappable persona that's inhabited the franchise for decades, but Craig has brought the franchise new life and made James Bond quite a compelling character for the first time in a while.
Where Craig embodies Bond brilliantly, Bardem plays Silva with sadistic perfection. When Bardem perfectly portrayed a psychotic killer in the Oscar-winning film No Country For Old Men, it could have been assumed that Bardem could never be a better violence-loving sadist. While his Silva may not be quite at the level of his Anton Chigurh, it comes pretty damn close. Where Chigurh was curt and prophetic, spilling out sermons on fate while chugging along a cattle stungun and a shotgun with a bean-can shaped silencer attached to it; Silva brings a smile and an almost homoerotic friendliness that exudes menace. Chigurh would make you run the other way intstantly, but Silva lures you in softly before bringing the more explosive threats down the line. It's a pretty wonderful creation from Bardem; one of the best in already spectacular career.
The film is directed by Sam Mendes, whose career has been an interesting roller coaster. He won an Oscar on his very first movie, the Best Picture winner American Beauty. He then made a series of films that stretch from the modestly beautiful Road to Perdition, the abrasive Jake Gyllenhaal military vehicle Jarhead, and the simple but very, very loud and melodramatic Revolutionary Road. Basically, he's never really made anything lesser than good but hasn't really blown the doors off for audiences since his debut (and even then, American Beauty hasn't aged well since it's initial "instant classic" status). Skyfall may be his most fully realized film. This film never questions itself or leaves the audience uneven about what they're watching. A lot of that has to do with the stability of the franchise, but Mendes' work, along with first-rate cinematographer Roger Deakins, really understand the visual beats of this Bond and tell the story effectively.
One of the things I dislike about people's reactions to franchise action films is that they're essentially graded on a curve. Because there are so many bad action films (particularly of the franchise variety, that are more concerned with turn-around time than quality filmmaking), when one is even remotely competent, it's touted as a thunderous achievement. So, 'The Avengers' isn't a total bag of crap? Then it must be the film of the year! Reality is: The Avengers is a fantastic, entertaining action film with great star turns and a screenplay with wonderful humor. But Skyfall is a cinematic achievement. There are still the calling cards, the easy set-ups, the snappy dialogue and even the gratuitous ending that hints heavily at the next film to come. But Skyfall still is able to stand on its own, amongst all of the Bond films (that I haven't seen) as a startlingly refreshing addition to an incredibly endearing franchise.