MOVIE REVIEW: Skyfall

Skyfall_DCraig_London

Movie: Skyfall
Director:
Sam Mendes

I’m not sure if this is a minority opinion, but I’ve often considered the Bond franchise to be a rather divisive property. For everyone I know who loves the gadgetry, the intrigue and espionage, there’s another who resents the cheese and vainglorious posturing of the early days and the emotionless gloss of the latter ones. Granted, these complaints were largely put to rest following Daniel Craig and Martin Campbell’s brilliant reinvention of the franchise with 2006’s Casino Royale, and yet some detractors seem to linger – perhaps justifiably so following the largely lukewarm reception to Quantum of Solace. Well. I’d be most surprised if any persist in the wake of the series’ latest, as in the year of his 50th anniversary James Bond has returned to the screen in one of the finest, slickest, and most beautifully made thrillers of the year. It’s easily the best of Craig’s three appearances, and one of the best the franchise has ever offered. Perhaps this is because it feels like the first Bond film really made for a 21st century audience. There’s so suspension of disbelief, no cosseted gimmicks, and the threats and character arcs are completely recognisable, drawn from an everyday reality with which we’re all familiar.

Skyfall opens with a bombastic set-piece, as Craig’s 007 and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) chase a mercenary acrossIstanbul. The mercenary has captured a covert list containing the identities of NATO agents undercover with terrorist groups. As the chase continues, M (Judi Dench) is forced to make a tough call which leads to Bond’s being injured and left for dead. M is forced to answer to new chief Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) while Bond seeks refuge and only resurfaces some time later after a cyber-terrorist attack causes an explosion at MI6 headquarters inLondon. The attack is traced to the mysterious and elusive Silva (Javier Bardem), a rogue villain with surreptitious links to M. Still reeling from the opening incident and with numerous debilitating scars both mental and physical, a rattled Bond is dispatched to track down and apprehend him.

From the moment its sumptuous opening titles fade in, Skyfall is an absolute treat for the eyes. It is stunningly photographed and realised, with breathtaking sequences set in Shanghai and Macau providing a level of visual flair that had heretofore been missing from the Bond franchise. In many ways, this aesthetic acuity sets a tone for the rest of the film. It is decidedly warmer than the others, even with a resonant emotional palette that challenges earlier incarnations of the spy as a lecherous and cold-hearted killer. Craig comes full circle here, and with him, the film – his Bond is wounded and disarmed, his physical flaws but a cover for the deep-rooted psychological torment that seems to have eaten at the character since he lost Eva Green’s Vesper in Casino Royale. Bond seems to go through a reinvention of sorts and rediscovers his motive and his purpose, especially as a testing and poignant finale set in a symbolic location does much to reveal the origin of the man as opposed to the spy. This final reel is particularly interesting – though it adds a perhaps draining extra half or so to the running time, its setting is uniquely important. The rugged and rough terrain mirrors the spy’s feral nature and his wild, uncontained streak, one which has become more prevalent since the 2006 reboot. Yet, it also allows us a glimpse of something personal and sentimental, the structures from which Bond was not just birthed but moulded, and how he came into the MI6 fray. Set against the dazzling locales that illuminate the film’s first half, it’s a particularly striking conclusion and one which proves oddly haunting as events transpire.

If this final act provides the film with heart and gravitas, the preceding two hours or so infuse the film with the kind of top-notch, high-octane action fare lately seen only in the Bourne movies. This may of course be intentional, as the success of the Bourne trilogy was the catalyst for 007’s reinvention as a spy of our era. Sam Mendes, in his first outing as 00-director, provides a gripping and exhilarating series of action set pieces that will leave audiences with their jaws slung open and hearts racing. A pursuit and fight in aShanghai hotel is pristinely choreographed while the breakneck pace ofLondon life bears witness to a number of nail-biting chase sequences. In this, as later, Craig’s portrayal of Bond is excellent. He is cerebral and calibrated, but his veneer is decidedly cracked. He sways from steely and ruthless to vulnerable, acknowledging for the first time a tacit awareness of his physical limitations. Alongside him, Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes are solid and dependable. Dench seems to relish the added demands of her character’s turbulent past with Silva, with her portrayal of the driven and austere professional M occasionally broken by intimations of doubt and regret. Harris does well with her part while Bérénice Lim Marlohe, playing one of Silva’s aides, is more of a token Bond girl and gets to do little other than bat her eyelashes.

It may be churlish then to admit that the only part of this film leaving me iffy is Silva. Javier Bardem gives it his all but Silva is a camp, rubbery villain and it’s never quite certain how straight he’s being played. His schemes and armoury are certainly impressive, and his vendetta against M hints at a deeper, more personal back story that is never fully explained or explored, but there’s something somewhat unbelievable about him. In the final showdown, his arrival with full tilt ammo and an endless array of supporting honchos – not to mention an impromptu breakout earlier in the film – gives him something of a Dark Knight Joker-lite air. Nevertheless, his introduction in a single lengthy shot is inspired and laced with tension, while the Inception-esque island from which he conducts his scheming provides more scenic splendour for the movie. Perhaps what’s discouraging about him is that he is not the usual adversary for Bond. Though he is an erstwhile agent, his schemes are psychological and technological – something very modern and something which can’t be outwitted by Bond’s brawn and physical prowess. In many ways, his match-up seems more apt for Q, here delightfully re-imagined by Ben Whishaw as a terse computer whiz who speaks matter-of-factly of being able to do more damage with his laptop than Bond can do in a year in the field. It is a very contemporary and clinical face-off, though Silva does prove suitably ruthless with a weapon when the occasion calls for it.

Skyfall feels triumphant and is, in many ways, a benchmark for the new Bond. It brings him to full formation following the greasy, cold induction afforded us in the prior two movies. Despite the sobriety of the ending, it is uplifting and exciting and feels very much like an invitation to get carried away again. This is a hard-edged and tougher take on Ian Fleming’s world that barely feels like the movies of old (despite a slew of fun references – Bond’s reaction to the destruction of one priceless artefact is perfect) and yet it retains a sense of fun and uproar that renders it a Bond film through and through. This is high-class and compelling filmmaking, bringing a familiarity and entertainment factor to a franchise that had greatly needed a master’s touch. I dare you to be disappointed.

Review written by: Grace Duffy

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