Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Dark Bond Rises


SKYFALL

Please visit the James Bond Film Retrospective for reviews of all 007 films. 

I'm going to pitch an idea for a movie to you.  It's about this man, from a wealthy background, who is an orphan.  His parents were both killed, and he's been looked after by an employee who watches the family estate.  He grows up to fight criminals, and not just any run-of-the-mill criminals, but super-criminals who are either geniuses, insane, or a combination of the two.   The super-criminal is a baddie deluxe, one who thrives on a vague master plan to create chaos for deeply personal reasons.  Our hero, damaged emotionally and physically, is one who can sleep with beautiful women (maybe even be considered something of a playboy), but cannot ever be permanently attached to any woman.  Well, he has fallen in love at least once, but she is killed off by the time our story ends.  Eventually, with the help of a technical whiz he is able to defeat the super-villain, albeit at a high cost emotionally and physically, ready for a new assignment given to him by someone in authority who works as a police head of sorts.

Have I just described A.) the Batman film The Dark Knight, or B.) Skyfall, the newest James Bond film?

The answer is C.) Both.

This is the idea that came to me as I watched Skyfall: I was basically watching The Dark Knight British Version.  Obviously, Skyfall is not a remake of The Dark Knight, but for all intents and purposes the James Bond franchise has taken a page from the Christopher Nolan Batman films and decided to adapt them to 007.  In a curious way, the franchise hasn't been the same since Pierce Brosnan.  After Casino Royale successfully rebooted the James Bond franchise, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decided to just adapt what was popular at the moment.

Just as Quantum of Solace was Bond as Bourne, Skyfall is Bond as Bruce...Wayne, that is.  That doesn't make Skyfall a bad film, but it also does not make it the Citizen Kane of James Bond films either. 

We start in Turkey, where James Bond 007 (Daniel Craig) and an unnamed field agent (Naomi Harris) are desperate to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the names of every MI6 undercover operative in the field.  A chase through Istanbul's Grand Bazaar leads to the female agent taking a shot, and hitting Bond.  Cue title song, Adele's Skyfall (the first time since Die Another Day to have the Bond song share the film's title).

Well, with the world thinking Bond dead, things aren't going very well for MI6 and its head, M (Judi Dench).  The loss of the hard drive is a great blow, and new minister Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) urges her to retire with dignity.  She won't hear of it: she's going to go when the mission is accomplished.  However, the agency is basically under siege via technology.  With that, Bond returns: alive but highly harmed and embittered.

Allow me to stop for a moment to comment, but didn't we see this already, Bond breaking into M's home?  Oh yes, we saw it in Casino Royale...one would have thought M would have put in better security by now, but I digress.

After (not) passing a battery of tests, Bond is now sent on the trail of whomever has the hard drive and who is revealing the agent's identities (on YouTube of all things).  He also has a new Walther PPK specially designed for him thanks to new Quatermaster Q (Ben Whishaw), who looks like he's still in high school. 

The mission takes him first to Shanghai, where he can't stop either an assassination or the assassin from dying.  He does catch sight of a beautiful women and finds a casino chip, which sends him to a lavish Macao casino.  Here, Bond finds Sévérine (Bérénice Marhole), who can lead him to the master criminal (and lead him to a moment of passion).

A full hour and ten minutes into this two hour-twenty-three minute feature we FINALLY see our Bond villain: an embittered ex-MI6 agent named Silva (Javier Bardem).  He is targeting his old employer, in particular M, for revenge.  Bond manages to outwit Silva and have him captured, though at a price.

Or DOES he?  If there's still an hour-plus to go with our villain imprisoned, you KNOW he's got a dastardly trick up his sleeve. Silva (here's a shocker) escapes, brings more chaos, and nearly accomplishes his goal of killing M, but Bond, Female Agent X, Mallory, and M's aide Tanner (Rory Kinnear) with a little help from Q, help Bond and M escape.

It's off to the Scottish Highlands, to the Bond ancestral home, SKYFALL.  Here, the two prepare for a final battle with Silva, with help from Skyfall's caretaker Kincade (Albert Finney) who has watched over little James Bond since he was left an orphan after his parents were killed.  Now, at last, the two adversaries fight to the death. 

We end Skyfall with our M gone, new M(allory) in charge, our unnamed female agent finally revealed as one Eve MONEYPENNY, and Bond taking on a new assignment.

At the end of watching Skyfall, I seriously wondered whether he would be taking on The Joker. 

For better or worse, The Dark Knight (along with the Bourne films) has cast a large shadow over all succeeding action/comic-book adaptations, and its influence in structure and even story has now crossed the Pond to infect our James Bond.  There's nothing wrong with giving our character some background, but why did they opt to ape Bruce Wayne?

Here's the thing: Skyfall is not a bad movie (although I would argue far too long).  It just isn't a good Bond movie.  Try as I might I couldn't work up enthusiasm for this "wounded orphan just wants his mother(land)'s love" subplot it hammered away.  I know that we're trying to have some motivation for our hero, but while Bond films may have gotten better technically, they've stopped being fun.  Instead, they appear to be taking on the Daniel Craig persona: glum, grumpy, morose, and almost totally devoid of humor.

There are good things in Skyfall.  Let's start out by saying that it is one of if not THE most beautifully photographed Bond films ever.   the Shanghai sequence is in itself worth the price of admission: Roger Deakins' cinematography makes the ensuing chaos of the action sequence look almost lush and dare I say artistic.  Same goes to when Bond goes to the Macao casino (even if I thought the actual casino location and method of transport was rather grandiose to attract much clientele, but that's the logical part of me doing the work). 

Another aspect that I found brilliant was in the editing.  It is nice to go to ANY action-centered film (let alone a James Bond film) and see, literally SEE the actual fights in a clear and crisp manner.  No more Bourne-like shaky cameras, no more jumbled shot-a-second-series of flashes that appear jumbled a lá Quantum of Solace.  Instead, the action was on the whole easy to follow, which made it easier to appreciate. 

Let's also get a gander at another positive in Skyfall: the title sequence, which is perhaps the first time in the Crab...I mean Craig Era Bond films where they actually look like they belonged in a Bond film.  As for the title song itself, well, it is appropriately Bondian: Adele sounds beautiful and remarkably restrained.  Bless her, but she can sometimes be more Rolling in the Overblown Bombast than Rolling in the Deep; however Skyfall is lush and quiet without going over the top, a bit of a throwback to a Bassey sound than Keys & White.  I haven't settled on Skyfall: it's a decent song, perhaps even a strong Adele song, though whether it will be among the best Bond Songs remains to be seen (as I have worked on my own Top Ten Bond Song List, Skyfall failed to make it, though another Craig-Era Bond Song did...and surprise that it ISN'T Quantum of Solace's Another Way to Die).

In a slightly unrelated note, my mother got a listen to Skyfall and described it as something fit for a funeral (the first line, "This is the end", sealing the deal for her) .  Other remarks I've heard is that they won't see Skyfall if the film is as boring as the song.  I don't think Skyfall is a bad song in the end, but I don't think it's a great one either.  As I've stated, it's lush, it's romantic, it's a better Bond song than we've heard, and it matches the somber nature of Skyfall, but it's not as good as some of its predecessors.  

It's a cruios thing with Skyfall: it brings back to mind the villain of GoldenEye, one Janus.  Like the Roman god, Skyfall wants to look backwards and forwards at the same time.  We have distinctly Bondian motifs and characters making a comeback (Monty Norman's James Bond Theme, the reappearance of Q and Moneypenny, the Aston Martin complete with ejector seat, the odd--and forced--attempts at quips), but we have other elements in Skyfall that look like they were injected to show that James Bond is so 21st Century: the damaged psychology from both hero and villain, the rejection of a wild scheme for a deeply personal one, the rather odd nods to the gay rights movement.

Let's touch (no pun intended) on that particular aspect.  As stated it's a little more into an hour when we finally see the Bond Villain (who alas, has no henchman), making a not-too-big not-too-small entrance.  Silva while talking in what I would describe in as a fey voice in his "I'm getting revenge" monologue soon starts slowly caressing Bond's neck with his fingers, culminating in Silva putting his hands on Bond's knees and moving them over his thighs.  I cannot speak for other critics, but at the screening I attended the audience was laughing (perhaps uncomfortably, perhaps not) at this bizarre attempt at seduction.  As Silva continues his monologue about rats eventually eating each other, there is something flat-out nutty when Silva suggests that he and Bond are the last two rats, stating that "we can either eat each other" or not. 

Draw your own conclusions as to what one can surmise when a man tells another man that they could 'eat each other'.

Speaking of moments of laughter, as much praise as Bardem is getting for his dangerously-close-to-camp villain, I can report that there was more laughter from the audience when he meets his end.  It was in the way he reacted to his impending death that made me even laugh out loud (and I can't help think that we weren't suppose to laugh at him).  Not that when our 'super-criminal genius comes roaring into Skyfall in a helicopter while playing John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom in the Apocalypse Now style. 

That's the curious thing with Silva: I never knew whether I was suppose to take him seriously or think he was a bit camp.  Was he trying to be his own evil creation or trying to be a Hannibal Lecter/Dark Knight Joker hybrid?  Bardem relished doing his Anton Chigurh act again, only this time adding a touch more lunacy and camp to it.  He was doing some kind of a version of a Bond villain, albeit one with personal issues that a good psychiatrist would have helped him with.  I personally thought it was all too silly to take seriously.

Silly is ONE thing one could never accuse Daniel Craig of being.  His take on James Bond is still one of stern, almost funerial seriousness.  For the life of me I can't figure out why so many people think he's the best James Bond, given that he revels in being somber to the point of psychotic.  I'll say that is nice to see that Bond isn't indestructive, either emotionally or physically, and it does make the character slightly richer.  However, seeing as how difficult it is for Craig to either smile or show a bit of wit when he looks pained to even attempt a quip (as if saying to himself, 'I'm a serious ACTOR, I can't be expected to make cute/funny remarks or they won't take me seriously), it also makes Bond look all the more poorer.

As for our Bond Girls, it's a strange thing that we really don't have any.  The closest is Marlohe's Sévérine, and she comes and goes rather quickly, robbing her of the character development everyone else is given to the Nth degree.  Her end is to me at least, sadistic in a way I have never seen in any Bond film.  I know Secondary Bond Girls almost always die (I can recall only three cases in twenty-three Bond films where the non-main female character gets to end credits alive), but even for them her finale is cruel.  Harris' "Eve" did take Moneypenny to a different level not achieved by any other Moneypenny, but now she is safely asconsed in M's office. 

Dench still has her righteous anger at everyone for questioning her in any way, and Albert Finney is wasted as Alfred Pennyworth...I mean, Skyfall caretaker Kincade (he who has raised the orphan rich boy James and still watches over the estate).  The nice surprise is Whishaw as Q, one who is appropriately nerdy but not as cantankerous as his predecessor (the late Desmond Llewellyn), bringing a slight touch of humor to the proceedings.

All this is courtesy of director Sam Mendes.  As befits someone who brought us American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, he can get the angst and emotional issues on the screen.  He also can get good action sequences (the opening Istanbul scene a fine example, the concluding siege at Wayne Manor...I mean, Skyfall, not so much), but I'd argue that Mendes could have cut Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan's script without affecting the overall flow.  The segway into Bond's expat life was a waste, a nice chunk of the Macao sequence was too, and if one thinks about it as beautiful as the Shanghai sequence was it didn't add much in terms of story.

Also, the Siege at Skyfall was a bit laughable: the entire house blows up, the helicopter crashing into it for good measure, and Silve comes out with barely a scratch?!

The biggest surprise about Skyfall is that James Bond's mother we find out was apparently FRENCH (her grave reads Monique Delacroix Bond).  The biggest disappointment is that Skyfall decided to remake The Dark Knight while trying to fit into what is considered a traditional James Bond film.  I find that every year, there is ONE film that critics masturbate to.  One year, it WAS The Dark Knight.  Now I find that this year, it's The Dark Knight Redux, aka Skyfall.                                   

Might as well has been...


DECISION: C-

Next Bond Film: SPECTRE

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