Saturday, July 27, 2013

"Skyfall": the two-paragraph review

"Skyfall" is the twenty-third James Bond film, and also marks Bond's 50th filmic anniversary. The movie begins with a vehicular chase through the streets of Istanbul; Bond (Daniel Craig) gets shot with a depleted-uranium bullet by his quarry, then gets shot again by his female partner (Naomie Harris as an otherwise fearless and competent agent who turns out to be none other than Eve Moneypenny—worlds away from being a mere desk jockey). Bond falls off a bridge and is presumed dead. Life goes on. Meanwhile, British Intelligence (MI6) is being attacked by a terrorist who appears to know everything about the agency's inner workings: information on undercover agents—contained on the disk that Bond and Moneypenny had been trying to recover in Istanbul—is being released at a rate of five agents per week. MI6 leader "M" (Dame Judy Dench) witnesses an explosion at MI6 HQ, which hastily relocates to William Churchill's old, rat-infested bunker-and-tunnel network (rats are a recurrent image in this film). Bond, fresh from "enjoying death" during an alcohol-soaked island hiatus, reappears in the beleaguered M's domicile and offers to help. Before he can return to duty, though, he must undergo a series of tests (marksmanship, physical, psychological); he fails them but is told he is reactivated. Bond's investigation of the depleted-uranium shooter, a man named Patrice, leads him to Shanghai and Macau, where he encounters Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who leads Bond to his true target. Owlishly watching MI6's struggles is Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes—Lord Voldemort himself), Chairman of the British Intelligence and Security Committee. Mallory is viewed dimly by much of MI6; Bond sees him primarily as a useless bureaucrat, but Mallory, a war veteran, gets the chance to prove his mettle in a firefight that interrupts a hearing during which M is being grilled for her supposed incompetence. The film's antagonist isn't revealed until the movie is at least half over: Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former Double-O himself. Silva, now a rogue operator known for getting what he wants, sees M as a mother-figure who betrayed him, and he wants revenge. Also in the mix is Bond's young, cheeky new quartermaster, or "Q," played by Ben Whishaw, recently of "Cloud Atlas" fame. Bond does what he can to protect M; the chase eventually leads to Bond's gloomy childhood estate, a Scottish property called Skyfall. At this phase of the movie, acting god Albert Finney makes a sudden, belated appearance as Kincade, Skyfall's gamekeeper and the man who taught a young Bond the fundamentals of firearms. M, Kincade, and Bond make a last stand against Silva on the Skyfall property. Who survives? I don't want to spoil the ending here, but it should come as no surprise that the ending credits finish with "James Bond Will Return."

Casting Daniel Craig as James Bond was controversial at first: many Connery, Moore, and Dalton loyalists couldn't get over the notion of a blond Bond. But I felt, upon watching 2006's "Casino Royale," that Craig fit the role quite well. "Casino Royale" gave us a grittier Bond, one who was simultaneously less urbane, more vicious, and more vulnerable. The casting of Craig meant a fundamental reboot of the James Bond franchise and marked a new phase of Bondsmanship—one in which the new Bond films often seemed to be in revolt against the previous ones. "Skyfall" continues this tradition but takes it in a not-quite-desirable direction: this is a brooding film whose glacial pace is most un-Bond-like. Much time is spent driving through dismal Scottish scenery or panning reverently across the London cityscape. Action set pieces are few and far between, a fact I found disappointing (remember the intense parkour opening chase in "Casino Royale"? more of that, please). Because this film was directed by Sam Mendes, a director who likes to focus on the interiority of his characters, "Skyfall" is more about haunted looks and weird, lingering facial expressions than it is about action or a keen sense of mission. This Bond is a psychodrama—no two ways about it—and not even Albert Finney or a random komodo dragon can save the film from being a drag. (Finney's "Welcome to Scotland!" is, however, one of the best quotes in the movie.) It didn't help matters that the music, scored by Thomas Newman ("The Shawshank Redemption"), felt like a warmed-over version of scores by both Richard Gibbs (the 2003 "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries) and Michael Giacchino (most recently, "Star Trek Into Darkness"). All in all, "Skyfall" is a somewhat watchable film—sort of a Bond for older folks, given its slow pace and its brooding sensibility. It certainly doesn't rank as high as "Casino Royale" in my book. Ladies will enjoy Daniel Craig's combination of strength and vulnerability. Dudes, alas, will have less to rave about, although they might find themselves snickering at Sévérine's bizarre raccoon makeup during the Macau scene.


  1. I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one--I found Skyfall to be a refreshing change of pace. I also enjoyed Casino Royale, and yes, this is definitely a different type of film, but I don't necessarily think it's a turn for the worse. If anything, it felt like the new Bond paying homage to the old Bond. It had a more "traditional" feel to it, even as it continued in the modern "dark & gritty" mode. I would describe the pace as "deliberate" rather than "glacial."

    Two things I did not like about the film, though, were the villain's overly complicated plot (which hinged on certain things that said villain could never have realistically predicted) and the young "Q." I realize that they are playing to a convention here, but it annoyed. Young whippersnappers make me want to whipsnap their necks in two.

    *grumble grumble damn kids get off my porch grumble grumble*

  2. To each his own, I suppose. All I can say is that I found myself somewhat bored and antsy as the movie went into its third reel. Albert Finney's appearance was a relief.

    re: "old" Bond

    Not having a background in Ian Fleming's novels, I have no clue how faithfully Bond has been interpreted for the screen. I've heard that the Bond of the novels is actually something of a cruel, heartless misogynist, a notion that may or may not be supported by Bond's serial dalliances in the movies. (Does a man who has sex with a lot of women love them because he loves women in general, or does he hate them because he thinks of them as mere sex objects?)

    By "old Bond," do you mean Sean Connery's Bond?

    I thought Mendes basically "Mendesicized" this film. Did you ever see his "Road to Perdition"? Tom Hanks plays a hit man on the run with his son. "Perdition" has much the same gloomy, brooding feel as does "Skyfall."

    My other problem—and I might have had to add a third paragraph to my review to discuss this—was that I had trouble understanding Bond's losing his edge after that mission. So he was shot twice—so what? Being shot comes with the job, and by the time we get to "Skyfall," we can assume that Daniel Craig's Bond is a flinty, seasoned veteran. Why does this Bond drown his vague, never-explained sorrows (there are massive hints that it's a childhood thing) in drink?

    My buddy Steve's complaint about "Skyfall," meanwhile, was the distastefully homophobic tone: Javier Bardem's character (once again, there he is, playing a killer with bad hair) is the classic stereotype of the angry gay man with Mommy issues.

    Come to think of it, I thought that Bond's naughty "What makes you think this is my first time?" was a direct reference to Clint Eastwood's gay-kinky "Who says I haven't?" line in the perv-thriller "Tightrope."

  3. I've heard similar things about the Bond in Fleming's novels. I haven't read any of the novels either, but I have read a bunch of his short stories featuring Bond, and he is a far different character than what you see in any of the films. The short story "Quantum of Solace," for example, has absolutely nothing to do with what happens in the film, and is actually just Bond sitting there listening to a diplomat tell his story. In other stories Bond is by turn much more thoughtful and introspective *and* much more cruel than he is in the films. I actually liked the short stories a lot.

    And I didn't have any particular Bond in mind when I said "old Bond," just that it vaguely felt more traditional Bond to me than, say, Casino Royale. It wasn't something that I thought out... more of just a feeling.

    On Bond losing his edge, yeah, I suppose that's the flip side of the young Q thing. I didn't really like the young versus old theme at all, although I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with a Bond who thinks as opposed to just going in guns blazing.

    And the homophobic tone was unfortunate, but, as you pointed out, the homicidal homosexual is virtually a trope in Hollywood.

    All in all, though, I would still probably have to agree with you that CR has been the best of the Craig Bond vehicles so far. It was much tighter, not necessarily just in pacing, but also in terms of the story as well. It made a lot more sense to me than Skyfall did.



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