Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

It's an accepted fact at this point that Daniel Craig and Martin Campbell saved the Bond franchise. Casino Royale was enthusiastically received by both critics and audiences that had been wary of a new Bond film when it was announced. The new tone brought Bond into the modern age, and helped to wash the stale taste that had been left in audience's mouths following both Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton's tenures. Even as it left intact many of the things long time fans always look for in a Bond film, Craig and Campbell made the character feel both fresh and familiar at the same time. They focused on the drama of the story and on the characters as much or more than they did giant action set pieces and finding excuses for Bond to use some unbelievable gadget in the middle of the film.

The second film in Craig's term as Bond, Quantum of Solace, Marc Forster took over in the directors seat and proved that following in Martin Campbell's footsteps was no easy task. Quantum wasn't a horrible film, but it was much closer to being both an older variety of Bond film and less interesting. It's definitely not the worst film in the franchise history, but it threatened the good will Casino had built. It shouldn't all be laid at Forster's feet though, as the script written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade was muddled and inconsistent, at best.

With the announcement of Skyfall, there was a sense that if this film didn't deliver the goods, it could actually finally be the end of the Bond franchise. There would always be a hard core fan base, but new fans would be hard to come by and casual movie goers would no longer be interested in the exploits of 007. Skyfall will please the hard core Bond fans as well as casual movie goers looking for some fun at the multiplex.

Not long after came the announcement that Sam Mendes would be directing. Head scratching and tongue wagging aplenty followed. Mendes is best known for American Beauty, a somber suburban drama about the emptiness of contemporary middle class life and the repressive culture that comes with it. He followed that up with the criminally under appreciated Road to Perdition, based on a graphic novel, the film followed a mob hit man in the 1930's, who takes his son along as he seeks vengeance for the murder of the rest of his family. Starring Tom Hanks as the hit man, with Jude Law is his best performance to date, Paul Newman, and Daniel Craig in supporting roles. Less an action movie than a crime and family drama, Mendes seemed a strange choice to helm such an important installment of the longest running series in film history. As those are the two films Mendes, the reaction to the director being given the reins wasn't completely surprising, but those calculations were leaving out another under appreciated film, Jarhead, which if nothing else proved he could handle directing large set pieces quite well.

Early word on Skyfall has been overwhelmingly positive, and the films European opening has shattered records as a result. Here in the U.S. it's raked in $87.7 million on the strength of early good word. It seems audiences are ready to embrace more Bond, as long as the films have some level of quality.

Skyfall follows the Casino Royale formula in that it keeps many of the things that fans have always loved about the character, but it explores the character himself further than the earlier versions of Bond have. There's more of Bond's back story in this film than in any five previous Bond films combined. It focuses more on what drives Bond and exactly why he's 007, and what that means to him than probably all of the other films combined. It also gives some of the back story for Bond's relationships with other long standing characters in the franchise.

Any questions about Mendes ability to handle large action set pieces should be put to rest here. There are a few actions sequences in the film and all of them are handled well. One in particular is as spectacular as anything we've seen in a Bond film before. It's criminally fun to watch it unfold and has one of the most fun motorcycle chases in recent memory. To Mendes and the writers credit, it's not just a set piece in the film either, it has importance to the story as a whole. This is one of the few times though where more action may have served the film better. Some of those long time, hard core bond fans may be disappointed that the film doesn't have more action. What's there is very well done. It has a sense of weight to it, in that it's not just empty spectacle, but that the audience cares about what's happening in the scene and with the characters.

Skyfall is more about who Bond is than any of the previous films. Craig, Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan deserve some credit because they don't shy away from the fact that Bond is, in essence, an assassin at the beck and call of the British government. There are more than a few references to the fact that the hero of this franchise is engaged in what can at best be called a "morally ambiguous" professional life.

The success in presenting Bond in a new light has to do with the way the film deals with the idea of family, or at least, the loyalties one chooses. This Bond, isn't necessarily doing his bit for Queen and Country. This film is much more about Bond being who he is and doing what he does because of his loyalty to M (the ever awesome Judy Dench) and presents quite an interesting idea about where that loyalty came from and just how sensible it is. M's loyalty is to Queen, Country, and her own sense of accomplishment or competence. There's been all kind of conjecture about where the title of the film comes from, and when it's revealed, unlike Quantum of Solace, it's a satisfying and interesting revelation.

For a Bond film, this is pretty damned good. The debate about which is the best of the Bond films will rage until the character melts into obscurity, but beyond the Bond franchise, Skyfall isn't a bad film. The narrative and the drama that derive from it are slightly flat in some moments, but overall, it's a satisfying exercise in the kind of espionage thriller that doesn't often come around anymore.

The new editions to the cast of characters in the Bond universe should be given credit for their work here as well. Javier Bardem is great as Silva, the villain who presents the picture of a kind of alternate universe Bond, or at least what Bond could be should he make different choices about his loyalties. Personally, he might be my favorite Bond villain so far. Bardem is a gifted actor, and there's a mischievous joy he brings to the role that makes him both menacing and charismatic. He also succeeds in making it seem perfectly believable that a character with as storied a history as James Bond could be two steps behind him throughout the entire film. Every moment he's on screen is interesting.

Ben Whishaw shows up in this installment as the new "Q", short for quartermaster, and the person in the position responsible for decades of Bond gadgets. Whishaw's Q isn't gadget crazy, in keeping with the more "realistic" tone of this new batch of films. He is quite a bit younger than Daniel Craig though, which presents and interesting shift in the relationship as it's been previously portrayed in the franchise. In the past, whoever was playing Q tended to be a good bit older than the actor playing Bond, and it was often a source of scoldings and consternation for Q. The roles have been reversed, and with Bond being the older of the two, it fits nicely into the rest of the films themes. The scene in which the two characters meet is extremely well done, and Whishaw does a great job of making Q believable, sympathetic, but also equal to the role he's filling in relation to Bond.

The long and short of it is that like Casino Royale, the hardest of hard core, die hard Bond fans are probably going to find this film annoying. The people who loved the camp of the Roger Moore years need not even apply, but the general movie going audience is going to enjoy Skyfall.

Personally, I'd rank it right behind Casino Royale as my favorite Bond film, and Goldfinger, coming in as close as third could be without it actually being a tie.

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