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Fifty Years of 007: Josh Reviews Skyfall

November 12th, 2012
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Well, after an unexpectedly lengthy hiatus, James Bond has returned, just in time for his fiftieth anniversary.  To the pleasure and relief of fans of Bond, James Bond, Skyfall is evidence that the redoubtable secret agent (and his franchise) has plenty of gas left in the ol’ Aston Martin tank, though I must confess that this is the second Bond film in a row that doesn’t quite succeed at living up to the promise suggested by Casino Royale.

NOTE: This is a hard film to write about while avoiding spoilers.  I will avoid ruining any of the big plot twists, but I would nonetheless advise not reading this review until you’ve seen the film.

The Opening/The Music: Skyfall’s opening sequence is thrilling, surely ranking amongst one of the very best Bond opening sequences. It’s a spectacular extended chase sequence, from car to motorcycle to train and beyond. (It’s a far more coherent action sequence that Quantum of Solace’s thrilling but hard to follow opening car chase.)  It’s a tremendous, thrilling opening, and I was totally hooked in. But thing got a little shaky as soon as Adele’s theme song began, and for much of the next hour I was a little worried about how things were going.  More on that in a few minutes.  I am lukewarm on Adele’s theme song.  It’s fun to have a Bond song once again using the same title as the film (after two films in a row in which the songs had different titles than the film, a divergence from the standard Bond-movie procedure), though trying to make a song based on the bizarre title of Skyfall, without spoiling the terms’ meaning in the film, is a task in which Adele and her team do not quite succeed.  Also, I tend to prefer my Bond songs to have a bit more of a propulsive beat, and to be a bit more hummable.

The bad: After the terrific opening sequence, the film hits the brakes and it takes a good long while, in my opinion, to really get going again.  The first hour is very hit and miss.  The film looks gorgeous with some truly stunning, cleverly designed sequences.  Bond’s fight with an assassin atop a Shanghai skyscraper, bathed in the reflection of neon lights, is particularly notable.  But I found myself filled with questions as to the unfolding story.  All sorts of little plot points niggled at me.  Why the hell did Bond keep those bullet fragments in his arm all that time?  Why perform surgery on himself when hes right in the middle of MI6, with plenty of trained medics all around him?  Wouldn’t that only further damage the usefulness of his already wounded arm?  And then the MI6 agents are able to determine that only three men in the whole world use that type of bullet?  Come on.  Are we talking about the Man With the Golden Gun here?? What type of assassin uses a bullet SO specific that he cam be so easily identified?  And then how exactly does Bond learn the exact flight that the assassin will be on?  (It’s sort of suggested the CIA knows, so I guess we should thank Felix, sadly absent from the film, but it just feels way too easy.)

Speaking of plot holes, just how the heck does Bond survive the end of that opening sequence, anyways?  He’s shot, he plummets a huge distance down into freezing water, and then for good measure he falls down a waterfall.  I didn’t expect Bond to be dead when the opening music ended any more than I did back in You Only Live Twice, but don’t you think the film should be bothered to take five seconds to at least SORT OF explain how Bond survived??

On a larger level, I am mystified by the choice of the filmmakers to present us with an over-the-hill Bond, described numerous timed as a physical wreck, unable to even shoot straight. It makes a compelling story when taken on its own, and especially when you consider that this franchise is fifty years old.  And Daniel Craig plays this grizzled, beaten-down Bond extraordinarily well. But didn’t we just finish rebooting this franchise?  We got Bond’s origin, and now he’s already an aged veteran, past his prime? Its the Dark Knight Rises problem, in which the hero has an origin, one adventure, and then he’s old and done.  I enjoyed watching Bond battle his way back into super-heroic fighting shape just as I enjoyed watching Batman do the dame, but in both cases it felt to me like the wrong choice for the film to make.   Wouldn’t the new super-villain (played magnificently by Javier Bardem) be more fearsome if he was able to match Bond at his prime, rather than a practically disabled 007? I certainly think so.

(By the way, speaking of having forgotten when the last two films left the story, I was disappointed that there was nary a mention of Quantum, the new S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-like criminal organization that Bond had just begun to discover in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. I really hope that plot thread hasn’t been abandoned.)

I also think the film’s central conflict would have been stronger had I felt more strongly that Bond had been wronged by M.  Javier Bardem’s Silva has a major grudge against M, and feels that Bond should share that grudge.  I think the film wants the audience to think that too, but just doesn’t succeed in selling it.  M’s actions in the opening segment might have been a little rash, but perfectly understandable given her position.  When Bond tells Silva that M has never lied to him, and Silva responds that of course she has, what is Silva’s big revelation?  That M lied to approve Bond for a return for active duty, when he had actually failed his exams.  Well, duh, anyone watching the movie knew that, and it’s inconceivable to think Bond didn’t already know as well.  It’s a pretty lame revelation.  Silva’s case — and the movie’s dramatic story — would have been stronger had M actually really done something nasty to screw Bond over.

The Good: Thankfully, I found the films second hour far more compelling than its first.  By the time M is reciting Tennyson while Bond races across London, fighting against the fear that he will be too late, I thought the film had reached a moment of true potency.  The shoot-out at the hearing, and one character’s unexpected heroics, was my favorite part of the film.

The film’s final segment was an unusual choice, moving the action out if the city to the location of Skyfall.  I loved the revelation of the meaning behind the film’s title.  (Though, upon consideration, I’m not sure why that was the film’s title.  I don’t actually think that Skyfall connected all that strongly to the film’s main thematic issues…)  And I loved the unexpected peek into Bond’s background.  (Am I right that this is the first time we learn the name of his parents?)  That was great fun.

In addition to another fantastic performance from Daniel Craig, the supporting cast is absolutely top notch.  Prior Bond films have teased us with the notion of M being more involved in the story, but this film really does give Judi Dench a meaty role to play.  She’s fantastic, of course, and every scene between M and Bond absolutely crackles.  These two have great chemistry, and I love that the film really lets them bounce off of one another throughout the story.

It takes a long time before we actually meet Javier Bardem’s character, and I was a little worried he would disappoint after all the build-up.  But I am happy to say that Mr. Bardem is terrific in the role, crafting a very weird and very dangerous new character.  (The moment in which he reveals his facial disfigurement is one of the most truly horrifying things I’ve seen in a theatre in a long while.  Brrrr.)  Silva is an intriguing fellow, both macho and effete at the same time, and I like that he doesn’t have any plot to take over the world.  His plan is a personal one — he wants to see M suffer.  That’s the right way to go for a Bond villain.

The great Ralph Fiennes enters the Bond universe playing the Minister overseeing MI6.  Mr. Fiennes is, of course, a magnificent actor, and I am intrigued by this new character, a bureaucrat who nevertheless has a background in the field.  (Was he once a double-O himself?)  It looks like Mr. Fiennes will be sticking around for future Bond films, and I am delighted.  This is a great new character, and inspired casting.  Well done.

“Where’s Pussy?”  (The Women): Berenice Marlohe plays Severin, a woman involved with the bad guys who Bond, of course, seduces so he can get to Silva.  She’s beautiful, but a total non-character in the film.  She has one great scene with Bond, after he cashes a dead-assassin’s chip to collect his payment, but that’s all.

Naomie Harris, on the other-hand, pops up throughout the film as a fellow MI6 agent, Eve.  I was worried at first that she’d be yet another incompetent agent partnered with Bond, and sure enough she makes a critical error in that opening sequence.  But Bond doesn’t seem to hold it against her (which is weird and a bit out of character), and as the rest of the film progresses she seems like a very likable, competent agent.  I wish the script had done a better job at giving her a reason to keep popping up wherever Bond is, but oh well.  I found myself quite beguiled by Ms. Harris.  She has a great beauty, and she gives Eve a sharp intelligence and a good humor.  I suppose she can be forgiven for throwing herself at Bond in the middle of the movie.  He is 007, after all!  (Here again, though, I wish the script was just a bit sharper.  Does she sleep with Bond out of guilt for her actions at the start of the film?  Does she love him?  I’d love to know more about what’s going on in her head.)As with Ralph Fiennes’ character, there is the promise for Ms. Harris to return in future films, which I find to be a very exciting notion.

The ending: OK, gang, I’m not going to outright spoil anything, but if by any chance you are reading thus without having seen the film, stop now.  Here we go.

I LOVED the film’s ending, and I think the perfection of the last scene will cause me to forgive many of the film’s flaws.  Let the record show (and my wife can testify) that I guessed Eve’s last name well before it was revealed, and I have rarely been so tickled at being right.  As soon as they walked in the office and I saw that familiar hat-stand, I laughed in delight.  And that blue dress Eve was wearing at the end, so perfect.  And the other character revelation was equally perfection.  What true Bond fan didn’t get a thrill when getting a glimpse of that iconic door, recreated SO PERFECTLY.  Once I saw that door, I knew exactly who was going to be in that office, and I was so happy at that final exchange.  I must confess that I’m going to miss the male-female Bond-M dynamic, but boy it’s hard to complain with the new status quo.  Bring on the next adventure.

Other notes: This is the second film in a row in which the famous Bond gun-barrel shot comes at the end, rather than the beginning.  I sort of like that this is the new status-quo for the Daniel Craig Bond films.

I loved the return of Q, though the jury is still out, for me, on this new version of the character.  Ben Whishaw was perfectly fine, but the character seemed a bit under-written to me.  He’s a young, smart computer geek.  What else?  We didn’t get much beyond that archetype.  (And why on Earth did he have to meet Bond in a museum to deliver Bond his gear?  Why couldn’t they meet in MI6???)

I love Albert Finney, and he’s fun in the film, though I didn’t think his character was necessary at the end, and frankly would have preferred that the focus have been exclusively on Bond and M.  This new character of Kincade seemed entirely superfluous.  Still, Albert Finney is always great.

I loved the generous use of the Bond theme throughout the film, and I particularly enjoyed the classic Bond-theme flourishes when a familiar vehicle made its return.  Very nice.

Best line: M: “Go on!  Eject me!”

James Bond will return.  Rumor has it screenwriter John Logan has pitched a two-film saga for Bond films 24 and 25, which is intriguing.  I’d like to see the series return to Quantum and really make that criminal organization a dangerous threat to Bond, one worthy of all the build-up given to it in the last two films.  For now, I’m happy to have enjoyed Skyfall, even though it wasn’t all that I’d hoped it would be.  I have a feeling it’s a film that will rise in my estimation, once I am able to better evaluate it on its own, rather than in comparison to the film I was hoping for.  In the mean-time, happy fiftieth anniversary, double-O seven.  Is there any other film franchise that can come close to your longevity?  I don’t think so.

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