MOVIE REVIEW: Skyfall
SKYFALL-- 5 STARS
Last week I broke down the very simple recipe to make a good kid's film when talking about Wreck-It Ralph. With the release of the latest James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I head back behind the bar again for another course of movie "mixology" for a very familiar cocktail. Celebrating the franchise's 50th year in movies and 23rd film, the recipe and formula to make a good James Bond movie has been predominantly the same for its half-century vintage.
Like his famous shaken-but-not-stirred martinis, all you need is one part dashing, sexy, and heroic secret agent, one part eccentric villain of equal strength, two dashes of gorgeous women, ice cubes of exotic locations and plot devices, and a glass filled to the brim with eye-popping, stunt-driven action from the top shelf bottle of absurdity. The taste is meant to be exhilarating on the palette with a tough-in-cheek finish. Like the overly-creative mixology of modern bartending, there might be dozens of variations of martinis, but only a few of them really taste good. The same logic can be applied for Bond films. Some of them (Dr. No, Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Casino Royale, and a few others) are legendary with repeat drinkability while others (everything else) are bad fads like Zima or top shelf knockoffs. While movie audiences are like drinkers with different tastes for different occasions, so too are the movies' legacies. To each his own.
Those chief movie ingredients have been tweaked over the years to skew to discerning and changing tastes, but the result is still a James Bond movie. In this latest 21st century generation of James Bond, played with against-type intensity by Daniel Craig, the bartenders went back to drawing board. 2006's Casino Royale was a brilliant, post-Bourne, and post 9/11-world reboot and origin story to a character that had slowly become a Cold War dinosaur joke under Pierce Brosnan. In Royale and its under-appreciated direct follow-up Quantum of Solace, Craig and the filmmakers have put the ruthless dark killer from the original Ian Fleming novels back into character while still playing our favorite sex symbol and action daredevil. The result has been a no nonsense, driven, incredibly flawed, and actually wound-able James Bond compared to the invisible caricature of decadence he had become a generation prior.
With a two-movie reboot and origin story complete, Skyfall gives this new James Bond a chance to really flex his muscles and his will. This stand-alone adventure drives home all of the rooted character work Daniel Craig has put into taking this classic hero from cartoon to icon. No more can Daniel Craig be called a placeholder to the next tall, dark, and handsome Brit waiting in the wings (sorry, Michael Fassbender). His sullen blue eyes, his chiseled and grizzled face, and his mashed scowl have removed the tongue from the cheek to create the new archetype for what this character is meant to be and should be.
With the unlikely choice of an internalizing, Academy Award-winning director like Sam Mendes (American Beauty) at the helm, Skyfall not only still delivers the incredible action we come to expect from a Bond film, but also builds a colossal layer of character depth and scope that the half-century series has never seen before. Bond has always been about the same things, but now we get more and more tastes at a rich back story, a sure sign of shattering the tongue-in-cheek stereotype. That combination of catalyst and resonance is why I may begin to agree with many other critics that have anointed Skyfall the best James Bond film ever made. I'll say right now. It's hard to find a flaw.
To introduce you, spoiler-free, to Skyfall, Mendes skips the traditional gun barrel pose-striking intro and heads right into the fray of sunny Istanbul, Turkey with Agent 007 on assignment with his partner Eve (Naomie Harris of 28 Days Later). Their task is to recover a stolen hard drive containing the names and cover identities of all of NATO's spies in the field. Directing the operation from MI6 Headquarters in London, the dutiful M. (Dame Judi Dench, in her sixth Bond film) calls the shots. When the mark and the hard drive gets away, Bond leads chase through the markets, rooftops, and train lines of Istanbul until the mission ends badly and unsuccessfully for MI6.
The secret information from the hard drive has ended up in the hands of cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, channeling a creepy amalgamation of Hannibal Lecter and Julian Assange types) who has hacked multiple levels of MI6 threatening revenge for "sins," much of which is directed primarily at M. With defeat, loss, and failure on her hands, the British government begins to get involved with MI6 and sends in Security Committee Chairman Gareth Mallory (excellent new addition Ralph Fiennes) to oversee M. into retirement. Given clearance for one final effort to apprehend Silva, Bond steps up to the plate to back his boss's play in the field. Naturally, this espionage effort takes Bond to exotic locals, particularly the lights and glass of Singapore and the lantern-lit Macau, before hitting close to home in London and eventually rural Scotland.
Shot by Roger Deakins, one of the best old-school cinematographers in the business, few James Bond movies have looked this perfect. Like Mendes, he too comes from more small scale films, like his regular collaboration with the Coen brothers, than from blockbusters. Not to sound too artsy-fartsy, but you will not believe the use of natural light in Skyfall.
Coupled with the trusty reliance on physical stunts over CGI effects, the movie has a beautiful and realistic, yet visceral look to itself. As I advertised, just because a quiet director like Sam Mendes is present doesn't mean that the film trimmed itself of action. On paper, Deakins and Mendes would seem to be out of their element, but I think the opposite occurred. They brought their immense talent of internal atmosphere to something so big that it never had boundaries before.
That compliment directly correlates with the depth of character examination present in Skyfall that has never been attempted to this scale and detail in the Bond franchise. Returning Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade continue their outstanding modern revision of the character, while getting a nice script assist from three-time Oscar-nominated writer John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo), who knows how to make large projects deeply character-driven. By adding legitimate peril, drama, and brushstrokes of James Bond's pre-spy history and upbringing between action set-pieces makes for an incredibly affecting and rich experience.
As I discussed before, none of this new direction for James Bond would be possible without Daniel Craig. In Skyfall, he adds a tortured soul to the tortured heart that was built from the previous two movies. While he can still fill a tuxedo and deliver a pick-up line if necessary, Craig's Bond was built to serve the job of being an agent, not the job of a playboy. It is immensely effective in this third film and has cemented Daniel Craig's ownership of the character. As with any Bond film, the movie is only as good as it's villain and Javier Bardem's coiled and unusual menace eats up the screen in his scenes. As an Academy Award winner and renowned international star, Bardem might arguably be the most talented actor ever to play a Bond villain. While I can't call him the all-time best, he more than fits the bill of crazy and legitimate threat. You either like him or you hate him and, yet, it works either way.
Not to be undone or upstaged, Dame Judi Dench might just steal the whole show. Skyfall offers as much excellent character depth examination for M. as it does for Bond and Dench is fantastic. While many might have called for a reboot of her M. character six years ago as an unnecessary carryover from the Pierce Brosnan-age, she continually surprises in each film and is a welcome veteran presence of poise and leadership. The rest of the cast is rounded out nicely with a new Q. (Ben Whishaw of Cloud Atlas), a man from Bond's past played by the incomparable Albert Finney, and the perfect new spy additions of Fiennes and Harris.
Once again, it's hard to find a flaw and I will continue to keep things spoiler-free. Knowing that it's the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Mendes coyly drops little hat-tipping homages and geeky nuggets throughout the film for the diehard Bond fans. Adele's title song is brassy dynamite and worthy of mention among the best Bond songs of all-time. Finally, let me just say that, not unlike The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer, Skyfall, when it's all said and done, might have the best final five minutes of a movie you will see this year when it comes to furthering the lore of a classic character and striking the perfect ending note. I'll end it there. I've been extremely impressed with this hardened and grounded version of James Bond offered by Daniel Craig and I'm exciting to see where Skyfall can launch the character next.
LESSON #1: A MOVING TARGET IS THE HARDEST TO HIT-- While this might mind sound like a simplistic lesson for a film franchise comically known for its hero character's deft marksmanship versus the hailstorm of bad guy machine gun fails, I'm aiming deeper. In this new age of terrorism without nations, homelands, or defined battlegrounds, our enemies are moving targets now. They are sometimes faceless ideas or avatars that move freely through borders, cyberspace, and loose world control. They leave electronic trails not physical ones. Skyfall's Silva is this new kind of terrorist. He's not a stationary face on a wanted poster which is a much more elusive adversary.
LESSON #2: LOSING A STEP-- We hear this term the most with professional athletes who have performed at a high level for a long period of time but are now less than the great player they once were. In this new age requiring more computers than bullets to combat terrorism, Bond has also lost a step or two. Like most great players, he has to regain his form with the confidence that even his "less-than-great" is better than the average person's "very good."
LESSON #3: THINK ON YOUR SINS-- This little imperative sentence is Silva's ominous inward threat to M. and her colleagues. For many years, M. has lead the job to do a nation's dirty work behind the scenes. Equally as such, Bond has been trained to become a tool of that dirty work as a programmed and formidable killer. When reflection time comes with age, the weight of those sins will give more than just pause. The weak cave to that pressure of regret of those sins. The strong justify their sins with resolve that they were not committed in vain and served a purpose or greater good.