Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Movie Review - Skyfall

Due to the nature of the previous two Bond films (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), I fully expected Skyfall to pick up shortly after Quantum of Solace and focus on Bond continuing to uncover the mysterious conspiracy of the group called Quantum and their attempt to create a New World Order. Aside from the trailers, I hadn't heard any buzz or spoilers about the film so I had no idea what to expect. Instead of continuing where Quantum left off, Skyfall sets the Quantum story by the wayside and sets us out on a new adventure entirely.

The opening gambit is an action packed romp filled with stealthy maneuvering through halls, car and motorcycle chases through foreign cities, plenty of destruction of property and finally an intense hand-to-hand combat scene set on the top of a moving train. I'd have to go rewatch the previous opening scenes, but this is the best one in recent memory.

The opening scene ends with a very abrupt surprise twist that transitions into the melancholy opening song performed by Adele. During the opening credits, the emphasis tries to up-play the event that ended the opening scene. Essentially it was clear that they were preparing us for some very dramatic events yet to come. Plus the song is hauntingly cool. :-)

There are a lot of scenes and references in this film to the fact that both M and Bond are getting old. The government is pressuring M to retire and suggesting that perhaps Bond and other field agents are becoming antiquated and need to be replaced as well. There's a lot of introspective moments where characters contemplate their mortality and try to evaluate their future. I felt like perhaps this was overdone just a touch but I liked the way it made both Bond and M feel more human, more real, more relatable. Naturally neither M nor Bond agree to retirement. Instead, they are thrust headlong into an adventure that, if it goes poorly, could force them to retire in a very permanent way.

Due to a combination of his age (as suggested) and injury, James is not up to his standard physical prowess. He's not always the rampaging robot spy we've seen in earlier shots. He pauses to catch his breath. His iron grip threatens to give way. He has trouble maintaining the exhausting chases over long sweeping periods. Again it is clear that James Bond is human. He may be ruthlessly persistent and have great talent for always getting what he's after, but his results don't always come without difficulty.

The storyline of this film is pretty intricate and fun. It's still gritty and dark like the previous Daniel Craig films but the writing and tone has also pulled together more of the humorous quips and situations that were a staple of earlier Bond movies. The cheesy puns certainly aren't as overused as they were in the 70s-90s but they are there and make you grin and groan at the same time.

Some other Bond films present the main villain early on either directly or by having him interact passively with Bond or other agents. In Skyfall we never meet or get a hint of who the villain is until the last possible moment. There is no foreshadowing, no suggestions of worldwide corporations or terror cells. The villains actions are hidden behind multiple layers of distraction and henchmen. If this was a murder mystery or some other story in that vein, this would be annoying to a reader/viewer since the goal is to play along with the detective. In the world of James Bond, I think this way is much more entertaining. In the earlier films where Bond and the villain toy with each other practically from the beginning of the movie, the tone comes off as cheesy. In Skyfall it becomes evident that the villain is doing some toying, but we have no idea exactly how he's doing it or what he's up to. He's tucked away behind the curtain.

Once the villain does make his appearance he is overwhelmingly creepy. He speaks to James casually but respectfully and shows that he has no fear of 007, MI6 or any other force that may come after him. It's a standard case of the villain monologue where he gloats to our hero and explains just why he can't be stopped. Where the monologues are usually cheesy and hard to swallow, I found this villain to be rather persuasive and felt like he made great arguments and really had the upper hand. Even knowing that James Bond had at least one more trick up his sleeve I wasn't quite sure how he was going to pull off the mission.

We've had situations before where Bond is going up against a single mastermind but usually even that individual is using some mega corporation or puppet government to help with his work. It was interesting and strangely poignant to have a single mastermind in this film who is acting solely on his own motives and with his own forces and funds. It's a far cry from the Cold War films where it was always Bond against Communism or the 80s and 90s with drug cartels, weapon runners, corrupt governments or greedy mega-conglomerates.

We are smack in the 21st century with an elusive single terrorist working on his own accord to carry out a mission with no political or financial motives. Rather than the spy against government, gangs, armies or corporations we have a case of spy against terrorist. This transition is obviously intentional and there's a scene later on with spoken commentary on the point in case you missed it. In a world of uncertainty where you can't know who the real enemy is, are you willing to trust government security in order to feel safe at night? It was a little heavy handed, but it worked.

After the initial confrontation with the villain and the moment when the story had seemingly resolved itself, I was surprised to see the plot continue to ratchet itself up a bit and noticed that we still had considerable time left in the film. I thought maybe we'd just see them tying up the "forced retirement" thread since that seemed to be where it was logically going. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were in for more action and adventure and not just bureaucratic discussions.

I don't want to add spoilers here but I did feel like the transition back into more action felt very contrived. As a plot device it worked (a couple of scenes felt vaguely like something I saw in Avengers earlier this year) but logically it felt strained. We have a sudden realization that all of the villain's previous actions have been carefully orchestrated in a way that leads to James Bond having a big action sequence in underground London. Personally I can't draw the line back that far. I can "maybe" see this being a contingency plan in case the worst happened, but I can't buy that it's all part of some master plan.

I can forgive the shortcomings of the plot point because they lead us to the final action piece of the movie. This final sequence is different in tone, setting and structure than the rest of the film but I absolutely loved it. The setting was super fun. The methods were creative. The action was great. It was a much better payoff than if the movie had ended 20 minutes earlier.

This last action sequence also continued the idea of acknowledging the feeling and content of previous Bond movies. Similar to the increase in cheesy puns and one-liners reminiscent of Bond films gone by, the final third of the movie has a lot of fabulous "fanboy" service that really made me smile. By the time we reach the final 5 minutes of the movie I felt like we have literally transitioned back into a Bond film from the 60s. And I absolutely loved it. Don't get me wrong, I don't want us to "backtrack" in terms of storytelling, tone and theme in future movies but I am super excited to see the subtle and elegant ways they are reincorporating elements from the past.

Overall I absolutely loved this movie. While I enjoyed Quantum of Solace, it felt like a step down after Casino Royale and really left me wanting more. This one obviously continues the idea of humanizing James Bond and filling out his character but it does so in a much more rewarding and enticing way. I totally loved the nods to Bond movie history and I had plenty of nostalgic glee at the small (and big) elements re-introduced here. The overarching plot had a couple of points where it fell apart for me but generally it flowed pretty well and was acceptable for an action-adventure movie where reality is stretched thin anyway.

Casino introduced us to the new grittier Bond and was a great vehicle to bring Bond into 21st Century reality . Quantum pulled us down into murky darkness and gloom and was less satisfying. Skyfall redeemed the pull and brought us back on an upward trajectory where I am earnestly looking forward to see where Bond goes next not only as an adventure but as a character. If you're a lover of Bond films new or old, you should enjoy this film.

4 out of 5 stars


Brian Miller said...

oh man....i cant wait....i think i may have to splurge and not wait for the dollar theatre...i love bond....and the new bond has def grown on me...

Phoenix said...

I had a couple issues with it - mostly the lack of any sort of chronological logic to it - in the first two movies Bond is just starting out and suddenly in the third one he's an old man? - but enjoyed the action scenes immensely. They definitely did a great job of upping the stakes, that's for sure! Glad to hear you enjoyed it like I did :)