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007/50: Old dog, new tricks?: Skyfall (2012) ~ Review

November 23, 2012

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Directed by: Sam Mendes; Produced by: Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli; Screenplay by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan; Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear and Helen McCrory; Certificate: 12A; Country: UK/ USA; Colour; Running time: 143 minutes; Release date: October 26 2012

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Note: for those who are somehow still to see Skyfall, this review mostly features no spoilers. Mostly…

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Ah, Great Britain in 2012. While it abounds with increasing austerity and north-of-the-border peeps (including leading politicos) are intent on dismantling the Union, at the other end of the scale the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and – more significantly – London’s Olympics and Paralympics have reflected a multi-culturally dynamic, vibrant and tolerant nation whose capital has (supposedly) taken back its place at the very centre of the globe.

And joining that party this autumn is Blighty’s most popular hero (Bradley Wiggins aside) James Bond, celebrating his own Golden Jubilee in brand spanking new film Skyfall. The movie features London and other British locations prominently, as it marks both 007’s 50th anniversary and (more likely by happenstance than design) the aforementioned ‘UK’s 2012’. But with all this bunting hanging off it, does Skyfall work? Well, you bet your perfectly formed arse it does. And often in ways you’d probably not expect from a Bond film.

Not only is it all of 50 years since Bond debuted on the silver screen in Dr No, it’s also all of six years since Daniel Craig took on the mantle of 007 in Casino Royale and all of four years since he last appeared in the role in Quantum Of Solace. So, after only two films under his belt, he – and audiences – have had to endure the longest gap between Eon efforts within any single Bond actor’s tenure. Yet, he now definitely feels like James Bond; perhaps most of all because of his marvellous appearance in the Olympics opening ceremony insert Happy And Glorious alongside Her Maj. And, rest assured, his appearance in Skyfall only underlines the fact he’s our James Bond. Indubitably so, in fact.

And that’s because he’s no longer the wet-behind-the-ears ’00’ agent of Royale and (to a lesser extent) of Solace. He joins us in 2012 with, it seems, the years since we’ve last seen him having passed for him too. Now a properly senior, long-in-the-tooth, seen-it-all and M-trusted ‘old dog’ of the department, he’s more sardonic, less laconic; more suave, less raw; more charming and human, less harming and robotic. And yet, he’s still just as hard-as-nails, action-oriented and dangerous as he was four and six years ago respectively. He’s now just… more. More James Bond.

That’s surely to be expected in the third instalment of a successful Bond actor’s stint, though. Arguably the other major reasons why Skyfall works are not, however – its writing and directing. Taking (to some extent) previously unused inspiration from the Fleming novels You Only Live Twice (1964) and The Man With The Golden Gun (1965), the plot – shaped by screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John ‘Gladiator‘ Logan, Peter ‘The Queen‘ Morgan (who departed the project in pre-production) and helmer Sam Mendes – sees a presumed dead 007 having to resurrect himself just as MI6 has to resurrect itself under ambiguous bureaucrat Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) following a devastating attack on its very core at Vauxhall Cross, which takes out several operatives before more are exposed throughout the world, thanks to a grudge against Intelligence chief M (Judi Dench) from former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) being enacted in a twisted, visceral plan of evil abandon and destructive de-crediting.

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Hold your breath and count to 10: Daniel Kleinman returns with his boldy brilliant, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-them opening titles to the tune of Adele’s awesome (name-checking) song

The strength and, thus, success of Skyfall‘s writing is its commitment to its three main characters – Bond, M and Silva. Essentially the story can be reduced (and has been come the climax) to a three-hander between the trio; Silva’s maddened plan of revenge aimed at his mother figure M, but put in action through the involvement of her other recovering ‘son’ Bond. And, don’t doubt it, following a botched pre-title mission, this miles-on-the-clock Bond is definitely in the throes of recovery, being put through his paces at a makeshift, atmospherically subterannean MI6 HQ physically, mentally and sardonically by young whippersnappers Eve (Naomie Harris’s flirtatious but green field agent) and Q (Ben Whishaw’s über-IT-savvy quartermaster for the new millennium) – one exchange sees the latter inform Bond “age is no guarantee of efficiency”, to which our hero ripostes “and youth is no guarantee of innovation”.

Indeed, the shock of the new and the potential fading of the old (eventually transisting into the reassertion of the old) is one of the main themes of this movie. Yes, Skyfall is a Bond film that has themes – it’s that sort of a flick we’re talking here. And, obviously, this is a fitting theme for the Eon effort that celebrates the series’ 50th anniversary. Not only is there Eve and Q coming up behind 007, there’s also the suggestion (a quite intelligent one) that Silva’s nihilistic worldview – that Bond and M’s belief in loyalty to and fighting for one’s country and its secrets is pathetically passé – may not be the myopic one of the two. Moreover, there’s Silva’s (and Q’s) pioneering use of the high-tech (computers and their ilk) versus Bond’s reliance on the low-tech (brawn, guns, daggers and in the climax the mechanical wonder that’s the gadgets of his Aston Martin DB5 – just how the DB5 of Craig’s Bond possesses these Goldfinger gadgets is an anomaly, admittedly, but one only continuity freaks need worry about).

And at one point in the climax, which itself deliciously delves into the near mythical origins of the Bond character thanks to its setting in the Scottish Highlands, even the ‘old man’ persona of Bond is reversed when his father’s former game-keeper Kincade (a game Albert Finney) amusingly refers to him as a “jumped up little sh*t”. In this Straw Dogs-like high octane culmination of action, Bond’s dynamism and physical prowess is what finally seals his resurrection and sees him prevail – a climax in which director Mendes wilfully ensures no technology that features is younger than the series itself.

Indeed, much credit to the telling of Skyfall‘s dedicated and engaging if simple story (and the quality of playing by the quality cast – many of whom were attracted to the project because of the director as much as the Bond brand) must go to Mendes. The helmer of Road To Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005), Revolutionary Road (2008) and, of course, the multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999) isn’t just a genre-hopping, chameleon filmmaker, he’s also a hugely acclaimed mover-and-shaker of hot ‘event theatre’, ensuring he’d come to Bond then with a commitment not just to quality storytelling and dedicated direction of his thesps (even Skyfall‘s production allowed for his famed lead actor rehearsal period), but also genuine visual flair.

Together with his regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes ensures this Eon effort is exceptionally – sometimes truly beautifully – filmed. From the near opening shot of the partially shadowed-out face of Craig to the capture of the sweeping vista of Istanbul moments later in the pre-titles and from the modernist, sophisticated, almost sterile neon of Shanghai’s cityscape to the stark, barren beauty of Bond’s celtic ‘homeland’, the movie offers up many a memorable visual flourish. But it’s not just about the look. Mendes also shows a commanding hand when it comes controlling the movie’s tone.

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Cuff adjuster: Craig introduces a (Brosnan-esque?) sartorial tic to his 007 in the pre-titles’ Turkey-set sequence, reflective of Skyfall’s satisfyingly lighter, ‘classic Bond’ moments

Unlike in the last two sombre efforts in the series, Skyfall‘s mood and atmos isn’t set in sober stone. It’s unquestionably serious for long stretches (dealing as it does with ‘realistic’ espionage settings and shenanigans, not to mention the darkly violent finish), but switches to lighter, more traditionally ‘Bondian’ moments (the introduction of the DB5 and reminder of its passenger-ejecting capability; the fisticuffs in the Macau casino following the fine introduction of the vampish but delicately affeared Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) – what’s a couple of CGI-ed komodo dragons between friends?). And Mendes smoothly delivers the tonal shifts, ensuring these bits nodding to Bond of lore aren’t just crowd-pleasingly funny and satisfying, but not at all out of place in the Craig 007 era either.

Indeed, in many ways what makes Skyfall such a successful Bond film is it’s not just a satisfying follow-up to Royale and Solace, but also fits near seamlessly into the lineage of the Connery and Moore Eon eras. In addition to those ‘Bondian’ nods are Thomas Newman’s thoroughly solid score. David Arnold-esque with a reliance on electronica here and there it may be, but it also mixes things up in its cues and themes, some featuring Oriental flourishes, others pulling out all the stops orchestrally (such as the simply awesome Chimera – click on the ‘Music’ image below to hear it). All told, it sounds a little subtler, yet a little more adventurous than Arnold’s efforts. It’s only enhanced too, of course, by chart-topper Adele’s near-chart-topping, near-classic Bond tune, itself accompanied by truly classic, macabre and original opening titles from the great Daniel Kleinman.

Something Skyfall offers too that no other 007 flick has for some time is a genuinely flamboyant, genuinely memorable villain. The great Javier Bardem (deserved Oscar-winner for 2007’s No Country For Old Men) creates a marvellously unhinged, opaquely sexually ambiguous, horribly deformed, Max Zorin-esque pexoide blond villain in the shape of Raoul Silva. Sure, there’s no other baddies of note (Ola Rapace’s operative-for-hire Patrice is uttlery forgettable), but when there’s such a gloriously OTT, yet convincingly cruel and dangerous antagonist as this, who cares? Bardem’s performance is – like much from many top Eon efforts – unlikely to win an Oscar, but deserves its place in the larder of the Bond series’ best ingredients.

And ultimately, then, that too goes for Skyfall as a whole. This is a 007 escapade that continues the tenor and action-intensity of the previous Craig ventures (the pre-titles motorbike-cum-train sequence in Turkey and the foot-cum-Tube-set chase through the heart of London are both excellent), while offering the aforementioned Bond gold of old. Yet, with Mendes at the helm, it also serves up something completely different and new to the series – a tight, simple but fine human drama, nay tragedy, focused around its three major players, as well as an action climax that’s satisfyingly darker, more intense and more interesting than any other the series has so far offered. In this year of Bondian celebration, Skyfall fittingly celebrates both London and Britain at large and (very cannily) Bondness itself… and it’s great to see with oh-so noisily till-ringing box-office returns, the world is celebrating Skyfall too. So, here’s a deserving toast to our man Bond – mine’s a vodka Martini, shaken and stirred.

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And, just to be thorough, here’s Skyfall‘s ratings according to the reviews system employed in my recent (nay, back-breaking) ‘Bondathon’ – and, thus, its ranking therein…

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Adjuster: +5

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Best line: “Some men are coming to kill us… we’re going to kill them first”

Best bit: The very final pair of scenes – a Bond fan’s delight

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Final rankings

(All scores out of 100/ new entry in blue/ * denotes a non-Eon Bond film)

1. Casino Royale (2006) ~ 90

=  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) ~ 90

3. Skyfall (2012) ~ 89

4. From Russia With Love (1963) ~ 88

5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) ~ 87

6. GoldenEye (1995) ~ 85

=  Goldfinger (1964) ~ 85

8. You Only Live Twice (1967) ~ 84

9. Live And Let Die (1973) ~ 82

10. A View To A Kill (1985) ~ 75

11. Dr No (1962) ~ 74

12. Moonraker (1979) ~ 73

13. Quantum Of Solace (2008) ~ 72

14. Thunderball (1965) ~ 70

15. For Your Eyes Only (1981) ~ 69

16. Never Say Never Again (1983)* ~ 68

=   Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) ~ 68

=   The World Is Not Enough (1999) ~ 68

19. The Living Daylights (1987) ~ 67

20. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) ~ 66

21. Octopussy (1983) ~ 64

22. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) ~ 62

23. Die Another Day (2002) ~ 61

24. Licence To Kill (1989) ~ 50

25. Casino Royale (1967)* ~ 48

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The End of the James Bond reviews

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