Thursday, November 15, 2012

Film Review: Skyfall

I know I am in the minority of Bond fans, but Casino Royale is my favorite Bond movie and Daniel Craig is my favorite James Bond.

But I was skeptical about Skyfall because of the debacle known as Quantum of Solace.  The last two Bond movies chose to hire directors known more for their dramatic work rather than their experience with big action set pieces.  But whereas Marc Forster's failures in Quantum were on full display, Skyfall's Sam Mendes makes  the movie closer in style to Casino Royale.

The movie begins with a high-velocity chase sequence, during which Bond is lost and presumed dead.  But instead of falling into anonymity, he returns to MI:6 when M (Dame Judy Dench), the only mother-figure in his life, is threatened.  And M herself is given more of a role in this story than any other Bond. She feels like she is being pushed out by bureaucrats like Garreth Mallory (Ralph Fieness) who only see the political side of espionage and security.  All the while she is haunted by a past mistake in the form of her former portage Silva (Javier Bardem).

In this film, we have a damaged James Bond.  His brush with death has frayed him.  It also doesn't help that the years have taken their toll on his edge.  This can be seen in Craig himself, who face is noticeably more sunken and lined than it was in Casino Royale.  Nevertheless, the performance of the world's best double O is still as believable as ever.

As I said earlier, Mendes wisely ditches the hellish shakeycam and psychotic quick cuts of Quantum of Solace for something more in the style of Casino Royale.  But you still get the feeling that he hasn't been able to crack to the code of the action scene.  He hits the all of the standard chase and fight moments, but it lacks the kinetic energy the have us riveted.  The chase at the beginning of Casino Royale is an exciting and innovated spectacle.  The chase at the beginning of Skyfall is feels done more out of obligation and enjoyment.

And to be quite honest I found myself getting a bit sleepy in the first half of the movie, which is never a good sign.

But the film picks up in the second half with the discovery of the main villain and then pushes forward into the isolated final act.

While better than the last Bond outing, Skyfall has a few noticeable problems.

First, Mendes seems REALLY impressed with Bardem's acting.  He lets the camera linger on him as if to tell us, "See THAT!  That's ACTING."  And while his Silva is probably the best bad guy of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, he chews the scenery a little too much.  He takes the character a bit too over the top to take too seriously.

Second, Bond comes off as horribly cold in this movie.  Not that he was all lollipops and lilacs in the other films, but his dark side makes him a little more unlikeable than I comfortable with.  More than a few time in the movie Bond stands by while someone else is killed.  I know that he is making a means/ends calculation, but if our hero comes off as heartless, I'm less inclined to care if he lives.  I am very concerned about how often our movie heroes choose to do evil (or allow evil to be done) for the perceived greater good.  It is becoming more common and I find that a bit disturbing.  Bond has never been a paragon of virtue, but he always seem to tip a little more towards the side of the angels than he has lately.

Third, the bad guy suffers from what I like to call "Joker-itis."  This is partly the fault of The Dark Knight, where the Joker's seeming chaos allowed him to manipulate all of the heroes to the point where we saw a giant, complex master plan underneath all of his seeming setbacks.  It made him more fearsome because he could outsmart the good guys.  Silva is like that too, but in a way that sometimes makes no sense.  At one point he detonates an explosion while Bond is chasing him.  But he only would have planted only if he knew the exact place at which we would have been chased down at the exact time an exact train was passing that exact spot.  Belief can be suspended a lot, but then they drop the ball and let this master tactician flounder.

Having said all of that, Skyfall is still a lot of fun to watch.  Mendes does a good job of directing some nice character development.  The word "Skyfall" is mentioned in the first act during Bond's psych evaluation and he tenses, which teases us with its significance.  When revealed let out an audible "Oooh," at what it revealed about the character.  In fact, we probably are given more back story to Bond in this movie than in any other previous film.

The casting and characters are also generally very good.  Ben Whishaw as Q brings a hipster, techno-geek vibe to the film and plays well against Craig's stony 007.  Naomi Harris as Bond's field partner Eve have some very good chemistry, which only builds by their flirtatious but resistant give and take.  Fieness, unlike Bardem, plays his character a straight and to the point.  This was a nice surprise since I kept expecting him to go full Voldemort.  Judy Dench brings more desperation and depth the M than before as she realizes that the world is beginning to pass her by while the sins of her past haunt her.  Finally, Albert Finney has a nice extended cameo that I could not help feel was intended for Sean Connery.

But the best part of the film are all of the call backs to earlier movies in the franchise.  I must resist mentioning them, because when they appear on the screen, the surprise was so delightful.  Daniel Craig's Bond has been a notifiable change from the past.  But with this movie I could see the strong connection with the franchise's roots.  It made the old seem new and the new seem nostalgic.

Skyfall is flawed, but it is still a pretty darn good Bond movie.

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