Skyfall Review

Apparently, MGM’s financial woes couldn’t have been a bigger boon for its biggest money-maker. Using the forced hiatus since 2008’s Quantum of Solace, the James Bond franchise was able to nab a fantastic story, an eye-popping director and a riveting villain for its 23rd entry into the saga: Skyfall. It was time well spent. From the fantastic opening to the oddly edge-of-your-seat climax, you won’t find a Bond as invigorating and truly absorbing as this.

Instead of delivering just another episodic entry into the series, director Sam Mendes offers something far more challenging and risky: the Road to Perdition of Bond films. James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to duty after three months of being presumed dead after a botched mission when his mentor and mother figure, M (Judy Dench), is targeted in a massive terrorism attack led by someone from her past, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Directly along the sidelines are an array of new characters, including suspended agent Eve (Naomie Harris), a much younger Q (Ben Whishaw), and M16 bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).

While we get our familiar staples that every film must have (a motorcycle chase on the rooftop of the Grand Bizarre, for example), this is far more contemplative and curious than expected. We get questions we’ve never heard before. Why is James Bond who he is? Where did he come from? What does the world look like through his eyes? How close is his relationship with M? And most importantly, what happens when when the world looks at him and sees a irrelevant relic from the golden age of espionage? Director Sam Mendes and Craig are determined to uncover the heart and soul beneath that impeccable suit and tie. We see Bond and M in a far different light than we have before – we see them in a modern world where maybe M16 doesn’t need super secret spies anymore. At least not the kind with a license to kill. Both Craig and Dench are extremely good at these roles, with Craig on his 3rd and Dench on her 6th. This is the best we’ve seen from both actors within their Bond stints.

Of all the James Bond films, Skyfall diverts the most from the pesky Bond formula that I’ve grown rather tired of seeing. Up until Casino Royale, the formula was more or less a wearisome retread. Before each film begins, we know the villain will end up dead, the girls will be forgotten by the next film and Bond will drive off into the sunset with a martini in hand and a smirk on his face. Predictability breeds contempt, in my case.

Yet Skyfall makes all the right choices and takes all the right risks. If Casino Royale was the Batman Begins of the franchise, then Skyfall is definitely the Dark Knight. It takes the established renovations of the character and makes it as personal as possible with a massive level of characterization, wit and depth.

Now James Bond is the quintessential action hero. We all know that. He has given every male worldwide an indelible envy of being British at some point in their lives. As the saying goes, women want him, men want to be him. Bond has had several incarnations over the years, from the charming investigator (Connery), to the self-aware goofball (Moore), to the smooth player (Brosnan). Personally, I prefer the haunted grittiness and dedicated patriotism of Daniel Craig’s Bond, where we’ve been given far more serious fare than any other adaptation.

When we look at Craig’s Bond, we see the closest version of Ian Fleming’s original vision. Each previous actor to play Bond encompasses an element of the character, but Craig is the first to tackle the whole of Bond. This Bond is smart, cunning and quick on his feet. He doesn’t need the women or the gadgets. Craig is at his most comfortable and natural in the lead character’s shoes this time around. We can see a shorthand, a nature finesse, in the way he plays Bond. He’s a tough, bitter, nihilistic guy who is far more relatable and sympathetic than he has any business being.

Now for the crux of every Bond film: the villain. Even though he doesn’t show up until 75 minutes into the film, Raoul Silva is so psychologically and physically fascinating that when he’s on screen, he’s the only thing that has our attention. His yellow hairstyle might be ridiculous, but that’s just part of the game.

Silva’s introduction is perhaps one of the coolest and well-crafted moments in the film, where he approaches a tied-up Bond in a painfully slow manner and delivers an outstanding monologue that left me speechless. What impressed me most was how Bardem challenges himself. We already know he can effortlessly exude menace. But here, he does so in a totally different way that doesn’t even slightly lower the effective impact. Instead, that menace is channeled with a surprising flourish of camouflaged flamboyance. Which, somehow, makes him all the more eerily unpredictable. We can never gauge him.

Bardem’s chilling performance combined with the character’s deliciously-written dialogue easily puts Silva in the upper rosters of Bond’s rogue gallery. While Silva may suffer a bit for regular audiences in seemingly mirroring The Dark Knight‘s Joker and The Avengers’ Loki, true Bond fans will see the best-written Bond villain thus far, one who actually has a devastating master plan doesn’t involve taking over the world, but making Bond and M’s world crumble. He’s a master of psychological welfare and a particularly fitting villain for Bond.

Bond films aren’t exactly known for their levity – yet that’s perhaps the greatest attribute of Skyfall. It establishes an emotional core between Bond and M. It hints at the film’s title meaning far more to Bond than we realize. It shows a humanity. By the time the climax (which revolves around a barricaded manor) occurs, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. This is as tense and seat-gripping as Bond gets, and mainly because of the stakes involved. For the first time in a James Bond film, I actually cared about what was about to happen. It was as perfectly crafted a climax as Heat or Seven. Everything comes together with a resounding boom. Sam Mendes found the secret of doing Bond right – it’s not the explosions or the action we crave, it’s the heart and emotions. To make us care about the action, we need to care about the people involved and here, Mendes gets us to actually worry about what’s about to happen.

The extra time spent on writing the script couldn’t be better shown. Every single scene is flawlessly paced and terrifically toned. Every action set is constantly inventing bigger and better ways do get our attention, from utilizing a bulldozer, to a train, to a car, to a manor, to a shed to on top of a cracking frozen lake. There is not one lazy or average choice made, even during its most traditional of procedural moments. Even in the trivial periods where you can tell we’re just transitioning between awesome scenes, Mendes just does a spectacular job in making it all look good.

From American Beauty to Road to Perdition, one of my favorite traits of Mendes’s directorial style is how he maximizes the visual beauty of a shot and shows himself as an artist drawing a landscape. Obviously with that in mind, the theme opening is one of the  most visually arresting in the franchise. There are so many stunning moments within the film, with the  best – by far – being a continuous shot filming a perfectly-choreographed silhouetted fight scene with a shimmering dark blue backdrop. I hope Mendes continues making big-budget action films, because he’s obviously good at it.

Whether you believe this is the greatest James Bond entry of all time or merely a passable footnote will most likely be determined by what elements you most want in a Bond film, there are certain expectations that come from these films. Now for me, not having grown up with the franchise and instead catching up well into my high-school years, I find this to contain all the endearing Bondisms (the one-liners, the faux-cheesy sex scenes, the fast cars, the innovative escapes) in overdrive. The writing is far better than Bond usually gets, from the witty banter to the intense antagonistic confrontations to the general level of ingenuity in what action sets we use. This is also my favorite Bond plot, which hinges less on some idiot thinking he can take over the world and more on some actual serious stakes that directly affect Bond and his microcosm of things and people he actually cares about.

The famed British super agent hasn’t been given this much quality storytelling to chew on in his entire career. This is, by far, the most texturally rich, ambitious, and satisfying film in the 50-year-old franchise. I constantly found myself intrigued, surprised, and even emotionally invested. If anyone doubted a new era of Bond with the arrival of Casino Royale back in 2006, they can’t deny it now. Skyfall not only elaborates on the Bond story, it heightens it. This is Bond’s – and M’s – finest moment.

In Theaters: UK October 26, 2012 / US November 9, 2012
Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking)
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe
Genre: Action/Adventure, Sequel
Distributor: Sony Pictures
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