Friday, November 9, 2012

"Skyfall" (2012)

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan
Directed by Sam Mendes
Rated PG-13 - Intense sequences of action and peril, language, sex
Running Time: 143 Minutes

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and a fellow agent, Eve (Naomi Harris) arrive at an MI6 safehouse in Turkey to retrieve a highly-classified hard drive containing a list of names of undercover agents in terrorist groups throughout the world.  But they're too late - the agents have been killed, and Bond is soon on the trail of the thief.  Before he can retrieve the drive from the thief, M (Judi Dench) orders Eve, acting as sniper, to shoot, and she accidentally hits Bond, sending him tumbling into a river and losing the mission and the list.

Months later, Bond is living a quiet life of alcoholism and addiction to pain pills in a beach hut somewhere when he sees on television that there has been a terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters.  Drawn back by his allegiance to M, he returns to London and to MI6.  Unfortunately, the loss of the list and now this attack, has brought M under scrutiny by civilian oversight.  Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) informs M that she's being retired, and M vows to complete the mission.

She sends Bond to Shanghai, where he will come face to face with the man who stole the hard drive. But Bond is unable to learn from him who he works for, who is behind the attack on MI6 that seems strangely personal to M, and who is releasing the names of MI6 agents across the world.  With the bodies piling up, Bond comes face to face with Silva (Javier Bardem) a ghost from M's past with a plan for vicious retribution, and the possibility that for all his loyalty to her, M may not be who or what Bond thinks she is.

Who is James Bond?  Who is M? These are the questions that drive "Skyfall." Daniel Craig's first foray as Bond, "Casino Royale," is one of my favorite Bond films.  It explores, in depth, how Bond becomes Bond. His second go'round, "Quantum of Solace," took that story a bit further.  This third film, "Skyfall," doesn't show us how Bond is who he is - it shows us why. It shows us a man who, even broken, is devoted both to his job and to his boss, even when it seems like he shouldn't be. It shows us a man who does what is needed, even if that means being something of an old fashioned, outmoded kind of agent.

"Skyfall" is easily the most personal Bond film yet made.  One of the things I had found so fascinating about both "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace" was the mother-son relationship that seemed to be forming between Bond and M.  That relationship is cemented perfectly in "Skyfall," and is in fact central to the film entirely. Javier Bardem's Silva is Bond's predecessor, a former MI6 agent who had been used and discarded by M in years past.  Silva informs Bond that this is his own future, that they should team up because they are so alike.  Bond's devotion to M, even in the face of her betrayal of him at the beginning of the film, is excitingly well-played by everyone involved.

Judi Dench gives her best performance as M here, surpassing her six previous times in the role (though, with the continuity reboot, that muddles things a bit - but not the quality of her performance). A central scene in which M must testify on her failures before a government committee and gives an impassioned speech about not only her own worth, but about the worth of her agents is a thinly veiled argument for why we need James Bond, why the character is still relevant and why we should still watch his movies, and it works.

The script is loaded with moments such as this that delve deeper into the pasts of these characters like no Bond film ever has. We even get to see Bond's childhood home as the setting for the film's fantastic finale, and what happens there will set the stage for further Bond adventures to come. The way "Skyfall" ends will have any Bond fan smiling big and wide, ready for whatever comes next.

Sam Mendes directs with a sure hand.  He's never done an action picture before, but you'd never know it the way he deftly weaves character drama, gorgeous scenery and, yes, artful action sequences together.  There's plenty of mayhem on hand, especially in the film's rollicking opening sequence - a chase through Istanbul that features shootouts, car crashes, and even Bond driving a construction vehicle on top of a train - and the Scotland finale. But in between all that, "Skyfall" goes to some gorgeous locations that are beautifully shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. One recurring visual motif in the film is having characters entirely in silhouette, yet we always understand what's happening in these moments.  The characters are never lost in the darkness, and you almost don't even notice that you can't see any of their features.  Of particular note is a fight sequence in Shanghai between Bond and an assassin that is shot entirely in this fashion, and much of it takes place in one long take, and it's truly fantastic.

Javier Bardem doesn't appear for the first half of the film, but once he shows up, he never lets go of the screen. He's wild and insane and very, very funny, but he's menacing.  His ability to stay one step ahead of Bond and M makes him a formidable foe. But it's really Bardem's incredible presence as an actor that sells it.  There's a layer of camp to the role, but Bardem seems to be able to grasp that and twist it, so that the character, as weird and funny as he is, never feels like a cartoon.  There's a scene between Silva and M where he reveals his reasons for hating her and shows her exactly what she did to him that is wonderfully played.

"Skyfall" is the 23rd Bond film, but its release coincides with the franchise's 50th anniversary. About a decade ago, "Die Another Day" was the 20th Bond film and it was decided that that film would be a sort of homage or love letter to the franchise.  As such, its plot is a mishmash of concepts ripped from previous films, and the script is loaded with jokey references to earlier adventures. "Skyfall" works far better as an anniversary film, with subtle references and nods for fans to recognize without beating the audience over the head with it. A number of iconic concepts return to the series with "Skyfall," including the character of Q, reinvented here as a sardonic young computer whiz played by Ben Whishaw, Bond's "fully loaded" Aston Martin, and a few more surprises I won't ruin.

"Skyfall" in some respects feels like the ultimate Bond film.  It manages to incorporate a lot of the elements that fans have loved about the franchise for five decades while finding a fresh take on the material that deepens our understanding of the characters and their relationships. Crackling action sequences, truly gorgeous photography, great performances and a smart script make "Skyfall" not just a top-notch James Bond film, but an action film that rises up to offer something more.