REVIEW: Skyfall

22 11 2012

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s first appearance on screen, and while Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” doesn’t explicitly make you aware of that fact until the ending credits roll, the landmark loomed large over the entire film for me.  Perhaps I’m an extreme case as my consciousness of the anniversary was no doubt raised tremendously by all the celebrations of the franchise on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival.  But it’s practically impossible not to notice the filmmakers’ awareness of the superspy’s legacy and how the very nature of the character is being precipitously torn in two drastically different directions.

Funny enough, the two previous iterations of James Bond with Daniel Craig inside the carefully tailored suit reflect the two competing forces for the future of 007.  2006’s smooth “Casino Royale” saw a return to an old-fashioned, suave Bond that harkened back to the glory days of Sean Connery.  You know, when a Bond film could bring in nearly $600 million (adjusted for ticket inflation).  And then, 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” took Her Majesty’s finest in a dirtier, muddier, grittier direction that resembled a Jason Bourne movie.

The makers of “Skyfall” were faced a choice: classic or contemporary, timely or timeless.  The decision was sure to be scrutinized by critics and semi-notable bloggers like myself who realized the importance of the film in the James Bond canon.  Thankfully, Mendes and writer John Logan (who seems to be the one garnering the most credit for the final product) realized that the concepts are not mutually exclusive and found the most intellectually rewarding experience came from examining the interplay between these binary oppositions.  The result is a remarkably contemplative movie of how the nature of James Bond has been determined by the time in which he serves whilst some essence of British class always remains.

Logan and Mendes play rather deftly with the Bond tropes and iconography, trotting it out and then subversively turning it on its head.  They recognize there will always be a place for the olden ways, but they have to be refashioned if 007 is to be a plausible spy.  For example, the bartender makes Bond a martini.  Of course we expect to hear “shaken, not stirred.”  Instead, Bond stares for a second before offering up a curt “Thanks.”

While many might lament that he is morphing into Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, the filmmakers don’t pivot without plenty of thought.  A major subplot of “Skyfall” involves Judi Dench’s M confronting what many people would conventionally consider failure.  She and MI6 seem to be relics of a bygone era, mismatched against the behemoth threats stacked against them.  However, she reminds Parliament and everyone else listening that times have changed.

We no longer fight monolithic nations but individual threats.  The battlefield may have moved into the streets, but espionage must still be waged in the shadows.  Counterintelligence must be able to morph to face whatever enemy is most pernicious at the moment, and public opinion must also be willing to reconsider their notions of success and failure – ideas applicable to the world of James Bond and the world outside the screen watching.

The old James Bond will always live in DVD box sets and SpikeTV marathons, but Mendes and Logan remind us that a bit of that Bond can be present in future reincarnations.  But the corniness and excess has to be toned down for the integrity and viability of the series.  And if it does manifest itself, it most likely needs to be analyzed.  Logan gave a paradigm for such usage in “Skyfall” by the first appearance of the villain Silva, played by Javier Bardem with yet another appalling hairdo.  He attempts to turn Bond’s sexuality into a weapon against him in a very proactive way.  After five decades of nearly unparalleled sensual domination of his foes, it was about time for someone to return the favor.

To create such a deconstruction of a cultural icon, it’s no wonder Mendes and Logan turned to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”  Cinema is often a great collective, and it definitely makes sense to take what works and reapply it in another setting.  However, the action movie that forms the flesh and bones of “Skyfall” ultimately takes a few too many pages from Nolan’s masterpiece.  It goes from allegory in the Shanghai sequence to homage in Sliva’s imprisonment to almost plagiarism by the climax.

I’ll grant “Skyfall” that some scenes may have even been improved from “The Dark Knight,” namely due to the expert lensing of Roger Deakins.  The film is absolutely stunning to look at, so much so that you might not even notice how little forward momentum the film carries.  Or that the film largely lacks originality as an action movie.  It looks so sleek, though, that it’s easy not to really mind.

But even when not nearly as thrilling as they are gorgeously choreographed, the action sequences provide great time to think on some of the heavy themes raised in the film’s other sections.  M, given a fitting final arc for Judi Dench’s last turn in the role, channels Lady Macbeth as Silva forces her to ruminate on her guilt and complicity.  Silva also raises plenty of creepy Oedipal issues between himself, Bond, and M.  Set against a backdrop of terrorism with issues that speak for themselves as well as a thorough self-reflexive analysis of its own protagonist, “Skyfall” offers plenty to chew on beyond its action.  It may not reach Nolan’s heights, but it’s also no commonplace rip-off either.  B+

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