Sunday, November 11, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

The James Bond franchise has been an omnipresent part of Western culture for longer than most people alive today remember. My parents were toddlers when Dr. No came out in 1962. And 50 years later it’s still going, and for all we know will still be going 50 years and six Bonds from now. Sure it’s frequently stumbled or grown irrelevant from time to time, but it’s always been there, which isn’t something you can say about many pop culture phenomena.

Of course those occasional side trips into irrelevancy have not gone unnoticed, and James Bond’s character has been beginning to show his age since at least the 80’s. Born of the swinging 60’s, he was very much representative of that era’s idea of the modern man. Cultured tastes, well-travelled, recreational sexuality. He was a wish fulfillment role model of his era. But times changed, and Bond found it difficult to change with them. He just never seemed to fit in as well in the free love of the 70’s, the action-focused 80’s, or the political correctness of the 90’s. The Dalton era resorted to turning him into just another cop-on-the-edge action hero to keep him feeling modern, and by the Brosnan era the character was starting to feel like, well...

That era of the franchise addressed the problem as you saw there, acknowledging it and portraying Bond as a flawed, morally ambiguous throwback to an older era, almost a man out of time. This approach of self-awareness had mixed results. It certainly helped give older fans a taste of what they’d been missing in their Bond movies, but it wasn't very forward thinking as it did little to adapt the franchise to its modern setting. It was merely a delaying tactic.

After the poorly-received golden age Bond circle-jerk that was Die Another Day, Bond took a break for a few years to rethink things. When he returned with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, he had shed himself of much of his baggage, but at a cost. Gone was the Cold War, replaced with the more relevant War on Terror. Gone were the gadgets & comic side characters like Q & Moneypenny. But while Bond certainly felt modern, he also really didn’t feel like Bond any more. The suave globetrotting ladies man we all knew and loved had become a thuggish hitman devoid of style or flash. His sexual conquests felt token, his villains interesting. He lacked anything distinguishing him from any other interchangeable Jason Bourne knock offs. Bond had certainly realized drastic change was needed to move forward, but he had yet to find his new identity.

The crux of the overly long intro is that Skyfall is the film that has finally given Bond that identity, striking the perfect balance of nostalgia and respect for the franchise's history while still being its own, thoroughly up-to-date entity. They truly put their best into this 50th Anniversary, producing easily the best entry in the series since Goldeneye. It’s dramatic and character driven, but still supplies more than enough action, and good action at that. Sam Mendes might seem an odd choice for director, but the gamble pays off beautifully. This is the most interestingly human yet still recognizable himself Bond has seemed in a long time, if ever. And special mention must be made of Judi Dench as M. She has always been not only my favorite M but possibly my favorite character in the entire franchise, but here she is moved from supporting character & mentor figure up to full fledged secondary protagonist. It’s as much her story as it is Bond’s, and feels like a true culmination of her characters actions up to this point.

Ben Winshaw's character is probably the best example of old ideas made new, which could probably have been this film's motto. He plays the new Q, a character Bond fans have been praying would come back ever since the Craig era began. The beloved late Desmond Llewelyn played the gadget-master for almost 40 years as a serious-minded older gentlemen constantly annoyed with the younger Bond's irreverent attitude. That classic interplay between the two has now been completely reversed. Winshaw is 10 years Craig's junior, and Bond's age is a repeatedly emphasized factor throughout the film. So now, Q is the cocky young computer genius who mocks and annoys the older, field-hardened Bond. The actors' chemistry is excellent and I look forward to seeing more of them together in future films.

And of course, mention must be made of Javier Bardem, who now has yet another chilling villain performance under his belt. It's rare in this series that villains can actually challenge Bond physically as well as mentally, they usually leave the brawling to their amusingly named underlings. Underrated foes like Alec Trevelyan & Red Grant are the exceptions, and to that list we can now add Raoul Silva. At times they seem to be working a little two hard to make him the James Bond equivalent of the Joker, but Bardem's performance more than makes up for it. He's seductive and compelling when he wants to be, yet frighteningly repulsive at others, but at all times he is as menacing as he is mesmerizing.

As a 50 anniversary celebration of the franchise, one could not ask for better than Skyfall. And more that that it's just a plain good James Bond movie. Exciting, glamorous, well-written, and exquisitely filmed. For the first time since Daniel Craig took this role, I genuinely can't wait to see what they do with it next.

P.S. Naomie Harris better be in the next one. Seriously MGM, don't let me down on this.


Dan O. said...

Here's hoping that the future of Bond (which will hopefully include Christopher Nolan) will produce more films of the high quality of Skyfall. I liked it a lot, but didn’t love it, but I still look forward to seeing what they do with this franchise. Good review Joshua.

Joshua the Anarchist said...

I too hope Christopher Nolan gets the opportunity to direct a Bond film soon, he clearly loves the style of the franchise and they seem like they were made for each other. So much so in fact, it sometimes actually feels like he's ALREADY directed a Bond film, it's weird.