Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Film Review: Skyfall

  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia 
  • Production Company: Danjaq / EON Productions 
  • Genre: Action 
  • Release: 26 October 2012 (UK), 9 November 2012 (US) 
  • Director: Sam Mendes 
  • Producers: Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson 
  • Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

The Girls: Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), an MI6 field agent who, by the end of the movie, retires from field work and transfers herself to the position of M's secretary. While generally competent, she ends up accidentally shooting Bond in the opening scenes, and so their relationship, although never quite romantic, becomes playfully rocky. 5 out of 5.  Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a femme fatale in the employ of Silva. What would otherwise be yet another shallow love interest is tempered by her backstory: a former prostitute, she's only working for the villain to stay safe and wants Bond to help her out of her ordeal. But quite frankly, this is easy to forget. Shot by Silva. 3 out of 5.

Other Allies: The role of Q officially returns, played by the young Ben Whishaw. This iteration of the character comes across as someone who loves the opportunity to prove himself, exemplified in such lines as this boast to 007 in their first meeting: "I'll hazard I can do more damage with my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Gray than you can do in a year in the field". 5 out of 5.

Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), chairman of Britain's Intelligence and Security Committee. Succeeds the role of M from Judi Dench, whose character is shot and bleeds to death.

Kincade (Albert Finney), the gamekeeper at Bond's old home, Skyfall. Picture Harry Potter's Hagrid with a shotgun and you've got the idea. Fun Fact: Sean Connery was at one point considered for the role. 4 out of 5.

The Villain: Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), real name Tiago Rodriguez, an independent cyber-terrorist and former MI6 operative. After attempting to disrupt the Hong Kong handover in 1997, he was arrested by the Chinese, for which he still holds a grudge against M. It is refreshing in this respect, that his evil plans entail not money nor world domination, but revenge against one specific person whom Bond (and we, the audience) have grown attached to. Javier Bardem's performance may come across as awkward in some points, no doubt exacerbated by his bright blond hairdo (and the actor having been typecast as that guy from No Country for Old Men), but then again some of the most memorable Bond villains have had their own moments of charming awkwardness. But Silva makes it work because of his personality - he's playful, something of a man-child. Bringing down business and even governments via illicit network activities is something of a hobby to him. He even does stunts like challenging Bond to a William-Tell style competition, involving Sévérine and a glass of scotch (which is how she dies). In doing all this, Silva gives us something the James Bond reboot has thus far lacked - a well defined, perhaps even iconic, antagonist. Stabbed in the back by Bond. 4 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Patrice (Ola Rapace).  ...I got nothing.

The Gadgets: While Q maintains more of a tech-support role, he provides Bond with some new equipment: a Walther PPK pistol with a handprint lock (see Licence to Kill), and a small yet undisguised radio homer (see Goldfinger). During his first scene, Q leans on the fourth wall with such lines as "If you were expecting an exploding pen, we don't go for that sort of thing any more." Bond also drives the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, complete with machine guns and ejector seat (the latter of which he hilariously threatened M with). It gets shot and blown up by Silva's forces during the climactic conflict. Bet you weren't expecting one of these fate-spoilers for an inanimate object, eh? 4 out of 5.

The Locations: Turkey, England, China, Macau, and Scotland. Fun Fact: Is it any coincidence that the first James Bond film to have scenes filmed and set in the People's Republic of China was released during a Year of the Dragon? You make the call!

The Theme Song: Performed by Adele. Her brand of neo-soul is a perfect fit for a James Bond theme, carrying with it an air of sophistication, danger, and retro aesthetics which perfectly represent a modern-day interpretation of 007. Combined with the lyrics, about making a last stand against certain doom, and this sets an appropriate dark tone for the film. On the other hand, having the word "Skyfall" used so often (I count 15 times) may seem unnerving, almost to the point that it loses all meaning, but inspires a moment of Fridge Brilliance when you learn that the name refers to James Bond's childhood home, and the setting of the film's climax. In fact, given the extra context, I might even consider this as another image song, from the point of M just before the final conflict. 5 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: Motifs include water, blood, blood in water, and shadowy interpretations of some of the film's sets, including the MI6 bunker and the cemetary outside Skyfall. There is also a specific death motif, which works in its own way. In cultures such as that of the tarot cards, death represents not the end of existence, but the change from one soul to another, in that the latter entity carries on the former's wishes in his or her own way. This makes the death of M and her replacement by Mallory even more poignant, but even without that knowledge, this sequence is dark and foreboding enough to provide the same atmosphere. 5 out of 5.

The Novel: The title refers to the name of James Bond's childhood estate in Scotland, where the climax takes place. While the screenplay was not adapted from one of the novels, this being the 50th anniversary of the Bond films, there are numerous references to the other films - thankfully, more subtle and in a lesser quantity than in Die Another Day. In particular, its plot happens to share some major elements with The World Is Not Enough. A terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters? Check. 007 sufferring a shoulder injury? Check. A villain with a vendetta against M? Check. But unlike Die Another Day, Skyfall becomes more than the sum of its parts. Read on.

The Plot: Our story starts in Istanbul, where 007 and fellow agent Eve are on the trail of a stolen hard drive, containing a list of undercover NATO agents. Their pursuit of the assassin who took it, Patrice, ends with Bond fighting him on a train and Eve providing sniper support. On M's orders, Eve takes the shot... and hits Bond by mistake. Cue opening credits. We return three months later to M, who is being pressured by intelligence chairman Gareth Mallory to retire. On her way back to MI6's headquarters, their computer network gets hacked and her office blown up. Bond, who had survived Eve's mistake and has been hiding out, hears news of the attack and returns to London to get his job back.

After passing his physical and psychological evaluation (not really, but M gave him passing marks anyway), Bond takes out the shrapnel from his shoulder and, with Q's help, identifies Patrice and tracks him to Shanghai. They fight, and Patrice falls off a building before Bond can interrogate him, but he picks up a clue leading him to a casino in Macau. Meanwhile, the hacker from before releases the identities of five agents on the Internet, with the threat of doing the same again every week. At the casino, Bond picks up the money that was supposed to go to Patrice, as well as the attention of Sévérine, a girl working with him. They ride to an abandoned island where they are taken prisoner and meet the man behind the attacks: Silva, an ex-MI6 operative who tried to disrupt the Hong Kong handover in '97 and got captured by the Chinese. He taunts Bond and kills Sévérine, but thanks to the homer given by Q, is taken in by MI6.

Back at their makeshift HQ, Q and Bond try to decrypt the hard drive Silva stole, but in doing so, accidentally unlock their prisoner. Bond chases Silva through the London Underground; the chase leads to a court inquiry where M is being questioned. Silva tries to assassinate her, but Bond rescues her and they drive off together. Intent on laying a trap for Silva on their terms, Q helps by leaving a trail of digital clues leading up north to Skyfall, James Bond's childhood home in Scotland.

Lightly armed, Bond, M, and the caretaker Kincade rig up the Skyfall estate with a series of traps, and eventually Silva's men arrive. They fight off the first wave, but M gets grazed in the leg, and things get complicated when the man himself arrives with a helicopter. Bond brings it down too, and Silva gives chase all the way to a nearby chapel. Silva corners M and tries to shoot them together, but even though Bond comes in and throws a knife in his back, M bleeds to death nonetheless. With all said and done, Mallory takes the place of M, and Eve Moneypenny serves as his secretary. You are now free to turn off your TV.

To date, Skyfall is the latest Bond film to be released, and is thus the last film I'll be covering on the 007 Golden Jubilee. But Skyfall serves as the perfect ending to this year-long event, as it represents the end of an era for the film franchise. The changes that were brought on by Goldeneye have come full-circle, not the least because of one shocking event: the death of M. There has not been a similar event of this emotional magnitude throughout the entire franchise. Yes, there have been the deaths of women with whom Bond has planned to settle down (Teresa Draco and Vesper Lynd), but they were introduced within the same films. And then there's Q's retirement planning from The World Is Not Enough, but this mainly works with the paratext that Desmond Llewellyn would die just after the film's release.
At the end of it all, we have the traditional setup of M, Q, and Moneypenny, all in (what looks to be) the same set as in the Connery through Dalton eras. This brings to point the film's motif of old versus new. This also becomes the focal point of M's inquiry, with Mallory insisting the business of human intelligence in which she specialises in is no longer applicable to the 21st-century balance of power, and Q also makes comments along these lines. Even the props signify this, such as the old Aston Martin ripped straight out of Goldfinger, and the traditional Walther PPK gun, now with that handprint lock. But M's rebuttal during the inquiry comes in the form of a Tennyson poem:
"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
The lesson the movie leaves us with is that sometimes the best solution is not to completely ignore or take on the old ways, but to have them adapt to the changes happening around them in the world. In short, what we get is a reconciliation of the old guard and the new. I eagerly await how the new MI6 will adapt to the world yet again, but for now, to have the death of a recurring character, and all the consequences that go with it, turn Skyfall into an epic, and unforgettable entry in the series. 5 out of 5.

I'd like to take a moment to discuss one of the issues I've commonly heard about this film: the pacing problems, or the illusion thereof. Throughout the first few acts, director Sam Mendes provides us with a cavalcade of memorable settings: the fight with Patrice in the Shanghai skyscraper, the island casino in Macau, and the nearby ghost town where Silva has staked his claim. (It's also refreshing that the shaky-cam abuse which plagued Quantum of Solace has been toned down significantly. Heck, some long scenes are even done in one take!) Yet the climax takes place in the dark, dusty Skyfall estate and the wilderness surrounding it. After having been spoiled by the preceding visuals, the final fight becomes something of an aesthetic letdown, and thus seems to drag on for longer. It's not that the buildup isn't tense, after all, they are preparing to end the matter of Silva, but you'll wish they could just get on with it. The same goes for the post-opening scenes, when James Bond re-joins MI6. Of course, these problems become less apparent upon repeated viewings, when you know what to expect, and there aren't necessarily any scenes which I would cut out; they all serve their purpose.

The Call: 95% (A)

For this, and for Silva's more awkward moments, it is with a heavy heart that I deny Skyfall a perfect score. However, I would like to introduce a new feature at this point: the Dragon Award. The Dragon Award symbolises a work in which, whether or not any flaws are present, they cannot diminish the significance of its good parts, and thus represent something which you simply must experience in your lifetime. You could look at it as even better than a perfect score. X-factor, man.

Now to go back through my reviews and retroactively award more of these babies... In the meantime, that's it for the 007 Golden Jubilee. Stay tuned to my YouTube channel, and I plan to re-record these reviews on video, as part of a new celebration: the 007 Diamond Jubilee. To whet your appetites, and learn my justification for celebrating this franchise into 2013, the trailer is available here. And finally, current rumours indicate that a 24th James Bond film is being planned for release in 2014.  (Edit: This was eventually released in 2015, as Spectre.  Read my review of it here.)  Only time will tell how it will handle to the changes brought to the series over the past few years, but when it arrives...

...James Bond will return.  And so will I.

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