Skyfall – ★★★★ out of 5
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem
Director: Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition)
For 50 years, James Bond has been a character that has changed faces, changed decades and changed tones. But he has never changed age. He remains an enigma where his past is very much a mystery, his present is always action-packed and his future is always known. He will be there to take down the bad guys at all times. But in this case, our hero is enhanced by the characters around him. Bond has changed since Daniel Craig took the reigns of the character, and all for the better. It seems that in the past few years, our heroes have become more human and vulnerable than ever.
With the 23rd entry of the Bond franchise, Skyfall is a “dusting off” of the old elements from the franchise and introducing some new, shiny ones. There’s a new Q (Ben Whishaw). But Bond never forgets that classic Aston Martin DB5 either. This merging of old and new is all for the better. This is one of Bond’s most personal missions yet. M (Judi Dench) is much more involved this time around as the internal security of MI-6 seems to be in jeopardy. And after a failed mission in Istanbul from Bond and his counterpart Eve (Naomi Harris, a great Bond girl), it seems that no one is safe, no matter how fortified the world seems.
Oscar winning director Sam Mendes is best known for his observation of self-destruction in movies such as American Beauty, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Here, the emotions are all simmering beneath the surface of each character. Bond is panting hard after a physical work out. He cannot shoot straight. But M lets Bond go out into the field anyways. Why would she let him go? It is the job of these characters to detach emotion from the situation at hand. Yet, we can tell they have a soft spot for each other. The underlying relationship between Bond and M has never been more prominent than it is in Skyfall.
So what is Skyfall? Well it is as big a mystery as what Rosebud meant to Charles Foster Kane. I won’t spoil it of course, but after Casino Royale and the disappointing Quantum of Solace, the movies have been so personal with Bond that I thought there wasn’t anything more to know. Mendes, as well as writers John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade find depth in subtlety and nuances. Even small supporting characters, like the seductress Severine (Berenice Marlohe), make it seem like Bond’s actions will have consequences. Mendes makes sure to get the most out of all the performers. Severine claims that Bond does not know fear. Not like “him”.
Who is him? That would be Mr. Silva (Javier Bardem) whose identity is a mystery, but he is causing global panic. Bardem is great here, having a chance to explore this villain much more than being an emotionless, sinister killer like he was in No Country For Old Men. Silva is much more jovial, dare I say flamboyant, in the strangest way. Silva has no single note of terror, it is his erratic tone shifts that make you feel uneasy. One moment he is caressing Bond’s thighs, the next he is senselessly killing people. He keeps you on your toes and also makes you laugh nervously.
Skyfall also marks the first time that Roger Deakins (who has worked often with the Coen Brothers) has photographed the visual palette of the James Bond series. And I think he needs to do it from now on. I was in absolute awe of the visual structure and spectacle, more than any Bond film I can remember. Every single scene just jumps off the screen with such beauty. Whether it is a confusing glass skyscraper in Shanghai, the casinos of Macao, or the underbellies of England, Deakins needs to be commended. Him and Mendes together create a visual amalgamation of Bond’s past, present and uncertain future. There is always an eerie, gorgeously rendered environment for Bond to enter.
What also surprised me about Skyfall was how much restraint is presented. Casino Royale also presented the same restrained from going overboard on the action, and the result was the most emotional chapter to date. Skyfall has the same level of emotive sophistication, but the length of the film is much more apparent, where the politics of the film seem to slow down this surprisingly personal journey. But the action scenes here are still electric including set pieces in Istanbul and Shanghai that are standouts.
By the end of the film, we realize how far James Bond has come over five decades. There have been different approaches to the character, resulting in everything from signature classics to big time bombs. But Bond endures every single time and seems to be resurrected at the end of every era. The Craig era is proving to be the one with the most depth. M mentions to Bond during the film “It is time to go to work” and Bond replies “With pleasure”. And that is exactly how audiences have left the theater after a Bond film for 50 years. With pleasure Mr. Bond, with pleasure.
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