Tuesday, November 6, 2012

(Mostly) Managing To Combat The Notion That “If You’ve Seen One James Bond Film, You’ve Seen Them All,” Skyfall Remains Mixed.

The Good: Acting, Character depth, Specific plot feels fresh
The Bad: General plot is still terribly formulaic, Niggling continuity issues, Pacing
The Basics: Redressing many of the familiar elements of James Bond films, Skyfall manages to make the familiar plot feel fresh and new again.

Before summer began, one of my new friends expressed an interest in seeing all of the James Bond films before Skyfall hit theaters this Fall. I told her that seeing the other Bond films was not at all necessary to understanding the new one and, in fact, the more one sees of James Bond films, the less one feels they need to see the new one. I had no way of knowing how true that would be with Skyfall, at the time, but now . . .

Skyfall is an exceptional example of how style may trump the perception of substance in films and while my instinct is to say that the only people who will be really disappointed by the latest installment in the James Bond franchise are those who are the die-hard fans, the early buzz appears to be just the opposite. I credit that to director Sam Mendez more than anyone else as, objectively, Skyfall contains almost all of the familiar elements of any number of James Bond films, simply dressed up differently. Those raised on SPECTRE and Blofeld may want to extol the virtues of Silva and the other villains of Skyfall, but the similarities certainly outweigh the differences.

In fact, the fundamental difference between Skyfall and most of the other (but not all) James Bond films is the target and the stakes. The world is not explicitly on the line as it is in many of the classic James Bond flicks and the target of Silva’s machinations is MI-6 and M it- and herself. This makes the stakes far more personal for James Bond and M and allow Skyfall to feel much more intimate while it works toward the usual “defeat the villain” resolution one expects from a James Bond film. The attempt to develop the James Bond character is not lost on me; it merely becomes harder to justify or suspend disbelief for with the new, post-Casino Royale James Bond . . . at least for those of us who pay attention to things like continuity.

Skyfall finds James Bond partnered with Eve to stop a villain who has the potential to compromise MI-6, a mission that leaves James Bond effectively dead and on the outside of MI-6. That mission also puts an exceptionally valuable hard drive in the hands of villains who want MI-6 dismantled, a goal that starts with executing embedded operatives around the world and threatening M with the certainty that more deaths will follow. It does not take long for M, the leader of MI-6 (or at least James Bond’s section of it), to realize that the attacks are intended to hurt her personally and weaken her within the organization. So, she turns to the one operative she believes she can trust when he resurfaces: James Bond.

Pulling Bond out of retirement, despite the fact that he is unable to pass the physical and psychological requirement necessary, and arming him with the requisite munitions and information, M and James Bond come into conflict with Silva, a man whose motivations are more grounded than eccentric. Let to Silva through an assassin and then the woman who was waiting to see who would cash in the payment for the assassin, Bond confronts Silva on a deserted island. In combating Silva, James Bond and M find themselves as guardians of MI-6 itself and the stakes in their mission even higher as they capture and lose Silva, resulting in a chase that puts a small personal army on M and Bond's tail.

Skyfall is not bad, though it feels every bit as long as its two and a half hour running time, but it is by no means as original as many of the reviewers praising the film would have one believe. In fact, in several ways – most notably with the appearance of the Quartermaster, Q - Skyfall feels like a “Best Of James Bond” with names, actors and motivations changed (in a Mad Libs insert name/word/weapon here type way) to create the illusion of freshness.

Even so, it works. The reason Skyfall feels fresh enough to recommend is that the combination of the stylistic changes adds up to a film that feels substantive after a long rut of movies that left viewers wishing for (or inferring) a significance that was not actually present in the films themselves. In Skyfall, M becomes a fully viable, interesting, complicated character. In her – and the performance by Judi Dench – the viewer sees the weight of a lifetime of secrets weighing upon her character. In Skyfall, she is not the monolithic assigner of missions or the subtly-smirking leader who accepts the eccentricities of James Bond. Instead, in Skyfall, she is quietly wounded and there are moments when she feels the sting of her adversaries attacks on all she has built.

Fleshing out M allows Skyfall to explore loyalty and the sense of duty James Bond has. On its own, Skyfall excels at portraying a bond of trust and loyalty between Bond and M in a way that feels like more than just platitudes of honor and obligation. In Skyfall, protecting the world and MI-6 has a personal component and that binds Bond and M. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench play that brilliantly in the looks between them and the quieter moments their characters share. In fact, this is one of the difficult aspects of Skyfall to accept in context; this version of James Bond is still rather new to M and the level of trust she has in him is uncharacteristic for someone who has had such a history in an office such as hers. The best comparison I can make would be in the Star Trek franchise; the bond between M and Bond in Skyfall is treated as deep as the one between Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Data in Star Trek: First Contact (reviewed here!). The emotion, the love, that leads Picard to singlehandedly brave the Borg to try to rescue Data after everyone else has abandoned the ship in Star Trek: First Contact is viable entirely because that relationship has been developed for years and years over hundreds of missions where the two have shared risks and explicitly depended upon one another and their judgment. Skyfall’s M and Bond asks viewers to make the leap that Bond would have such a trust for M, despite the fact that she has administered from a greater distance (to extend the metaphor, Skyfall is like watching first season Picard exhibit seventh season loyalty and affection for Data; it makes no rational sense in context).

That said, the other aspect of Skyfall that pushes the film up into the higher ranges of an average genre film is the acting. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench have great onscreen chemistry as M takes to the field more and provides Bond with more of a hand’s on direction in Skyfall. Both performers make the character shifts work (and well!) and that change in chemistry makes the film feel fresh. Equally compelling is Javier Bardem as Silva. Bardem is able to be far more expressive than he was as the villain in No Country For Old Men (reviewed here!) and that makes the Skyfall villain feel unsettling and dangerous. Bardem brings energy to his performance that is matched by the younger performers, Naomi Harris and Ben Whishaw, to raise the level of peril in Skyfall; for a change, the Bond villain seems an even match for the resources of MI-6 (not some comic mismatch that makes the success of Bond’s mission seem utterly unrealistic).

As Skyfall develops, the film becomes a battle of wills and strategy between Bond and Silva and the credibility and gravitas of the actors sells the conflict. After so many James Bond movies that feel like generic action-adventure (and innumerable action adventure films that seem derivative of James Bond), Skyfall redresses and reinvigorates the spy drama well-enough to recommend it.

For other James Bond films, please check out my reviews of:
Dr. No
Die Another Day
Casino Royale
Quantum Of Solace


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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