Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: "Skyfall"

Director: Sam Mendes
Runtime: 143 minutes

One of the main complaints against the Daniel Craig 007 films is that, well, they don't really feel like 007 films. Starting in the early/mid 2000s, grittiness has become the defining trait of most action films (especially those involving superheroes). Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy best exemplifies this. The operatic darkness Nolan brought to the world of Bruce Wayne and the Joker made for a satisfying contrast to the campy Batman films of years past. Yet unlike Batman, 007 has always been a character built on charisma and suave sexuality. And yet Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace both turned Bond into a more restrained, Jason Bourne-type action hero. Even the villains were tame, with the most outlandish character trait being a bleeding eye. What makes Skyfall, Craig's third outing as 007, stand out is that it takes still takes the dark and gritty approach to Bond, yet mixes in elements that seem to put the secret agent on path to being something resembling his former self.

Opening with a superbly executed chase in Istanbul, Skyfall is perhaps the most intimate Bond film yet. A secret from M's (Judi Dench) past has come out from hiding, launching a vicious cyber battle against MI6 and its agents. After MI6's headquarters are badly damaged, Bond and his cohorts find themselves using limited means. When Bond first meets Q (Ben Whishaw), he is only given a DNA-encoded gun, and a radio transmitter. Casino Royale may have been the stylistic reboot of the Bond films, but Skyfall truly takes 007 back to basics. Even the locations are scaled down. Bond's globetrotting is all contained in the film's first half, with the only significant trip after Istanbul being Shanghai/Macau. Once back on the British mainland, the film settles in and gets cozier and cozier, eventually leading Bond to the remote Scottish Highlands.

It's an interesting story choice, and it pays off by giving the film a sense of focus, despite its 2 hr 20 min duration. Complimenting this is Sam Mendes' direction. The closest thing to an "art house" director to ever helm a Bond film, the choice pays off in spades. More than any Bond film in recent (or distant) memory, Skyfall is built on a sustained atmosphere, rather than on broad humor and over-the-top action. Aside from the opening and closing battles, the film's action feels relatively contained, save for a bit in the London Underground that is left hanging in thin air. 

In large part, the credit also belongs to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has created the best looking Bond film ever, by a considerable margin. The master DP's work here, from the foggy Scottish hills to the neon and steel of Shanghai is lush, textured, and varied. A sequence set in a room full of glass doors and panels is a masterwork of playing with light, lines, and reflections. It's a sumptuous film, and the visual pleasures help smooth out the occasional odd or underwhelming moment (a scene involving a hungry Komodo dragon is particularly shrug-inducing). 

The cast are also on their game as well. Craig seems to be having a little more fun as Bond, especially now that his turmoil regarding Vesper Lynd's death has been resolved. Judi Dench, who winds up being the film's true "Bond girl," turns in strong work as well, as she tries to keep up a steely front while her past wreaks havoc on her world. The scene stealer, however, is a lip-smackingly evil Javier Bardem as Silva. His introduction, a lengthy back-and-forth with Bond in a cavernous room, is a nifty mix of Bond villains old and new. Menacing, but also somewhat flirty and campy, Bardem is Skyfall's spark, even if his later material is somewhat generic and prevents him from becoming iconic. By tying the villain's motives directly to major characters of the Bond universe, Silva lends Skyfall an old-fashioned  glossy appeal. Coupled with some references to characters and objects from the previous Bonds, and you have a film that mixes modern gritty action stylings with some good old retro fun.

And even though the film ventures into some dark places, its conclusion gives rise to the hope that emotionally lighter days may be in Bond's future. Though less expansive than some previous films in the franchise, Skyfall's smaller focus is handled in such a way that it still feels epic. The cast is strong, the direction is elegant, and the atmosphere, mostly through the visuals, is all first rate. Even when a particular scene ends on an iffy note, the film immediately recovers with some new intriguing sequence of beautiful visual composition. In a sense, Skyfall is the most complete Bond film to date. It represents a marriage of Bond's past and present, and combines the two to pave the way for more complex, but also more fun, films to come. 

Grade: B/B+

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