Mark Reviews Movies

Skyfall

SKYFALL

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking)

Running Time: 2:23

Release Date: 11/9/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 7, 2012

More than any James Bond film since From Russia with Love in 1963, Skyfall attempts to bring the world's most famous spy back into the realm of relative reality—of the possible. Gone is the array of nifty and sometimes improbable gadgets that seemed to overwhelm some of the series (and help make our hero into something of an invincible force) that became part and parcel to 007's adventures since Goldfinger. One could even consider technology to be as much the villain in this entry as the man who uses it.

Here, when Bond (Daniel Craig, really solidifying a mixture of the mindless brute from his first outing with the more conventional picture of the suave, joking Bond) meets with his ever-reliable quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw, given more to do as the character than in other entries and serving to downplay the film's biggest chase sequence with his dry delivery), he expects some kind of mind-blowing invention ("An exploding pen, perhaps?"). Instead, Q presents him with a pistol and a miniature radio (again with the request to return them intact).

Skyfall is—to flip an old cliché—your father's James Bond in the best sense of what that implies. It's a tale of espionage that sees Bond travel to exotic locales, fight dastardly bad guys, meet beautiful women, and do just about everything and anything else one has come to expect from the formula of this series. In between the usual points, though, there are conversations about death, fear, and, above all, the world of shadows that Bond and his compatriots inhabit.

It only makes sense, as Bond is a lot more jaded about his profession.  That attitude comes from good reason: It seems the entire world—save the bubble in which protagonists operate—is cynical about MI6. One of the film's setpieces revolves around a Parliamentary hearing in which the members wonder if the risks of having covert agents acting on behalf of the country in ways its citizens and sometimes its government cannot understand outweigh the potential rewards to national security.

The central question, posed repeatedly throughout the film, is whether that world—and by extension, Bond himself—is even relevant in this world where a terrorist can cause complete and total panic and mayhem with a single stroke of a keyboard. By returning Bond to the basics, the query is put even more in the forefront; the issue reflects an existential crisis not only for the film's characters but also for the series itself. It's a gamble for this 23rd film in the series, and it pays off brilliantly for a franchise that after 50 years is—put generously—notorious for its inconsistency.

The opening sequence, an inspired and varied (on motorcycle atop roofs and through the Grand Bazaar before moving aboard a moving train) chase through Istanbul, is more in tune with the rampant and wanton destruction to which we've become accustomed during Craig's tenure as Bond. It's also exciting and not without a few gags, such as Bond crashing his motorcycle into the handrail of a bridge in order to launch himself to a train below (the quickest way, sure, but also the most absurd) or adjusting his cuffs after ripping off the back of a car of said train with an excavator. That Bond is presumed dead by the end hints that the character's use as a vehicle for larger-than-life action setpieces is also finished (at least in this entry).

A few months pass, and M (Judi Dench), the head of MI6, writes Bond's obituary. Bond, meanwhile, is living a depressing life, full of heavy drinking and with a female companion (naturally), on a tropical island. When an explosion rips apart MI6 headquarters and M receives a threat to publicly release the identities of all the agency's undercover agents, Bond returns to London to help catch the man responsible.

Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the head of the Intelligence Committee in Parliament, is uncertain of Bond's readiness for action. M assures him that Bond has passed all of his tests; she lies. Bond is still capable but weakened after his brush with death, which only ups the stakes even more. A relatively simple action—simple for James Bond, mind you—becomes a life-and-death scenario, such as when he grabs the bottom of a rising elevator to follow the man who stole the list of undercover agents and begins to lose his grip as the elevator keeps traveling.

The action sequences are far more restrained than the opening (A bit in a den of Komodo dragons is the campy exception—an entertaining one, nonetheless), like the fight that ensues between Bond and the thief in an abandoned wing of a skyscraper with glass walls like mirrors reflecting only the ambient light a massive illuminated sign in the night. Roger Deakins' cinematography takes to heart that mention of a "world of shadows" and encompasses the interplay of light and dark with precision (Bond's introduction, for example, has him walking down a darkened hallway until a perfect beam of light hits his face).

The central villain here is the lizard-like Silva (Javier Bardem, strange and captivating), a former agent who feels abandoned by M and wants revenge (His quirk is that he bit into a cyanide capsule but didn't die, leaving much of his face a hollowed shell, which he disguises). The plan itself is only an excuse for more action (a cat-and-mouse chase through the London Underground, a shootout in Parliament, the climax that shows one can go home again—when Bond is involved, expect much chaos), which director Sam Mendes stages exceedingly well, but the real tension is in the dichotomy of Bond and Silva. Both, to different degrees, feel slighted by M. As the story progresses, it becomes as much about the relationship between the orphaned Bond and his surrogate mother/boss as it is about terrorists and spies.

Above all, the film allows Bond to feel new again while still embracing the best elements of the character's past adventures (The film's epilogue simultaneously embraces nostalgia, brings the entire series full circle, and sets up a promising yet familiar direction for future installments). Skyfall is easily one of the best films in the series—a cracking thriller molded to a shrewd study of Bond and his domain.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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