Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In Theaters: SKYFALL (2012)

(US/UK - 2012)

Directed by Sam Mendes.  Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan. Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Helen McCrory. (PG-13, 143 mins)

The James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary with an exceptional entry in the series.  Perhaps not quite the "Best Bond Ever!" but it's up there, with richly complex characterizations and themes that demonstrate an unusual depth for these films, which have always been great fun but usually on a spectacle level.  There's no shortage of that spectacle in SKYFALL, which kicks off with one of the best pre-credits sequences of the series, but it expands upon the psychological side of 007 that was explored to some degree in Daniel Craig's Bond debut CASINO ROYALE (2006), and it gets things back on course after the OK but disappointing QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008).

A mission in Turkey to recover a hard drive with the names of British agents working undercover with terrorist organizations goes bad when Bond gets in the way of a bullet meant for an enemy agent (Ola Rapace) and is presumed dead.  He resurfaces after a terrorist attack on MI-6 headquarters in London, and is put back to work by M (Judi Dench), whose judgment and effectiveness are being questioned by bureucratic intel official Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) after several outed MI-6 agents are executed.  Bond fails the physical and psychological testing to be reinstated, but M buries the test results because she knows he'll get the job done.  The villain is Silva (Javier Bardem), a rogue ex-MI-6 agent with a personal score to settle with M:  he was a brilliant agent but too much of a loose cannon, and M sold him out to China shortly before the Hong Kong handover in 1997.

The Bond films have never been a director's showcase.  In the initial 1962-1989 era, the films were directed by a rotating group of reliably efficient pros starting with Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert, with occasional promotions from within like editor Peter Hunt or second-unit director John Glen, who ended up helming all of the Bond films in the 1980s.  When the series restarted in 1995 after a six-year break, the job fell to journeymen like Martin Campbell (THE MASK OF ZORRO), Roger Spottiswoode (TURNER & HOOCH), Michael Apted (the UP documentary series, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER), and Lee Tamahori (THE EDGE), brought in for some new perspective, but who primarily replicated the look and feel of the earlier Bond films.  Campbell was brought back for CASINO ROYALE and Marc Forster (MONSTER'S BALL) apparently thought he was hired for a BOURNE sequel when he directed QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  That brings us to the surprising choice of Sam Mendes to helm SKYFALL.  The Oscar-winning director of AMERICAN BEAUTY, ROAD TO PERDITION, and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD seems like an unlikely pick, but it's an important element in establishing some credible seriousness to the film.  Partnering with Oscar-winning cinematographer and Coen Bros. favorite Roger Deakins, Mendes fashions one of the best-looking of all Bond films, and not just with its breathtaking action sequences.  A neon-drenched showdown in a Shanghai skyscraper and a shot of M standing aside a row of Union Jack-draped caskets provide particularly arresting images.

It's also one of the best-written of the Bonds.  Series veterans Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, plus Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (GLADIATOR, RANGO, CORIOLANUS, HUGO) offer, in addition to a study in duality in that Bond and Silva are essentially two sides of the same coin, both with an axe to grind with M, but handling it in vastly different ways--an unprecedented look into Bond's childhood and how it shaped the man he's become during an unexpected third-act detour when Bond goes off the grid and on the run with M after an attempt on her life by Silva's goons.  There's also a recurrent theme throughout of dealing with age and change:  M butting heads with Mallory, Bond spending a good part of the film sporting white stubble, the MI-6 operation being called into question for its relevancy and usefulness.  Mendes and the screenwriters succeed in creating a Bond film that manages to re-establish new rules while simultaneously utilizing the established template.  The character of Q is re-introduced here, in the form of a techno-geek in his late 20s (Ben Whishaw), which reverses the roles in the Bond-Q relationship:  now it's cranky old 007 busting the young kid's balls, but they immediately take a liking to each other much like Bond and the perpetually-annoyed but fatherly Q did in the older films.

From the opening scenes of CASINO ROYALE, it was obvious that Craig would be a terrific Bond, but he really hits his stride with SKYFALL.  He's matched by an inspired Bardem, who doesn't even appear until 70 minutes in but quickly makes an unforgettable impression as Silva, creating one of the great Bond villains.  Watch the entrance Mendes gives him, delivering a long monologue while walking from a distance toward the stationary camera, all in one take.  It's a bold and unusual shot that, with all due respect, a John Glen or a Lee Tamahori wouldn't have done.  Dench gets by far her biggest role as M yet, and she's essentially a central character along with Bond.  The Bond girls are represented by rookie MI-6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and doomed Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe), who works for Silva, and we know how that always turns out.  There's also some fine work from Fiennes (who gets one of the best lines in the film, during M's court testimony) and a burly-looking Albert Finney, who turns up in a showy supporting role late in the film with quite a bit more to do here--even hoisting a sawed-off shotgun--than his prominently-billed 12-second YouTube cameo in THE BOURNE LEGACY. 

The James Bond series has never been beholden to any strict sense of continuity, understandable given the length of its duration.  Other than recurring characters like M, Q, Miss Moneypenny, Blofeld, and Bond's CIA buddy Felix Leiter, the films generally exist as stand-alone stories.  23 films in and there's only been one official "direct" sequel (QUANTUM OF SOLACE picks up right where CASINO ROYALE leaves off), though there have been similar instances of a continued character or story element through the decades, most notably three that stem from the stunningly downbeat finale of 1969's ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, which found George Lazenby's Bond getting married to Tracy (Diana Rigg) only to see her immediately murdered as they drive off on their honeymoon:  Sean Connery returned as Bond in the next film, 1971's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, and is seeking revenge on Blofeld, though it's never specified that Tracy's murder is the reason; and the beginning of 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY has Roger Moore's Bond visiting Tracy's grave, while 1989's LICENCE TO KILL has Timothy Dalton's Bond somberly mentioning that he was married once, but declines to elaborate. Richard Kiel made a huge impression as the henchman Jaws in 1977's THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and was brought back--as a lovestruck good guy, no less--for 1979's unfortunate MOONRAKER.  Joe Don Baker's CIA agent Jack Wade appeared in 1995's GOLDENEYE and 1997's TOMORROW NEVER DIES (and Baker played a completely different military character in 1987's THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS).  Early Bond girl Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson) turns up briefly in 1962's DR. NO and 1963's FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.  And the less said about good old boy Louisiana sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) in 1973's LIVE AND LET DIE inexplicably test-driving an AMC Matador while vacationing in Bangkok in 1974's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, the better. 

It's hard to say where SKYFALL fits into the continuity in general, especially since Dench was also M to Pierce Brosnan's Bond in the '90s, well before she kept the role in the Craig-led reboot.  SKYFALL exists on its own terms (no references to Craig's two prior turns), but it ends on a bittersweet "circle of life" note that seems to set things back to the beginning--as in, 1962--in a way that will put a smile on the face of any 007 fan.  50 years in, with undeniable ups and downs, but SKYFALL displays a franchise that's changed and adapted effectively and is certainly as vital and as promising as it's ever been.  A terrific film, one of 2012's best.

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