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Skyfall - Washington Film Institute Review

Skyfall - Washington Film Institute Review

First Published on WFI on November 9, 2012

SkyFall

Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris, Ben Wishaw, Rory Kinnear                                                            

Directed by Sam Mendes

Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Written by Neal Purvis, Robedert Wade, and John Logan

Based on characters created by Ian Fleming

Music by Thomas Newman

Cinematography by Roger Deakins 

 

By Matt Neufeld

“Skyfall,” the 23rd film in the Broccoli-family-produced James Bond series, is an intelligent, entertaining, suspenseful, dramatic and, overall, excellent return to form for the enduring 50-year-old series (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 2012), as Daniel Craig seems to have strongly settled into the role, director Sam Mendes and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have agreed to get back to several of the series’ much-loved core basics and foundations, the direction is strong, assured and confident and wisely pays homage to the Bond legacy, the production, set design and art direction are appropriately elaborate, stylish, beautiful and exotic, and it’s also–this is a positive and this aspect lifts the film up rather than drags it down–one of the more maturely dramatic and smartly-written Bond films in ages.

 

“Skyfall” is intelligent, insightful, emotional–again, in a good way–and introspective in an adult manner that lends a deeper, more heartfelt and moving human element to all of the proceedings. These mature, adult aspects would seem at first read to suggest alarms, red flags and concerns that the film is talky, boring and too dramatic, but that simply is not the case–not at all! Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan–give them plenty of credit and kudos also, for a smart script, as there is plenty of kudos to go around this time around in the Bond world–have produced what some previous dramatic-oriented spy capers have achieved, but only rarely through the years: the unique accomplishment of combing real adult drama and emotion with plenty of action, adventure, suspense, humor, romance and, of course, heart-stopping stunts, chases and fights! This is not an easy filmic feat, and few films have really achieved it. You may say, “What about all the other Bond films?” Well, most of the other Bond films either focused squarely on the action and adventure–without leaning too heavily on real drama–or tried to “gritty” things up and focus on drama–but, ultimately, at the expense of real fun and entertainment. The successful combination of drama and action never really clicked–as real drama took a back seat to the fun, or the drama tended to overwhelm the enjoyment of the proceedings, which occurred in the last two mediocre Bond films. A real adult, mature mix of real, actual drama, along with enjoyable action and adventure, has actually rarely been achieved on a grand scale in the Bond films–or most other spy, espionage and action-and-adventure films, for that matter. That’s not a negative, or a criticism, just an observation. It should be noted that I am a huge, loyal and faithful fan of all the Bond films–even the mediocre ones. Most Bond films, of course, are just plain the epitome of an over-sized, thoroughly enjoyable, grand movie experience.

However, that difficulty of successfully combining real drama with action and adventure is changed for the better with “Skyfall.” The film’s unique, delicate balance of drama and action–bringing to mind the better, more introspective spy dramas of the Cold Ward-era and Cold War-inspired 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Mackintosh Man,” “The Day of the Jackal” and “Marathon Man”–increases the style, class and eloquence quotient of the Bond franchise to another level. The Bond films, of course, have always been classy and eloquent–the production design, set design and art direction, of course, are always of the highest quality, and they are again in “Skyfall”–but when you add a deep, probing, psychological story, backstory and story arch, well, you’ve just jet-packed yourself to a higher level. There is nothing quite like watching a suspenseful, gripping and rollicking action-adventure story while being additionally thrilled all the while by an equally thrilling and thought-provoking psychological story that invades your brain and your heart. To “Skyfall’s” credit, this is exactly what occurs: You’re having fun with the action, but you’re also concurrently having your heartstrings tugged in various directions.

You can easily guess where the drama begins, as hints of the deeper, more psychological, mother-son underpinnings of the relationship between M–once again, elegantly and classily played by Judi Dench–and Bond (Daniel Craig, back as Bond for the third time, following 2006′s ambitious but somewhat disappointing “Casino Royale” and 2008′s flatly mediocre and overly-grim “Quantum of Solace”) have been fluttering around Bond story lines as far back as the four Pierce Brosnan Bond films. The producers and writers, as far back as 1995′s “GoldenEye,” obviously wanted to add a deeper layer to the M-Bond relationship to give the films some backstory, which is great. And this touching backstory has only increased through the years, through all four Brosnan films and into the first two Craig films. But the relationship has never been examined as thoroughly, smartly–and, once again–so movingly as in “Skyfall.”

Judi Dench’s strong-willed, bull-headed, tough-as-bullets and independent M has always been a substitute mother figure for Bond, who lost his parents at an early age, and here, in “Skyfall,” we see the relationship in full bloom, as M and Bond face a host of life challenges together on multiple fronts: age, aging, the downfalls of aging, subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions of retirement or getting out of the field and working behind a desk (every field agent’s ultimate career fear), the pitfalls of staying around the espionage party too long, the inevitable battles with bureaucracy and suits and unsympathetic higher-ups who keep looking for the next new, fresh-faced spy or spymaster–and the hazards of time, aging, encroaching middle age–and just-plain growing older.

So “Skyfall” takes these most realistic and relatable life experiences–aspects of life that affects every one of us–and expertly weaves them through, as noted, your standard fast-moving, suspenseful action-adventure espionage film that includes all the standard field-kit Bond-film gear: a mysterious and suspenseful cat-and-mouse spy story; a scary, horrible psychotic villain with his own twisted, insane backstory; an internal political governmental battle (battles that the rebellious, authority-taunting and rule-breaking Bond has always fought); a bevy of beautiful women, of course; breathtaking and unique exotic locales that appear to be real and not green-screened or computer-generated; well-staged, well-paced and original action sequences; high-technology gadgetry; twists and turns that extend the story beyond the obvious, providing for some pleasing surprises, mystery and suspense; and deep-rooted espionage, intelligence, field-operative-oriented and mission-oriented spy games that bring you into the weird, wild world of intelligence work. Plus, some very welcome, much-loved, recognizable and traditional Bond elements that you will most pleasingly recognize from various Bond films during the last 50 years.

You can see the brilliance of Sam Mendes’ direction in various scenes, as the production design, sets and artistic elements are displayed stylishly and elaborately: Colorful, mysterious Asian dragons welcome Bond on a boat as he dramatically enters a dock; scary kimono dragons dangerously pace the pit of an otherwise-stylish high-end casino where everyone wears a tux and evening gown, of course; the crazed villain, Hannibal Lector-like, is kept in a scary prisoner cell; high-tech underground offices are filled with the latest big-screen dazzling computer diagrams; underground tunnels snake under above-ground infrastructures; and underground offices act as intelligence offices, lending an air of secrecy and mystery. Actors are kept in check and no one overdoes their lines or scenes; emotions are normal and mannered and realistic; and touches of humor and romance appear at just the right moments, to balance the action, exposition and drama. That’s real directing, and Mendes clearly takes charge here, through and through.

“Skyfall’s layered, multi-faceted story starts with Bond pursuing a somewhat-mysterious villain who has killed several field agents and stolen a valuable and secretive computer disc that dangerously contains a list of clandestine field agents, their aliases, and their locations. Bond’s pursuit of the villain becomes an exciting, breathtaking chase involving motorcycles, trains, cars, gunfights, fist fights and high-technology surveillance that becomes the latest great Bond film opening sequence–a 12-minute series of elaborate and well-coordinated stunts that opens the film in high fashion. And, yes, that subsequent underlying drama makes its entrance during this sequence, too. So you have, again, an opening sequence that is all action-adventure, but also includes the introduction of dramatic elements that will carry the story through the rest of the film. So the opening sequence is not just gratuitous stunt work, but the opening chapter of the story, too. Smart writing, plain and simple.

As Bond fights with the villain atop a moving train–yes, we’ve seen this multiple times through the years, in many films, including at least once before in the Bond series in “Octopussy” (Roger Moore as Bond, 1983) and in the memorable opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)–fellow field agent Eve (the beautiful and steady Naomie Harris), who has been backing up Bond during Bond’s pursuit of the villain, is ordered by M, back at MI6 Headquarters in London, to take a shot, even though it’s not clear. M takes a risky chance, balancing the chances of hitting Bond or missing a chance to take out the villain, and thus recover the disc and save the lives of multiple secretive field agents. Eve takes the shot–and the results of M’s decision sets in motion the actions and plot devices that forcibly drive the rest of the exciting film. Bond disappears, resurfaces and vows to find the villain, figure out who he’s working for, what the motives of the enemy are, recover the disc, and destroy the enemy, at all cost.

As Bond undertakes that mission, Dench is suddenly fighting her own office-politics, government-bureaucracy battles back home. As often happens in business, politics and government–and the entertainment industry, alas–newly-installed cubicle-minded intelligence paper-pusher Gareth Mallory (the Liam Neeson-like Ralph Fiennes, always reliable and classy, but with a tough undercurrent) wants M to retire. The disc is gone, agents are dying in the field, Bond is at first gone, and MI6 is under attack, terrorist-style. The strong-willed M is even forced to undergo that most horrible, moronic governmental ritual—to appear before a government oversight hearing to answer stupid questions by people who have no idea what on earth she or her operatives do for a living! It’s all a bit too much for M, and she definitely tells Mallory that she will not go quietly, or soon, and she intends to stay in office until the current mess is cleared up and wiped out.

Thus Bond, injured and struggling with once-easy physical tests, joins forces with a defiant M being pushed out of office to fight a scary, mysterious enemy that is literally striking at their heart of their operation—-conducting terrorist attacks on the mighty MI6, its structures, and its agents. It’s a battle royal, and to watch Craig and Dench and Harris, along with the reliable, faithful and likeable Tanner (Rory Kinnear), M’s right-hand man, is uplifting and encouraging–and enjoyable. As Dench and Craig expose more emotion, become more human–and are thus more sympathetic and likeable here–you feel for them, you root for them, and you want them to succeed. M and Bond work together in “Skyfall” like never before, and the results are satisfying. They continue to fight the good fight, enduring to smoke out the villain, his boss, and to eliminate the enemy’s operations.

Along the way, Javier Bardem, bringing to mind his equally-psychotic villain from the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” extravagantly, crazily, and quite insanely, appears as the main villain, Raoul Silva. Again, Silva is not just simply some crazed lunatic hell-bent on taking over the world, causing destruction and gaining power–although he’s working on all three. He, too, has his own psychologically-layered background, and that backstory connects directly to the main story. How his story and backstory connect to M and Bond is another sign of clever writing and story construction. And Bardem leaps, dives, jumps full-force into his portrayal of the complex Silva, evoking equal parts insanity, terror, danger, humor–and pathos. Loads and loads of pathos. And other emotional elements, too, adding to the many layers. This, too, is a bravura acting portrayal, elevating what could have been yet another stock villain into something else–a conflicted, angered and tortured human being.

The mission takes Bond, Eve, M and other operatives through England, Scotland, Turkey and Shanghai, bringing them to some breathtakingly exotic locales. Perhaps none are as naturally breathtaking as the wide-open, misty and forlorn highlands, or lowlands, of Scotland, all green and brown and country and nature, unspoiled, barren and open. It is here, in Scotland, that the film’s various layers, elements, story arches and emotional levels come together. It is here, in the country, where Bond grew up, that everything comes together, for everyone, including Bond’s longtime caretaker, Kincade, played subtly and sympathetically by Albert Finney. Here, the ravages of time and age and life are examined, exposed and fought, valiantly, heroically and proudly.

As Bond, M, Kincade and Silva battle it out in the final act in the moors of beautiful Scotland, the viewer is reminded of two previous, ominous exchanges–and two examples of the film’s consistent, smart, insightful writing.

“Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” the new Q (Brad Wishaw) suggests to Bond during a spirited exchange at MI6 Headquarters. “And youth is no guarantee of innovation,” Bond smartly responds.

And during one of those awful, tortuous, political oversight hearings in London, M is equally smartly moved to quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” The introspective, poetic words adequately sum up the themes and messages of this film, “Skyfall,” of the Bond series’ continuing successful endurance through half a century, and of the spirit of James Bond, and his creator Ian Fleming, to always live and fight another day:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

James Bond will return. To live and fight another day.

 

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.

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