Golden Oldie, by Kyle Anderson
It’s been four years since a new James Bond film was in theaters and it’s easy to worry if the series would lose a step when it finally returned. Daniel Craig’s first outing, Casino Royale, had effectively rebooted and rejuvenated 007 and returned him to his literary roots while still being modern. Quantum of Solace which followed two years later lacked much of the character drama in favor of chase after chase and punch-up after punch-up. Sure, there was the issue of the Writer’s Guild strike right in the sweet spot of production, but even without that, Quantum likely would have been a step down. Now finally, after studio bankruptcy, budgetary concerns and a young leading man who was now in his mid-40s, Skyfall hits screens, bringing with it hopes, fears, and a 50 year legacy falling into new director Sam Mendes’ lap. Having now seen it, I can safely say, Bond is back.
Mendes treats the film at once like the culmination of 22 previous installments and a brand new beginning. Working with a much smaller budget than the preceding film, Mendes is able to make the scope large enough and the action palpable enough to keep the action fans happy and keeps the drama solely with the characters which keeps everyone else happy. My favorite Bond films are the ones that focus, even slightly, on Bond as a person and not simply a legend. There are also many visual and verbal references to that legend without drawing too much winking attention to it (there is still a bit of that). To contrast, Die Another Day which came out ten years ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary felt like it was ripping itself off whereas Skyfall very much fits nicely within the other films. There are specific references to the first three Connery films that at no point seem too inside. It’s a treat for longtime fans but not a deterrent for casual filmgoers. If you know *about* James Bond, you’ll get most of the nods.
But I’ve gotten far too ahead of myself. Time to go back. Skyfall begins, as most do, in the middle of a mission. Bond and another agent (Naomie Harris) are in Istanbul chasing a man who has obtained a list of all of MI6’s undercover field agents, for what purpose they know not, just that it could jeopardize their lives and the safety of Britain, if not the world. This chase scene is full of quick cutting, narrow misses and destructive crashes. This is Bond as we collectively know him, racking up collateral damage to the nines in order to achieve his mission. Back at headquarters, M (Judi Dench) calls the shots with her ever-present team of advisors. It was her fault that the list was stolen and she’s determined to get it back, however a bit of bad judgment allows the list to get away and Bond to be missing, presumed dead.
This sequence accomplishes both setting up the plot, and setting up the tension between Bond and M for the rest of the film. It’s also the most new-school Bond we get, and this is a good thing. As the film progresses, the Bond tropes are being stripped away if only to return again in another form by the end. No spoilers, but this would be the finale or at least centerpiece of most Bond films, and here it’s the beginning. There’s a fair amount of CGI used in it, which I was sort of irritated by, but, again, the “newness” begins to fade as we get deeper into the film, and things return to their practical roots.
From here, we jump ahead three months to Bond living an idle and drunk life somewhere tropical, but he soon returns to England following an attack on MI6 headquarters. M is losing her grip on the situation and the brass in London are very displeased. It’s clear that Bond is not up to where he once was, but he gets sent after the list, and the computer genius using it, anyway. He soon meets the film’s “Bond Villain” in Silva (Javier Bardem) and a more insane and flamboyant villain we’ve never seen. With Bardem you get the usual bad-wigged psychopath, but because of that, what might be unbelievable character traits feel right at home. Silva, like the best adversaries, is an example of what could happen to Bond if he’s not careful: well trained, highly intelligent, but criminally insane. Bardem’s performance, like his Oscar-winning role of Anton Chigurh, is hilarious and terrifying in equal measures.
The film soon becomes a cat-and-mouse game with Silva attempting to kill M and Bond trying to stop him. It’s much more focused on the relationship between the two characters; Bond the orphan brought into the Secret Service, and M the hardnosed mother figure who essentially raised him. It’s also about them dealing with becoming outdated and ill-equipped to handle the faceless cyber-terror of today. The story is simple, but the execution isn’t. With Roger Deakins behind the camera, light and shadow take the place of elaborate special effects. There’s a great deal of attention paid to silhouettes and reflections and the visual disparity between light and dark. The entire end sequence, which I shan’t for a moment spoil, is shot entirely in the fading light of evening and gives it the eeriest of tones, starkly contrasted with the bright Turkish opening. This is also, I believe, Deakins’ first foray into the IMAX format and it’s absolutely stunning. If you can see it in 70mm, please do.
There’s so much to say about Skyfall I fear I’m not saying anything. Suffice to say, the film is a very welcome and impressive return to form for the series. Mendes brings the realism he’s known for to a series that badly needed it. As much as it’s about moving forward, it’s also about becoming “classic” again, first and foremost in the introduction of Bond’s new Quartermaster (known affectionately as “Q”) played by Ben Whishaw who is able to instill a great deal of wizened superciliousness inside his young, slight frame. Skyfall is a remarkably good film, not just a good Bond film, but a good piece of filmmaking. I like where the series is headed, looking simultaneously to the future and the past. If James Bond looks this good at 50, I think he’ll be around for a lot longer still.