Sunday, September 29, 2013

Skyfall (2012)

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond started out with such promise with Casino Royale. But things took a disappointing turn when Quantum of Solace ended up being less than the sum of its parts. The creators decided to switch gears a bit, and get some of the ingredients that were missing from the previous two films back into the mix. They also hired a director who is known for his character dramas, Sam Mendes. Would the gamble pay off?

England’s top agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is on a mission to keep a list of undercover NATO spies from being stolen in Istanbul. Things get a little out of hand and Bond gets shot from a moving train and plummets hundreds of feet into a river. Rough day. Now M (Judi Dench) is under the gun, because the missing list is used to expose the agents and get them killed. With MPs demanding her resignation, she goes into damage control mode with some help from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).

Luckily Bond was knocked down, but not out. He returns from his mini vacation when he sees MI6 headquarters get attacked. He picks up the trail of terror leading him from Shanghai, to Macao and back into London itself. The mastermind is a former agent named Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a love hate relationship with M (mostly hate). Now he will go to great lengths to make her pay, and pay again. Does Bond have a chance to stop the madman before he destroys M’s reputation as well as her life?

Good Points:
  • One of most beautifully filmed movies in the entire series
  • Interplay between Bond and M is excellent
  • We get some classic elements returned to the series

Bad Points:
  • Some very familiar plot and theme elements
  • This villain isn’t going to work for everyone
  • The musical score may be too subtle for fans of the brassy material

There is a lot to really like about this film, and most of that rests in the capable hands of Sam Mendes. He brings excellent character moments, wonderful visuals and some top-flight action to the film. Craig is still excellent in the role and everything here builds on the previous films and opens some new doors for the next one. While the script is a little too influenced by other popular films from other franchises, all told, this is one of the best Bond movies in the series, and definitely recommended.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Bond noire?
After Quantum of Solace wrapped up Bond’s “origin” story, I was curious about where the creators would go next. They set up of the criminal syndicate, Quantum. Would they build on that idea and create a new SPECTRE concept? Would they maintain their very Bourne influenced trajectory? Would we have a hope in hell of seeing Q or Moneypenny in the next film?

Well Skyfall addressed all those questions definitively. Sadly, Quantum was dropped from this film, in favor of a more personal storyline for Bond and M. This doesn’t come as much of surprise given Sam Mendes specialty with character dramas. Most folks don’t remember American Beauty or Revolutionary Road for their intense action scenes or villains.

And yes, we don’t get away from the Bourne style visuals that have accompanied the Craig era. But there is a big difference here, Sam Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins go out of their way to make this one of the most stunningly artistic looking films in the entire series. This should come as no surprise since the two have worked together since Jarhead, and they have created some amazing visuals together.

The movie has a lot of dialogue scenes, and moments where we get to soak in the surroundings. Camera angles, lighting and camera motion end up adding layers to the story, to the characters and to the themes of the story in ways that you just don’t expect in a James Bond film. The first half of Skyfall is gorgeous looking, with the cool blue neon lights of Shanghai contrasting with the rich golden hue of the floating casino in Macao. The vibrant colors add to the exotic feel of the travelogue, something that you come to expect in a Bond film, but handled so smoothly here.

Silva's coat fuses him with the dusty ruins.
The second half of the film introduces Silva, and from that moment the colors become less rich. Dirty whites, cold greys and deep shadows dominate the visual palate. The final confrontation at the Skyfall manor ends with darkness and flames, a visual hell, and one very similar to the inferno in Jarhead. London and Scotland play key roles in the second half of the film, but they are not glorified, but shown in an almost dreary de-saturated state (until the wonderful rooftop shot near the end of the film).  Simply put, this is the best looking James Bond film I’ve yet seen.

But even wonderful cinematography can’t save action scenes, right? One of my major issues with Quantum was the horribly edited action sequences. I ended up laughing in a few places because the chaos on the screen was so confusing it looked ridiculous, like someone trying way too hard. The rapid-fire Bourne influence had gone too far. Well, Skyfall dials all that back in favor of clearly orchestrated action scenes edited for maximum impact.

One of the most visually impressive scenes in the film.
Compared to the Brosnan era, where there was action around every corner, Skyfall keeps its action economical. The pre-credit chase and battle is handled well and gets things off to a great start. But my favorite action scene is the next one, where Bond goes hand to hand against a hired killer in Shanghai. The two silhouettes battling in front of the blazing blue neon is just stamped in my mind. Great stuff, and I love how the camera drifts slowly but steadily up to the combatants with few edits and a surprising fall.

After that the action scenes remain visually interesting and exciting, with a battle at the Macao casino with a surprise attack by a Komodo dragon. There’s the explosive escape and chase of Silva in London. Then there’s the final battle at the Skyfall manor where Bond, M and the old grounds keeper Kincade (Albert Finney) take on a mob of killers with a couple rifles, a knife and lots of old school traps. By this point we are invested in the survival of Bond and M, and the tension is pretty high. Mendes even throws in a huge explosion, just to remind us this is still a Bond flick.

Bond looks ready to take out some zombies.
Speaking of fireballs, the sound effects track is top notch. Explosions, gunfire and shattering glass are well synched and placed in the soundscape. They are also balanced very well, never overwhelming the dialogue and even allowing the music to make it’s mark. The Bond films rarely have any sound issues and always excel in this area.

For the music Skyfall shook up the mix. In 1997 David Arnold came on board to handle musical duties for the James Bond franchise. He took John Barry’s classic spy sound and modernized it with electronica, pulsing beats and a lot of power. The result was some of the best music in the entire series. Arnold had scored six Bond films and most film music fans were hoping for him to continue on. But director Sam Mendes has worked with composer Thomas Newman since American Beauty in 1999, and he saw no reason to drop him now.

So we get one of the most unique and atmospheric of all the James Bond film scores. The usual formula is for the composer to create a new theme for the film (at the very least, many have two or three new themes). This new theme is usually tied to the opening song. This becomes the identity of the film. It is mixed with the classic James Bond theme by Monty Norman, and you weave the two with some great action music.

Yellows, golds and reds are prominent in the Macao
casino scene.
Newman goes a different direction. He takes Monty Norman’s theme, and John Barry’s arrangement of the theme as a starting point. Then he uses elements of the theme in a deconstructed form. Or maybe he only uses the rhythm of the theme. Then he unleashes a full guitar version of the theme. Then he goes back to a simplified version that is barely recognizable as the Bond theme. It’s all very subtle but very interesting as well. Nearly every track is based on the James Bond theme in some way. He only uses the tune to the opening song Skyfall once, for a wonderful scene where Bond arrives at the golden casino. Check out a sample here. But other than that, the score ranges from intense action music (with some surprising electronics) to very quiet scenes of tension.

The opening theme song performed by Adele is a good one, fitting well into the classic brassy mold made popular by Shirley Bassey in Goldfinger. It’s a bit of a shame that Newman doesn’t do too much with it in his score. At the same time the song is very much rooted in the same sound as the James Bond theme. So it feels right at home with the rest of the soundtrack.

Skyfall boils down to the story of three lead characters, James Bond, M and Silva. As such, all three actors need to provide some good performances to make the whole film work. Daniel Craig has never slacked in his performance as James Bond, and here he gets plenty to work with. M essentially tells a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to take a risky shot at the data thief as Bond is fighting him on top of a moving train. Bond sees this as M doubting his abilities and willing to loose him if the stakes are high enough. But it seems that Bond comes to accept this as a fact of his job. His life is always on the line as a 00 agent, and M always has the final call. Feelings shouldn’t get in the way. Craig plays this all very close, but his eyes tell us all we need to know.

M reflects on the toll her job takes.
Judi Dench has been a wonderful addition to the James Bond cast from since her appearance in Goldeneye. Her tough no-nonsense demeanor has always had an underlying hint of affection for Bond. When Craig came on board for the reboot, this dynamic shifted a little bit turning her into more than just a boss, but also a mentor. Skyfall gives Dench her juiciest role in the franchise since her key part in The World is Not Enough. Not only do we see her under the extreme pressure in her role as head of MI6, but we also see the toll her job has taken on her and the affect that seeing Silva’s rage has on her. Dench does a great job.

I’m a bit torn on Bardem as Silva. On the one hand, I see what they were trying to do with the character. His fury at M and her betrayal has poisoned the man deeply. Contrasting his response and Bond’s response to similar situations is an interesting game. But Bardem adds a deeper level of crazy over the whole thing. It feels a bit too much, more like a made for TV serial killer than the more realistic adversaries we’ve seen in the previous two films. But at the same time, this is a James Bond film and have a good villain is what makes the whole thing fun. I’m just not sure if the performance matches the overall tone of the film. It just feels slightly off. Contrast this performance to Sean Bean’s colder but equally angry performance in Goldeneye and I think we get a better idea of what a rogue ex-agent is really like.

The dead are a price M has to pay for.
That brings me to the other weak point of the film. There is some very obvious borrowing of plot elements in Skyfall. Some of this is intentional. This film was released on the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. Instead of going the more obvious route that Die Another Day took with working references from each Bond film into the new offering, in this case they were much more subtle about it. Things like M writing Bond’s obituary was taken from You Only Live Twice. Having a sequence on a train in Istanbul connects us to From Russia with Love. Even the casino in Macao is a nod back to The Man with the Golden Gun.

But the film that seems to have the biggest influence on Skyfall is actually Goldeneye. There’s an obvious call back when Q (Ben Whishaw) actually mentions the explosive pen from that movie. But there is also a more subtle thematic borrowing from the 1995 film: the idea of James Bond being an old fashioned, out of touch relic. This same concept was put (in blunt poetics) by M in Goldeneye – “… I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war…” In the older film, Bond had to prove that even his “old fashioned” techniques were up to the task in a new game where Cold War rules didn’t apply. It put him against a former agent, 006, who became disillusioned with M16 and decided to take his revenge on the country he served.

Q finds himself out maneuvered.
Skyfall follows the same lines, but in this case, Bond is no longer tied to the cold war. He is tied to the physical world, instead of technological one. In this film he is outmoded by Q and the superior technical prowess of his enemy (another former agent who has turned against the country he served). The twist here is that M is now firmly on Bond’s side, tied to his “old fashioned” way of handling problems. In fact the main theme (one that isn’t subtle in the least) is that “sometimes the old ways are best”. Bond’s use of physical violence, old fashioned tailing and observing, and going directly after a targer are what end up saving the day. All the technological marvels that Q uses end up causing more damage. But the simple radio device that Bond uses actually works the way it is supposed to. The final battle is finished with a knife, not a high tech gadget. It’s an interesting expansion of Goldeneye’s basic premise.

"We've caught you at last Loki, I mean Harrison,
I mean Silva."
But there are a few things I’m less fond of. The film works wonderfully in it’s first half, creating an interesting build of suspense, action and thrills. But once we meet Silva, the movie seems to lose its grip a bit. Part of it is Bardem’s performance, but there is also a very familiar vibe to the whole basic plot. Silva allows himself to be captured, then escapes as part of a master plan to unleash even more havoc. Sound familiar? Well if you’ve seen Dark Knight or The Avengers or even Star Trek into Darkness well you’ve seen this plot twist already.

Now in James Bond flicks I’m willing to suspend disbelief, it is part of what makes them fun. But Skyfall and all the Craig films are very serious, very realistic and therefore don’t go for that full-blown fantasy feel that we see in the previous Bond films. Even Dalton’s movies had a bit more fun in them than the Craig films seem to. So when you have the villain execute a plot that is so improbable and depends on so many things to occur just perfectly for it to work – well that wouldn’t stand out in a Brosnan, Moore or Connery film. But here, it does end up looking ridiculous. Luckily the finale scenes at the Skyfall manor bring things back to earth (for the most part) and it makes for a fine ending.

Bond pulls a Batman over the city of London.
The misstep is really not much of an issue in the long run. Skyfall is a very entertaining film. It’s got some great one liners, dry humor and the inclusion of Moneypenny and Q makes this the first Craig era film that really feels like the beginnings of the story is complete. We can now jump into a full-blown Bond adventure with Craig as the fully formed hero. In the final analysis I think I like Casino Royale a little bit more, but Skyfall is a close runner up and certainly shows us that Mendes can deliver an excellent James Bond film. I’m looking forward to what he comes up with next. But please, lets leave the Nolan Batman inspirations aside for now.


  1. Good review. I can't add much, other than to say I agree it is one of the strongest of the whole series. I didn't mind (or much notice) the long runtime of 2 hours 23 minutes.

    1. I agree the movie moves along at a good pace, even when it gets a bit implausible, it never really slows down in a bad way. Even dialogue heavy scenes and moments of quiet reflection are visual interesting or giving us more character details. It all works.