Skyfall – Review
October 27, 2012 10 Comments
Skyfall Review by FilmFellaHenry – 9/10
A friend once told me that Bond is cyclical: as the series progresses, technology increases in complexity, action set pieces become grander, narratives more convoluted… until the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own absurdity and Bond is brought back to basics once more. And this time, Sam Mendes is the craftsman who has summoned the Phoenix back from the flames.
And what a craftsman. Without gushing too much about the man’s clear directorial prowess, I think it’s fair to say that past successes such as American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road have proved his ability to garner excellent performances from his cast within a character driven story. And despite however odd the notion of a character driven Bond film may be, it is precisely what the franchise needs.
Skyfall is essentially about villain Silva’s (Javier Bardem) burning grudge against British Intelligence head M (Judi Dench) and the lengths he will go to see vengeance fulfilled. Not some over-elaborate plan to rob the world of its riches or an absurd madman’s grab for power. Just a simple personal vendetta between two people. And Bond (Daniel Craig), despite being the loyal agent that he is, becomes forced to question his allegiance to a system that is slowly tearing itself apart.
Having such a straight forward narrative has strong merits. For a start, there are no more of those clunky plot exposition scenes, endemic in traditional Bond flicks, where the protagonist is forced to explain an often convoluted narrative so the audience can understand why 007 is dressed as a gondolier about to break into a Venetian glass factory on the hunt for a man who likes orchids. Instead, Bond spends his time conversing about his troubled past, M’s motives and what caused Silva’s vexation in the first place; basically all the things that make characters interesting. Then there is the way a simple story actually makes the film a lot more unpredictable: a villain’s plan is only elaborate to ensure Bond has plenty of stumbling blocks in a spread of varied locations, before a predetermined triumph over the bad guys, while Skyfall has scope to progress in any direction it chooses.
This sense of plot unpredictability is also furthered by Mendes’ deeper treatment of the characters. M is essentially a mature Bond Girl and while she lacks the physical charm of 007’s many previous female sidekicks, M compensates with intelligence, meaningful dialogue and a force of personality that rival’s Bond’s. And our hero has undergone a few changes too: favouring Timothy Dalton’s killer mindset over Connery’s smooth confidence or Moore’s aged charm, Craig plays an unfit, unstable agent fighting to protect a woman made pariah by her own employers, all the while suffering from alcohol withdrawal. And then there is the brilliant Javier Bardem, presenting one of the most believable and intriguing Bond villains to date. Despite fundamentally being a bad person who is more than a little deranged, after hearing his reasons for wanting M dead, it’s difficult not to empathise on some level with Silva’s desire for revenge. And his methodology is both clever and within the realms of believability, allowing a constant necessary advantage over MI6 that makes Bond’s struggles all the harder.
Ok, so Skyfall has nailed the characters. But what about traditional Bond elements, like gadgets, weapons and those crucial action sequences? Well, this goes back to the cyclic perspective of Bond. Mendes has stripped away the crazy gizmos and advanced armaments, favouring a more old school approach: a palm encrypted Walther PPK, a radio tracker and his old Aston Martin are the only devices he has. Now before you pour scorn on such humble spy equipment, think back on the hi-tech nonsense we’ve seen in the past. Does the invisible car from Die Another Day spring to mind? What about the radioactive lint from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Or even the crocodile boat disguise from Octopussy? Hi-tech does not mean hi-quality and I personally found Bond’s reliance on plausible gadgets to be a refreshing break from, say, Bond shooting laser guns in zero-G on a self-destructing space station.
Mendes even hints at his back to basics rational within the film, notable when Silva casually explains how simple it would be to cause mass destruction and influence world events at the press of a few buttons. And that’s the unfortunate dilemma of making a Bond film today: in a time where electronic terrorism is by far an easier and more resourceful way of executing any evil plot, it’s also one of the most boring things to watch. Who wants to see a guy spend months hacking the Federal Reserve only to have some numbers appear on a Swiss bank account balance? The brief computer tech sequence in Skyfall is genius in both its short duration and ultimate failure, throwing a brief acknowledgement to the current technological trends, while branding them as unworthy of an engaging contemporary thriller. The same old school preferences are further justified when Q (Ben Wishaw) disparages the exploding pen device from Goldeneye and states that the PPK is ‘less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement’; kind of important when gunning down bad guys in crowded public areas. Even the narrative structure represents a depart from the new and a return to the old, starting within the tech-ingrained modern MI6 HQ and progressing to an old Scottish farmhouse (a nod to the original Bond’s roots) where an improvised Straw Dogs styled siege ensues.
Crucially, the action is one element that remains strong and true to form. Starting with one of the best large scale openings in a Bond film to date (followed by an equally good credit sequence to a theme song clearly reminiscent of Shirley Bassey), Skyfall is punctuated with regular action set pieces, their energy conveyed largely due to Roger Deakins’ brilliant cinematography. Thomas Newman conjures the same quality in composition as he did with Road To Perdition, with the classic Bond theme highlighting the action at all the right moments.
If I had to pick a fault with Skyfall, it would probably be with Bond’s temporary sidekick Eve (Naomie Harris). Despite the narrative partially justifying her existence, the character’s involvement is so infrequent that she generally comes across as ancillary. It doesn’t help that Harris gives a pretty underwhelming performance, armed with bland dialogue that just seems lazy in comparison with M, Bond and Silva’s meaningful exchanges. But I guess as flaws go, it’s a pretty minor complaint on the whole.
So Skyfall gets a big thumbs up from me. Mendes has taken Bond back to his simple roots at a time when such a reversion is more crucial than ever. Hopefully, this will highlight the importance of allowing critically acclaimed directors to helm the franchise, even if this means greater creative license. Perhaps Tarantino won’t be turned down the next time he volunteers to direct…