Sunday, November 18, 2012

Skyfall

With each new James Bond film, I gaze upon MI6's top agent and wonder if he ever, in the midst of the violence and carnality of his typical day, thinks about all of his many previous adventures. Fifty years worth of impossible scrapes, multicultural intercourse, and copious amounts of alcohol. He even got married once. There have been a few moments in these films when a reference to the past is made, but it's usually in passing.  Like Bond, most real life people march along with their tasks, never looking back, tending to some front line urgency. Admittedly, the urgency in Agent 007's life may tend to be a bit more intense that of your uncle Bob's.

Add to this the oft rewritten Bond history, especially when a new actor fills his shoes. Pierce Brosnan's Bond's past did not include the clown suit Roger Moore had worn to infiltrate a circus to diffuse a bomb. Timothy Dalton's Bond didn't seem to acknowledge that he once was trapped under Goldfinger's laser. When Daniel Craig assumed the role of Ian Fleming's master spy, first introduced in a series of books in the 1950s, the entire career of James Bond was at its genesis. CASINO ROYALE (2006) not only started at the beginning of the Bond saga, but was also a fresh start for the film series. It was an auspicious debut for Craig, and the film is considered one of the best of the series.

After the less well received QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, Craig returns, this time with director Sam Mendes (not well known for action vehicles) with SKYFALL, a movie that at the time of this writing continues to garner very enthusiastic reviews, some of which state that not only is it the best Bond in years, but one of the best in the franchise. It's hard not to be enthused and even filled with anticipation at such accolade, when many 007 adventures have proven flat and forgettable.

The movie wastes no time. An energetic chase through the streets of Turkey that culminates in a fistfight atop a moving train fills the opening 15 minutes of SKYFALL. Craig again is in fine form, up to the physical challenges of motorcycle piloting and hard falls. We cut to Bond's superior, M (Judi Dench), monitoring the action from headquarters, spouting her usual ice cold rumination of the superagent's ways. Then, a critical moment. Fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), also involved in the chase for an important hard drive, aims a rifle at the mercenary who stole the drive, accidentally cliping 007's shoulder, sending him headlong into the drink.  It will be presumed that he is dead.

Meanwhile, the MI6 HQ suffers a computer hack and subsequent bombing, leaving survivors to set up shop in one of London's many underground bunkers (which honestly, isn't that where a network of spies should be, anyway?). Bond learns the news from CNN while spending his "retirement" on a scenic isle, where all there is to do is pound tequila and bang local cuties. A few scenes later, M returns home one night to find her top agent sitting in the dark, ready with harsh inquiries as to why she ordered that bullet.

From this point on, SKYFALL examines with some depth the complex relationship between Bond and his boss, called "mom" by seemingly everyone.  Good reason: M is the clenched jawed disciplinarian many remember from their formative years, the tough love matriarch who'll let you suffer just so you learn your lesson and wipe those bloody tears away already. M, played by a male in the Sean Connery and Roger Moore Bonds, is fiercely devoted to the agency, and will not hesitate to allow her finest to perish for Queen and country and all that. Bond is shown to be weary, bored, utterly burned out,  in the process of confidence erosion and aging perhaps finding that he has a soul after all. Does M?

I'm making SKYFALL sound more like a human drama, and with Mendes at the helm I'm sure this emphasis was encouraged. Of course the usual international intrigue is still front and center, this time with embittered former agent Raoul Silva (a creepy and lip smacking Javier Bardem) vowing retribution on his former "mom" for allowing him to lie forgotten in pits of torture years before.  This isn't the first time an agent turned bad and wreaked havoc in this series (ref: GOLDENEYE). With Silva, the screenplay allows some entertaining speechifying, tasty metaphorical storytelling, and homoerotic undertones. But it also allows some high scale mayhem, including Silva's helicopter chewing through a Scottish castle, the one in which James Bond spent his boyhood.

And it is the last third of the film that again reimagines history, allowing 007 to recall his childhood, to return to the very house where tragedies would shape the agent to come. I found this segment initially interesting, but as I thought on this scenario, of Bond bringing M to this remote location, the questions mounted: Why weren't they better armed, relying only on the hopes that his father's old gun rack would be well stocked? Why not use that GPS (utilized earlier) device Q gave Bond to call in for back-up? Why deliberately "throw a trail of breadcrumbs" to Silva when it should be obvious this rival will come with a cavalry?

But then I stopped, because every Bond films spurs such questioning, and should not interfere with one's enjoyment.

And SKYFALL, while to my eyes a bit overpraised, is grand escapism. Beautifully photographed by the great Roger Deakins. Fine score by Thomas Newman. The actors are all in top form, even Bardem, who gets to smirk at M from a glass prison that will remind viewers of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There are several amusing references to the earlier films in the series: some are verbal, some visual (see if you can tell which film is cited when Bond uses a reptile's head as a stepping stone for escape). We'll meet a new, younger Q (Ben Whishaw) and even Miss Moneypenny.......

I can easily summarize my carps with this movie but it is without necessity. The film packages the expected action and innuendo as skillfully as the best Bonds, while taking some time to quietly acknowledge the fear of becoming irrelevant in an age of rapidly advancing tech, and of getting older, and weaker. There are a few moments in SKYFALL with Bond pensively staring off......I wonder if he thought on Blofeld? Or SPECTRE? Or even Pussy Galore? Do these ghosts haunt his dreams? Plague his daytime musings, those rare moments when he's not managing his way out of yet another implausible predicament?

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