Opening weekend review–New Bond “Skyfall” delivers on all fronts

Review by C.J. Bunce

The 23rd James Bond film has a lot it must accomplish compared to other franchise movies.  On the 50th anniversary of Bond on film, director Sam Mendes had to deliver something special, more than just the latest entry in the Bond canon.  And despite Mendes’s influences, Skyfall had to be more than another Christopher Nolan action romp like the recent Batman films.  After 50 years, Bond is a British tradition, an international icon, the star of every diehard action film fan’s awaited pilgrimage every few years.  Mendes had to blend the classic with the new as each of his predecessors had, and make sure that even that was done in a new way, without copying other action film franchises like the Jason Bourne movies, as the last movie, Quantum of Solace, has been accused of.  Messing with the Bond formula is like messing with the formula for Coca-Cola.  A director of a Bond film has a delicate trapeze act to maneuver to create a successful Bond picture connecting all the elements of the Bond formula.

So how did Skyfall fair?

We’ve already previewed here at the Shirley Bassey-1960s-inspired theme song by Adele from the opening credits.  Alone we liked the song, but as part of the classic psychedelic opening credits sequence her Skyfall song nails the mood and the story.  And if you are worried that this is a Bond film that veers from a classic Ian Fleming story title, have no worry.  Yes, it is not a title from the original books, yet the story is so nicely done you’ll believe Skyfall had been there all along.  And back to the opening credits–they are possibly the best so far from a Bond film.  Yes, they always seem a bit long but after decades of watching Bond films you’ve got to love the credits sequences if you call yourself a Bond fan.  These credits, unlike many of the past, are actually relevant to the story.

Every good Bond film has a pre-credits opening that engages the viewer, and every great Bond intro just knocks your socks off.  Although the payoff of Skyfall’s opening was a bit of a let down because of revealing so much in the trailers, the set up and craziness of Bond, along with the wiry and cheery new agent Eve (Naomie Harris), gives us a precarious motorcycle chase scene across the top of Istanbul’s cityscape, a stunning and memorable image of Bond abruptly propelling himself off the cycle, over a bridge and onto a train, an unusual use of a steam shovel, culminating in a classic, train-top, hand-to-hand, fight sequence, where Bond is shot by his own and falls dead to the river below.  But this is a resurrection story as much as a story about change and transition.  Never fret, Bond lives.

The core of the plot is the imminent retirement of M (played perfectly again by actress Judi Dench in this, her seventh stint as M), who is to be replaced in two months by a civilian who works for the prime minister (and who possesses some espionage and survival background) played very staunchly by Ralph Fiennes.  Bond (Daniel Craig in his third stint as Bond, who seems laughably far from aging out of the role, even without reference to the much older Bond actors Sean Connery and Roger Moore) returns from the dead and must carry out the mission he started despite his aches and pains: A shadow figure using a hired hand has stolen a computer drive that contains all the names of the West’s secret operatives and their identities (a plot ripped from the headlines of the past few years, just as good Bond films always have done).  It is soon revealed that the villain is not a random terrorist but a former agent (how many times have the Bond films used this device now?) going by the name Silva (played by Javier Bardem).  Silva was traded by M to the Chinese as a government pawn years ago and now wants one thing and only one thing: M, dead.  What keeps Skyfall from being a perfect Bond film is the ultimate resolution to that plot, but otherwise Skyfall is Bond at its best.

Daniel Craig, who has signed on for at least two more Bond films, continues to grow the role of Bond.  Here he is filmed in so many new angles and scenes you could pull more than 100 screen captures from this movie and use them as posters.  He’s shown in shadow, holding his gun up like the classic Bond movie posters, he’s shown walking down empty corridors ready to act, he’s shown in silhouette as he fights an assassin at a top floor of a Shanghai office building, he hangs from a moving elevator.  As an actor, he appears to be as in-shape as ever, and if wasn’t for the perfect Bond film Casino Royale, this would be his best performance so far.  Craig shows that his range is limitless and we can only look forward to more of him in the next Bond movies.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography in Skyfall is stunning, particularly the views of Shanghai.  We see the city skyline from above at night, a brilliant dance of neon and color.  Then we see Bond and foe (Ola Rapace) in and out of shadow across from a residential building where we meet the film’s Bond girl–Berenice Marlohe as Severine, Silva’s woman.  Beautiful, sexy, and troubled, Marlohe’s Severine is a great addition to the list of Bond women.  James Bond moves in on his next lead, taking a boat across a Chinese lamp-lit waterfront to a casino under a sky of fireworks, another incredible vista.  Along with beautifully lighted shots of London and Turkey, the film’s climax is among the vast barren moors of Scotland–cold, rich, grand and big, this Scotland setting is equal to the task as the location of a major showdown, a hopeless, vast plain reflecting the gravity and enormity of a big finale.

Bond traditionalists will love a scene where Bond and foe encounter a den of dragons, the return of Q (now played by the young actor Ben Whishaw), the return of Bond gadgetry, and even an appearance by Bond’s original Aston Martin, complete with ejection seat and missiles, a car which is almost its own character in the film.  As the reign of Dench’s M is replaced by Fiennes’ new M, the series returns to an M straight out of the novels, and we even get introduced to the presumably recurring role of Ms. Moneypenny.  But that’s not all, all the best-loved Bond themes slip in and out of the soundtrack, timed just right for Bond’s best scenes.  The formula proves once again that it works, and if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

If there’s one timing element off to the film it is the rather late appearance of Bardem’s Silva.  Silva is every bit a classic, nasty, ugly Bond villain, including even his own disturbing disfigurement, as with Bond villains from recent films and films of decades ago.  There is also one major writing error involving a shocker at the end of the film, that gets quickly brushed under the rug as if nothing happened and the world goes along its merry way.  It’s the same problem we had with the seventh Harry Potter book–doing something major to the franchise and then trivializing it, but revealing any more than that would be a huge spoiler so we’ll stop there.  A change in the denouement or inclusion of an additional denouement might have helped fix the story problem, and we have to think there is a deleted scene somewhere that was swapped out for Hollywood’s sake.

The highlight of the film is Dench as M, in a story allowing her to show us why she had the job all along, including defending herself and constructing her own Burn Notice or MacGyver-inspired party favors for the coming battle.  Running a close second is Ben Whishaw’s performance as Q and Fiennes proving he has the mettle to be the next M.  Academy Award winning actors abound, including Albert Finney as an old friend of Bond.  The low point is the handling of the character Severine, a classic Bond girl in every sense, yet it is clear she could have had more screentime since she really is the main sex object of the movie.  We have to learn quickly that she is tormented by Silva yet her role gets the backseat to Silva and Bond’s first meeting, which is overly long and includes a bizarre sequence where we’re supposed to think Silva is even more creepy because he might be gay.  That scene is just wrong for many reasons and then Severine is treated as a hackneyed plot device of “violence against women for shock value merely to motivate the protagonist,” unfortunately, and her last scene amounts to an unnecessary throwaway.

With every new Bond movie, like every new superhero movie, marketers, reviewers and fans pronounce in absolute terms the new entry is the best of all (even Sir Roger Moore says Skyfall is the best Bond film).  As much as this is a great Bond picture and one you might want to even see twice in the theater this Fall, enough story device problems, over-long sequences, multiple trivialized deaths of named characters, and a slight counterbalance of a feel of more dread than fun (the theme itself is about aging and dying) keep this Bond entry from the top spot.  Equal to or better than Goldeneye, vastly superior to Quantum of Solace, but not quite as brilliant as Casino Royale or Goldfinger, still it rises toward the top of the 23 films (possibly in the top five) and will be a great film for future re-viewings once its available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  Along with Argo and The Avengers, it earns a comfortable and easy position as one of 2012’s must-see movies.

Note:  If you haven’t taken our 50th anniversary Bond poll yet check it out here.  To see 50 years of Bond songs and opening credits, check out this link.

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