Saturday, November 10, 2012

License to Thrill: SKYFALL

Does the world still need James Bond? Born out of Cold War tensions, Ian Fleming’s character has been spying, fighting, and romancing his way across the screen for fifty years now. The world has changed. In a post-9/11 world – not to mention a post-Jason Bourne cinema – the lines between ally and enemy are no longer as clear as they once seemed to be. No longer is the main threat to a country the outsized villain with a diabolical plot involving superweapons of mass destruction. Now, more than ever, we are aware of the threat that comes from anywhere, can be a single person or a single cyberattack, one single unpredictable moment of terror. Is there room these days for a suave, smart, force of nature secret agent out in the field?

This is the very question that forms the core of the newest Bond film, Skyfall, which is an elegant argument for its own existence, a crisp, modern espionage film with a fluid forward momentum. Director Sam Mendes, an Academy Award winner best know for projects dripping with prestige like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, working from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, hits the ground running with a great action set-piece involving a car chase that becomes a motorcycle chase that becomes a tussle on top of a train. By the time Daniel Craig, in his third Bond film, leaps through a freshly ripped hole in the back of a train car and, without missing a beat, unflappably fixes his cufflinks, it’s clear that this is without a doubt the classic character expertly portrayed.

But Craig’s Bond is troubled. The curtain raiser ends with a botched mission, the import felt through the opening credits set to a great Bond theme belted out by Adele. When we rejoin the action three months have passed. We learn that 007 failed to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the identities of every agent embedded in terrorist organizations around the globe. His boss, M (Judi Dench, never better in this role), is confronted by a higher-up (Ralph Fiennes) who wonders if it’s time to retire the double-O program. Losing the drive is a massive security breach even before the person who stole it blows up M’s office and sends her threatening messages. Is it possible for Bond to stop such a new threat, one for which they have no face or name and certainly no sense of a grand villainous scheme at play? And thus the movie’s stakes are tied to the very future of the program (and, by extension, the franchise). It’s a battle between tradition and the future, between old mistakes and hope for a better world of tomorrow.

When Daniel Craig took over the role of Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, he found himself in a skillful reimagining of the franchise, an attempt to scale back the overblown theatrics of gadgets and gals and tell a simpler, more direct and emotional action movie with blunter, more immediate geopolitical stakes. Gone were the trappings of Bond movies before. Gone were the gadgets and Q, their maker. Gone too was the flirtatious secretary Moneypenny and the broad, splashy setpieces. This was a successful attempt to rein in the franchise’s self-parodic tendencies and redefine the iconography of 007 for the 21st century. Sadly his ’08 follow up, Quantum of Solace, went dour and choppy for the worse.

With Skyfall, the franchise has fully activated the promise of its latest reboot, finding a happy middle ground between respecting what’s come before and discovering room to grow, between nods towards depth and a genuine sense of fun. Mendes, while coaxing some really terrific acting from the entire cast from Craig and Dench on down, brings a seamless flow to picture, running smoothly between modern demands and playful winks towards the franchise’s past. Bringing new faces to familiar types of roles, there’s a young Q (a charming Ben Whishaw), as well as lovely women, one helpful (Naomi Harris) and one potentially dangerous (Bérénice Marlohe). Rather than becoming comedic relief or set dressing, the characters are given meaningful places within the plot. When we finally meet the main villain (hammily, in a good way, played by Javier Bardem), he’s a speechifying revengeful egomaniac with a surprising hairstyle and a chewy accent, but he also has a worryingly small operation built around superior tech-savvy knowhow that he wields to devastating psychopathic ends. Instead of playing the Bond-movie tropes in the same old way, this movie takes them apart only to build them back up again in a more modern and generous way.

The involving story moves inevitably along a one-thing-after-another course with cascading sequences of spycraft and action that progress inevitably to a climactic battle. Though it hits many of the beats you’d expect from an action film, it’s the high level of craftsmanship from all involved that make this a compulsively watchable, tense and amusing experience. This is a gorgeous globetrotting thriller, strikingly shot by Roger Deakins, the greatest living cinematographer. He captures the sweeping scenery from Shanghai to Scotland with a detailed beauty, just as he films the sensational effects and small-scale brawls with a deft touch and good eye for stunning compositions with unexpectedly rich sources of illumination. I especially liked the one-on-one fistfight in a skyscraper that plays out mostly in one long shot that finds the combatants silhouetted against neon light pouring in through the window. There’s great fun to be found in the way the beautifully shot beatings mirror the conflict between elegance and destruction that runs throughout this franchise.

So does the world still need James Bond? I don’t know about need, but there's something comforting about seeing this character and his world, at once a constant cultural presence and constantly maleable, once more. By the end of this film, Bond's world has been rebuilt, recognizable in unexpected and wholly satisfying ways, back up from its bare bones Casino Royale restart. On the basis of this strong outing I’d say that I’m awfully glad he’s still around and that talented filmmakers have been given the freedom to do right by him. The result is an entertaining film that’s at or near the high-water marks of the series. 

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