Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meet the new Bond, (almost the) same as the old Bond

Skyfall - Directed by Sam Mended, written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Ralph Fiennes, and Javier Bardem - Rated PG-13

This just makes sense: a Chigurh for a film in which Javier Bardem plays the villain.
Casino Royale marked the introduction of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond and set up his tenure as dark and brutal, which was quite a departure from a series that at one point went into outer space.  I loved the film, though some were not fans of the tonal shift and the lack of traditional Bond elements like Q and his gadgets.  Then Quantum of Solace came out and ruined everything (for me, at least).  It was utterly forgettable, had indecipherable action, and was implausible, but not in a fun way.  After that film, MGM (the Bond studio) went bankrupt and it put Bond on an indefinite hiatus.  Apparently all that time off allowed them to come back and get things right…again.

In many aspects, Skyfall serves as a segue into a new Bond, even though the actor is the same.  Q and the gadgets are back along with a lot of familiar music.  (There are also a lot of changes and additions that would be considered spoilers.)  There are plenty references to Bond being an older man and how the old ways need to give way to the new.  It basically felt like the filmmakers were saying, “You know that brooding, hulking Bond?  Well, we’ve toned him down a bit.  Meet the new Bond, (almost the) same as the old Bond.”  That is just fine with me.  I dig the more hardcore James Bond that Craig created, but I also love some gadgets.

Skyfall stands apart from other Bond films in that it is a very personal story for both Bond and MI6.  Bond is presumed dead at the end of the opening mission and is forced to resurrect himself as a spy.  MI6 is attacked and is forced to revaluate their function in a modern world.  Bond gets to do battle with a bitter old MI6 agent (Javier Bardem), and M (Judi Dench) gets to do battle with bureaucrats like Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).  The stakes are exponentially higher than they were in Quantum, when Bond was trying to save the utility department of Colombia or something.

If the stakes are high, then the action will prosper.  Skyfall has a few gigantic action set pieces and they are all well shot and impressive.  Any action fan should be pleased, but you should not expect nonstop action.  In fact, there is about an hour lull between action sequences.  Normally, that would be a flaw in pacing, but the film does not suffer from it because all of the inner workings of MI6 are actually quite interesting.

Rarely do you get downtime in a sequel.  This is Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond, so there is really no need for him to hang out in the office.  In the previous films, he never seemed to be in England.  Finally, he’s been corralled in a bit and the audience has a chance to breathe between location changes, a welcome change to the usual breakneck speed of sequels and action films.  The interactions between Bond and M help make this time bearable, as Skyfall brings to fruition their love/hate relationship.  Fiennes is there to mix things up, and Ben Whishaw, as Q, makes every scene he’s in a bit more interesting. 

A good Bond film is usually defined by its villain, though, not by the protagonists.  Javier Bardem was brought in to give Craig his first true villain.  I am a big fan of Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale), but he was not very imposing as far as villains go.  He had an inhaler! (The villain in Quantum doesn’t even deserve mentioning; I only bring it up to let you know I did not forget about the boring Mathieu Amalric.)  Bardem ratchets it up as a weird, tittering, angry psychopath.  He’s basically like the Joker from The Dark Knight, except he’s more than happy to let you know why he’s so messed up.  Some have already cried foul about the similarities, but I’m cool with it.  He’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.  In fact, my only complaint is that we don’t get to see him until over an hour into the film.  I suppose that adds power to the reveal, but more Bardem is always good.  He chewed up the scenery and it was exactly what the film needed. 

Bardem may have chewed on the scenery, but the scenery itself made the film absolutely beautiful.  This is easily the most impressively cinematic Bond film.  Director Sam Mendes and Director of Photography Roger Deakins present one amazing visual after another.  The locales, like Shanghai, are naturally exotic and beautiful, but they add to it using a vast array of colors and it is shot in a way so that it can be appreciated.  I also liked how a lot of the film is shot behind Bond, so we get to enter most of these locations right along with him.

Skyfall was a long time coming, and it was certainly worth the wait.  Those let down with the last effort, as I was, will be pleased.  Those who are upset with the direction the series had taken in general might not be completely happy, but they definitely have less to complain about with this one.  I consider Casino Royale to be one of the best Bond films ever made, and now Skyfall is part of that discussion.  Let’s just hope they don’t need to restart it again anytime soon.      

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I have to admit that I loved seeing James Bond get all Home Alone when they all started booby-trapping the old house.  Bonus points go to M for her awesome lightbulb shotgun rounds.

I thought this was a very good send off for Judi Dench.  I must admit that it felt kind of weird that she remained as M, even though Bond changed.  (I know it's happened like this before, but this is first time I witnessed the change as the films were released.)  Looking forward to seeing Craig report to Fiennes for at least two more films.

It's good to finally have a Moneypenny and a Q. 

How cool would it have been if Pierce Brosnan had been Bardem's character.  A former agent cast aside, back with a vendetta against M.  That would have been amazing.  It would also acknowledge that James Bond is simply a code name just as M is.  Still, I was happy with Bardem's performance. 

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