SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)

A Spoiler Free Review by PAUL ROWLANDS


SKYFALL, the fiftieth anniversary James Bond film makes an interesting comparison to DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002), the fortieth anniversary film. Pierce Brosnan's swansong wanted to have its cake and eat it by awkwardly melding the lean thrills of DR. NO (1962) with the epic grandiosity of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), and by peppering proceedings with subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the previous nineteen pictures, SKYFALL is as bold and as inventive, but much more subtle, dialed-down and focussed. Despite its many acknowledgments to Bond's heritage, DIE ANOTHER DAY had its eye on the future much more than the past, in the sense that a Bond film always exists in the near-future. SKYFALL is concerned with the results of the old clashing with the new. It's an exciting film that could be summed up by an observation made by Naomie Harris's character, Eve, concerning 007 - 'Old dog, new tricks.'

The film sees Bond (Daniel Craig) come up against a figure from 'M' (Judi Dench)'s past, a certain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva is prepared to wage war against MI6 in order to settle a personal score. He's also in possession of a file of all undercover MI6 agents and is gradually releasing their names on the Internet, making his capture doubly important. 'M' puts her best man on the job - James Bond. Threatening the mission is that Bond, although  deemed fit for duty after being accidentally shot by field agent Eve, surviving a long 'drop in the ocean' and being out of action for three months, is not psychologically and physically up to par. This mission could revitalise him or end him. 

The melding of new boys Sam Mendes (Daniel Craig's director on ROAD TO PERDITION, 2002), co-writer John Logan (GLADIATOR, 2000) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, 2007) with veterans like five-time Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli has made for thrilling results.

Mendes and Logan have brought an emphasis on drama and character thathas made SKYFALL one of the most dramatically engaging and best acted films of the series. The director has also attracted a prestige cast that apart from series regulars Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Rory Kinnear, also includes the cream of British talent both established (Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Helen McRory) and relatively new (Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw). As is custom, the casting directors have cast their net far and wide to reel in exciting talent from international territories, both established (Oscar-winning Spanish actor Javier Bardem) and relatively new (French actress Berenice Lim Marlohe and Swedish actor Ola Rapace). There's not one disappointing or underwhelming performance here, and like the film itself the acting work is a wonderful mix of old and new.

Daniel Craig dominates the picture with a performance that is perfectly judged at every turn. This is a man who can communicate a thousand words with his eyes. He is is complemented by Judi Dench who has one of the most wonderful voices in acting, and Javier Bardem whose body language says more than a well-scripted monologue ever could. SKYFALL is essentially a three-hander and all three are at the top of their game, creating very human characters within the archetypes of the stoic hero, the authoritarian boss and the larger-than-life villain. For all the excitement of the action scenes (particularly the pre-credits sequence set in Turkey and a climax that wonderfully evokes the ending to a controversial 1970s classic), you will find yourself equally remembering the dramatic scenes - Javier Bardem's entrance into the film, Craig's first meeting with Berenice Marlohe, and a scene set in the National Gallery.

Bardem manages to create a classic Bond villain who is both larger-than-life and yet very human, with an arguably legitimate axe to grind but rather cruel methods. One pities him almost as much as one hates him. He's a harbinger of Scaramanga from the MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN film (1974) and book (1965) - Bond's dark shadow. With Max Zorin (Christopher Walken)'s hair from A VIEW TO A KILL (1985)! Naomie Harris is charming and spunky in her role of field agent Eve, and she has good chemistry with Craig. Whishaw (in his fourth film with Craig) creates a memorably confident, intelligent and amusing character. Fiennes' Gareth Mallory is a highly interesting character - a man who isn't all he seems amd is more like Bond than Bond himself would expect at first. Berenice Marlohe's Severine, in just a few scenes, resonates as a multi-faceted, tragic character with depth and a convincing backstory. Rory Kinnear, who didn't get a chance to shine as Bill Tanner in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, thankfully does here and hopefully his character will be as important to the series in future films as he was in the books, where he is Bond's best friend in MI6.

SKYFALL is a film which is less action-packed, fast-paced, noisy and spectacular than most Bond films, but no less exciting. This is first and foremost a thriller, in the style of the first three films DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) and GOLDFINGER (1964). In some ways this is the film that THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999) could have been. A film where the action sequences feel connected to and integral to the plot, and grow out of the drama and story. Mendes has delivered a superb balance of action and drama that allows the drama and characters to resonate and make the action more exciting because we have more to invest in. SKYFALL also continues Bond's emotional journey from the previous pictures, so that finally what the film becomes is the end of a trilogy dealing with James Bond becoming the man we love. (Yes, he's not QUITE the Bond we love in this film.)

The film resonates class at every turn, and fittingly for not only the fiftieth anniversary of the series, but the year of the London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, SKYFALL spends a lot on time on British soil (as did the 1955 novel 'Moonraker'), and feels like a very British film. It is also interested in the answers to a very specific and uniquely British question - has the age passed when MI6 should rely less on human intelligence gathering and more on digital and satellite intelligence gathering? Do we need a man like James Bond anymore? When the enemy no longer has a face, don't we need humans in the field even more than before? Mendes, inspired by THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), has fashioned a film that delivers blockbuster entertainment, has artistic value and also speaks about the times we live in.

For the Bond 50 celebrations, we have a Bond film more in touch with its legacy than CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). It has some surprises up its sleeve which mark it as a more traditional Bond film. Say no more. There is a return to the series' ridiculous elements (a larger than life villain, Komodo dragons, Bond hanging on to the bottom of an elevator all the way up to the 67th floor, and the return of a palm print encoded 'signature gun' from LICENCE TO KILL. There is also a return to the series' sense of fun and humour, and beloved tropes. The film sees a return to the sexiness and the travelogue feel that has not always been apparent in recent films. 

SKYFALL is a bold film in the emotional terrain it covers. Here we have a startling presentation of Bond early in the film - disillusioned with his vocation and seemingly ready for the scrap heap, full of self-doubt and addicted to alcohol and painkillers. Even his legendary gun arm is unsteady. (Bond in the shooting gallery brings back memories of the opening to the 'Moonraker' book.) Bond's age is addressed (Craig was 43 when he filmed SKYFALL) by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, who tells him "It's a young man's game." Although a depressed, out of condition Bond sent on a mission by 'M' that will restore or end him was a plot device included in the 'You Only Live Twice' (1964) novel, it's something we have never seen before in a Bond film (the nearest we had was Bond with a dislocated shoulder in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and creates a new kind of tension to the film. How long will Bond remain a broken man, and what damage is he going to cause to himself and others before he returns to normal?

The film could have been a by-the-numbers back-slapping celebration of Bond tropes by any other producers than the Broccoli family. Ever since the 25th anniversary film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) with Timothy Dalton, they have been trying to stretch the Bond character for all he is worth and explore his humanity. In doing so, they have revealed and reminded us of what has made the character so loved for nearly six decades now (the first Bond novel, 'Casino Royale', appeared in 1953). He encapsulates what Tennyson wrote in the final lines of his poem 'Ulysses' (1842) and which are quoted by 'M' in the film. She's talking about England, but she could equally be talking about 007. He may be weakened by time and age (in this film) but he remains resilient, brave and unwavering. Bond is also motivated by his sense of duty, his patriotism and his complicated relationship with 'M', which is further explored in the film.

It's also bold in the changes it brings to the visual palette of the series. The look of the film is somehow simultaneously of the here and now (London, Scotland), the near future (Shanghai) and the past (Macau). Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner (back from QUANTUM OF SOLACE and coincidentally Mendes' regular collaborator) create a Shanghai straight out of BLADE RUNNER (1982) or cyberpunk author William Gibson's imagination - all neon blue and fractured, flashing, floating imagery and data. It's as if the whole Shanghai sequence is coming out of Bond's restless, fevered state of mind. A setpiece involving Bond trailing an assassin on the 67th floor of a skyscraper is the single most extraordinarily conceived scene in the series and is a wonder to behold. It somehow encapsulates the appeal of Bond with its juxtaposition of deadly danger and beauty. To contrast with Shanghai we have a scene set on a floating casino in Macau that harks back to the old-school elegance and panoramic scope of a film like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. London is gritty but beautiful, Scotland haunting but majestic.

Thomas Newman's score is also a mix of innovation, and nods to past and the recent past. It's very much its own score, whilst paying tribute to both the work of John Barry and David Arnold, the composer of the previous five films. The score aches and soars with its characters and has a distinct air of regency, stature and elegance. At times it is almost ambient, and at others almost Kubrickian. Adele's slow-burning, moving theme song has quickly revealed itself as a Bondian classic - both a traditional Bond theme in the style of Bassey or Nancy Sinatra, and a very modern updating of that same style. Combined with the amazing Daniel Kleinman main titles, the song truly soars. Kleinman's titles are amongst the best of series and break new ground in its focussing on theme and character rather than Bondian tropes. The effect is overwhelmingly emotionally powerful and thematically right for the film.

 SKYFALL then is a successful melding of the old and new, past and present. Bond as a franchise (this is the 23rd 'official' film) is the 'old dog' but the series has 'new tricks'. It's genuinely one of the very best in the series and like the two films before it, it edges the series ever further into exciting artistic terrain. The line between 'artistic film' and 'blockbuster' continues to erode, and SKYFALL sets up a second chapter within the Craig era that means that the prospects for Bond 24 are for a 'reboot' as fresh, exciting and groundbreaking as CASINO ROYALE turned out to be in 2006. 'Brave new world' indeed.

Thanks to Sony Japan.

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