Sunday, November 18, 2012

HAVING AND EATING CAKE: "Skyfall" is Entertaining Though It Eschews the Legacy It Is Supposed to Emulate

“In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus (Latin: Ianus) is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The month of January was named in honor of Janus by the Romans.”
While it may be odd to invoke Roman mythology in a film review (especially a definition weaned from Wikipedia), it seems aptly appropriate to me given that, after fifty years of film and sixty plus in print, the Bond phenomenon has become a mythology of its own. Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the James Bond franchise (not counting the David Niven Casino Royale or Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again), is a curious entry in the series for it carries its own themes of duality both within the story and metatextually; a film of contrasts and oppositions.
Admittedly, after 50 years it’s hard not to retread the same material.  Many of the film’s plot points revisit familiar ground as previously seen in entries such as You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger, License to Kill, Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough, especially. Ostensibly the plot finds James Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to prevent a list of operatives who are operating covertly in terrorist organizations worldwide. However, this plot is a MacGuffin as the plot really centers around M (Judi Dench) and an ex-MI-6 operative named Silva (Javier Bardem, who is just as unsettling here as he was in the superlative No Country for Old Men) who, in echoes of The World Is Not Enough, is out for revenge against her and, in further echoes of Goldeneye, is Bond’s ersatz brother-in-arms and his opposite number.
The film is replete with themes of duality and obsolescence: New versus old; Desired youth versus grizzled experience. Yet it’s not only within the story but the film as a whole. There are times it embraces and eschews Bond’s legacy all at once, in some cases, nodding to the past while at the same time disparaging it and, in at least one instance, destroying it. This whole sense of duality is epitomized in Craig’s Bond. I must admit from the get-go that I have always found Craig to be more suited as a Bond villain henchman than Bond himself (my tastes run more towards Connery, Brosnan and Dalton) however, his subsequent performances in films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Cowboys and Aliens have allowed me to give him more leeway to accept Craig as Bond, if not my Bond. In this film, Bond is broken and much is made of the character’s (and actor’s) age. The Brits call Craig the “Grumpy Bond” for a reason (as his interpretation of Bond is among the most intense, matching that of Timothy Dalton). However, Craig’s Bond finally shows some of the lighter, playful touches of the character, reminiscent of Moore’s and Brosnan’s turns, when paired with a fellow MI-6 agent (Naomi Harris,M ission Impossible II, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest/At World’s End); an agent whose identity is, for those who know their Bond history, immediately telegraphed within the first few seconds of their witty, flirtatious banter. For once, it looks like Craig is actually having fun the role of Bond. It is a welcome change.
The thing is, I’ve seen this film earlier before. It was called The Dark Knight Rises. The hero is presented as broken and past his prime, one who must rise up against a force greater than he that was shaped by the very organization that shaped him, and both motivated to some degree by a strong female presence in their lives (in this case, “M”). There are many more parallels to be found between the two films but you get the gist. And, as the opening sequence shows, the influence the Bourne series has had on these films since the advent of Casino Royale shows no signs of diminishing. Where Bond as a franchise had once led the way in terms of how to make an action film work, it is now instead following the trends; instead being more of an action piece for product placement (and trust me, there is plenty of that) instead of being innovative.
This is not to say that Skyfall is an excellent movie. Of Craig’s three films thus far, Skyfall is second only to Royale (the less said of the mishmash that was Quantum of Solace the better). If the first film was the apex and the second the nadir, Skyfall falls somewhere in the middle. The film never bores, even in its slow spots. It is also a weighty film with the themes it deals with, but also with the characters themselves. Never before have the characters of Bond and M have been as fleshed out as they are here. In fact, this is the closest we’ll get to a real Bond origin story, I imagine. Even in the film’s fantastical circumstances, these characters feel real. Yet, Bond films were always fun , escapist entertainment, a far cry from the novels that spawned many of them (with perhpas the exception of "Moonraker"), the idea of same no less reflected in  main producer Cubby Broccoli almost casting of  Adam West (!) and Burt Reynolds (!!) as Bond (But then, “off-model” is certainly the current trend. Robert Downey, Jr. is anything but the Sherlock Holmes as conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, yet audiences accept such. If the trend continues, it’s possible that the below could be coming to a theatre near you:
Ah, well…a man may not fly, but perhaps he can dream…but I digress…).
The supporting players are nothing to sneeze at.  Ralph Finnes is enigmatic as Gareth Malleroy, an intelligence agent who may or may not have it in for “M”. Young Ben Whishlaw makes for an interesting re-imagination of the armorer, “Q”. With nods to the past and an eye towards the future, this is a “Q” for a new generation of Bond. Bérénice Marlohe plays Bond girl Severine, who is somewhat (intentionally) reminiscent of Xenia Onnatop from Goldeneye and equally captivating to look at for what time she is actually on screen. Albert Finney enjoys what amounts to an extended cameo suspiciously intended for Sean Connery (especially given the setting wherein the character is introduced). Yet for all that this is a Bond film, the main character is almost a guest star in his own film, as the real focus is “M” (Judi Dench) who is front and center in this film and is fleshed out in a way never before shown for in any of its iterations. Dench proves why she’s one of Britain’s superlative actresses, conveying steel drive with a hint of vulnerability. Ironic that such a cold character (since the reboot) proves to be the heart and soul of the film. And as Silva, Bardem is Bond’s “Joker” and “Bane” all in one: as flamboyant as the former, as dangerous as the latter, and makes for a dangerous combination. The last time Bond was given a villain who was his equal or superior was Sean Bean’s “006”, and Bardem outshines that. It’s the mark of a film villain when his presence is felt even when he’s not on screen, and from the point of his introduction, that presence is palpable.
They cinematography is nothing but superb. It has been decades, yes decades, since Bond has felt this exotic and, yes, even epic in scope. Before the age of Internet and affordable travel, the Bond films were the best way for movie goers to be immersed in an exotic world. Skyfall is the first film in the franchise in decades to evoke that response. Sam Mendes’ musical partner in crime, Thomas Newman, is a refreshing change from David Arnold’s repetitively indistinguishable stylings (though not completely devoid of them, as some hints of the Casino Royale score are evident here). The score is strongly influenced by the works of the late John Barry, and the film is stronger for it (and an interesting bit of trivia which adds weight to the musical Barry homage…”M”s flat in the film was actually Barry’s home).
All in all, Skyfall is an interesting mix of heaviness and lightheartedness. But by the end of film, the “Bond Begins” experiment begun in Casino Royale is completed in Skyfall. At the end, everything old is new again and a truism is reasserted before the credits, and the familiar gun barrel sequence, begins to roll:
James Bond will return.