Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall: Shaken and stirred!

Skyfall (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense action sequences, sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.9.12

Daniel Craig’s stint as James Bond has been about rebirth and re-invention, and Skyfall is no different, albeit with an intriguing twist: It feels more like John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

Somehow, Daniel Craig's James Bond, left, always seems to wind up tied to a chair,
and forced to listen as the villain — in this case, Javier Bardem's Silva — shares his
nasty plans. But this is no ordinary villain, and Silva has no intention of destroying the
world's economy, or igniting a war with Russia or China. This maniac's mission is much
more personal, and it'll cut to the very core of Britain's venerable intelligence agency.
As also was the case with Casino Royale, things get personal.

The formula seems the same at the outset, with an audacious, action-laced pre-credits teaser set in Istanbul, which finds Bond and a fellow field agent (plucky Naomie Harris, as Eve) in hot pursuit of a baddie who has ambushed some MI6 colleagues and stolen a vitally important computer hard drive. First on foot, then in cars and motorcycles, and finally atop a moving train, Bond relentlessly pursues this fellow, ultimately with the assistance of a backhoe (!), all to an exhilarating orchestral score from composer Thomas Newman.

Then, at the climactic moment ... things take an unexpected turn.

And not just in terms of plot, as the scripting trio — returning scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (their fifth 007 epic), allied with Oscar-nominated playwright John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo) — moves the narrative into increasingly un-Bondian waters. Director Sam Mendes gradually shifts the tone as well, utilizing the obligatory exotic locals as a means of moving the action from London to Scotland — the long way around — for a stripped-down third act very much akin to his masterful 2002 adaptation of The Road to Perdition.

An unusual approach, for our big-screen imbiber of cocktails shaken, not stirred? Indeed. But there’s a reason for the madness concocted by Mendes and his writing team: an artistic flourish that suitably honors this 50th anniversary outing in cinema’s longest-running continuous franchise. (Dr. No opened in London on Oct. 5, 1962.)

There’s also plenty of madness elsewhere, in the form of Silva: an adversary who stands among the most memorable of Bondian megalomaniacs, and is brought to chilling life by Javier Bardem. And if we see a bit of his horrific Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men, that’s probably no accident.

Bond villains too frequently have felt like pretend scoundrels with fancy dress and fancier accents — particularly during the spoof-laden Roger Moore years — but Bardem’s Silva is the real deal. His introductory soliloquy on the feral nature of trapped rats probably is the best scene-stealing debut ever granted any Bond baddie, and Bardem sells the moment masterfully.

And this fellow isn’t out to rule the world; he merely wants revenge.

For what, precisely? Ah, therein lies the tale.

Back in London, M (Judi Dench) finds her authority challenged by Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a go-between for impatient politicians disenchanted with MI6’s cloak-and-dagger approach to spy craft. It’s too retrograde, superfluous and expensive in the terrorist-laden 21st century, they argue, and it’s also time for M to retire: an opinion that Mallory apparently shares.

Such internecine squabbles intensify — along with the question of M’s competence — when a cyber-attack triggers a massive explosion at the very heart of MI6, with considerable loss of life. Worse yet, the stolen computer hard drive has fallen into the hands of the same hacker, who, in WikiLeaks fashion, intends to expose its information and reveal the identities of British agents operating under deep cover within terrorist cells around the world.

All these breaches point directly to M, as do snippy little messages that pop up on her computer screen, warning that it’s time to “repent her sins.”

One slim clue points to Shanghai, where Bond dutifully picks up the trail, accompanied by Eve and armed with a few gadgets from M’s quartermaster (Ben Whishaw, understated, mildly smug and simply delightful). These new toys seem oddly insufficient, if clever: a tiny radio transmitter and a pistol with a grip that will respond solely to Bond’s palm print, thus preventing its use by anybody else.

A brief skirmish later, we’re off to the Dragon Casino in Macau: a setting that truly lets production designer Dennis Gassner excel. The casino itself is done up in opulent reds and yellows, and boasts an actual dragon pit (!) and dragon lady; that would be Bérénice Marlohe, as Sévérine. But the water-based approach is breathtaking, as Bond glides to the entrance in a small boat that passes countless large floating luminaria. Simply gorgeous.

So yes, to the degree that James Bond films are about impertinent stunts, exotic locales and stunning women, Skyfall thus far has lived up to expectation. Longtime fans also will appreciate the return of occasional witticisms, particularly when Bond meets the almost laughably youthful Q in London’s National Portrait Gallery. (Yes, kids, Daniel Craig’s Bond does have a sense of humor!)

Take note, though: These are ­— refreshingly! — the mildly sarcastic, well-timed quips of the Connery era, rather than the strained, groaning puns that Moore dropped like little lead balloons.

The film’s tone shifts at this point, however, as Bardem’s Silva takes the stage. The subsequent battle of wits grows dark and dangerous, and we’re reminded of the horrific punishment that Bond took at the hands of Le Chiffre, back in Casino Royale.

Before Mel Gibson became little more than a media joke, he was known for persuasively playing roles that demanded tortured agony, whether physical (Lethal Weapon) or mental (Ransom). The man cornered the market for on-screen suffering; with his departure, Craig’s Bond has picked up that mantle.

Gone is the immortal 1980s and ’90s superspy who glided breezily through so many big-screen adventures, rarely mussing even his hair; Craig’s Bond bleeds, endures poundings and doesn’t necessarily recover wholly intact. This is as it should be: The Bond from Fleming’s typewriter is damaged goods from the first novel forward, and we thus admire the grit and determination that power him through subsequent adventures despite these failings.

More than anything else, though, Craig’s Bond is loyal to the core: both to England, and most particularly to M. The biggest joy of this script is the degree to which it expands upon this relationship, which Craig and Dench display with plenty of prickly, feisty on-screen chemistry. An earlier Bond entry — Pierce Brosnan’s The World Is Not Enough — attempted to delve into this intriguing dynamic, with little success; this film delivers the goods.

In fairness, Craig and Dench have the advantage of a quieter setting: the iconic, wind-swept landscape of Glencoe, Scotland, which Fleming selected for Bond’s family background in his penultimate novel, You Only Life Twice. (Bond’s Scottish heritage was the author’s gift to Connery, whom Fleming had grown to admire as the on-screen incarnation of his hero.)

I’m grateful, as well, for a title song — performed and co-written by Adele, and quoted throughout the film in Newman’s score — that sounds like a Bond anthem: an actual hummable melody, with invigorating, standard orchestration ... unlike the cacophonous trash of, say, Madonna’s title theme for Die Another Day.

The various character interactions — M and Bond, Bond and Silva, M and Mallory, Bond and Q — are this script’s strength, and they help camouflage some, shall we say, rather glaring plot contrivances. Let’s start with the notion that the identities of every British undercover agent would be entrusted to a laptop out in the field; with a decision like that, M deserves to be put out to pasture.

But other issues also crop up. Bond catches up with his pre-credits adversary in Shanghai, as this fellow prepares to assassinate an art lover in an adjacent building. Why? Who is the target, and what is his relevance to these proceedings? And I simply could not swallow the notion that Sévérine, no matter how desperate, would lead Bond to her employer, knowing full well that she’d be putting herself in mortal danger.

But you’re likely to forgive such sins, thanks to an epilogue-of-sorts that completes the necessary task of re-introducing the “classic” Bond to us, along with the, ah, accessories that charmed the world so much in the 1960s.

Craig’s proto-agent endured the whole of Casino Royale before he earned the right to introduce himself as “Bond ... James Bond” in the final scene, to that film’s first use of the iconic “James Bond Theme.” This time out, all the elements finally at hand, he’s allowed to “star” in the equally iconic gun barrel motif, but only at the end of this film ... which concludes with an acknowledgment of this golden anniversary and a revived on-screen promise that also was part of the ritual, back in the day: “James Bond will be back.”

With a quality production like this, we can safely believe it.

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