Saturday, 29 December 2012

Skyfall

Despite lagging a little behind in action movie trends, the newest Bond pulls them off flawlessly, delivering a fantastic spectacle, and reigniting the franchise's potential.



Like my little blog that lags behind schedule, and reviews films after they've been in theatres for a month, James Bond returns with all the action movie tropes you've seen in other films over the past few years, complete with the motorcycle chase from The Bourne Legacy. That's not to say the Brit's are lacking in originality; Bourne didn't hijack a caterpillar on a flatbed, and use it to rip a hole in a train carriage in order for him to board. Bourne just kind of ended.

There's a lot in Skyfall that riffs off recent action films. There's also a lot that riffs off the rich history of the character in the past 50 years. For Christmas I received the Bond 50 collection, and as I work my way through them I'll be posting reviews for each. So while I had to look up a few of the references in this film, I expect over time I will grow to appreciate it more.

And please hear me: I really, really enjoyed this movie.

Bond has come a long way since 1962. Skyfall is blockbuster action filmmaking at it's finest, with several strong characters played by excellent actors, a tight script that keeps the pace moving from one spectacular set piece to another, breathing room to build the tension, a memorable villain, complex characters and a weighty, satisfying climax.

But the whole time I was watching it, the thing that kept running through my head was "I've seen this before in _____."

Let's go through some shall we.

Like The Dark Knight, Skyfall features a memorable and frightening villain - Raoul Silva. Silva is played by Javier Bardem, who also played a terrifying villain in No Country For Old Men. The man has a knack for playing crazy killers, but his performance in each is unique, and he is clearly a very talented actor who hopefully won't be typecast for the rest of his life. If he does though, we will have a generation of fantastic villains.

Much of Silva's plan bears resemblance to The Joker's in The Dark Knight - even borrowing the image of the villain disguised as a cop, riding in a police car. Like the Joker, Silva is meticulous, crazy, cunning and lays everything on the line, forcing our hero to question himself. Unlike Batman, Bond doesn't brood on the problem. He's too busy having a smashing good time.

Like The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall deals with the idea of it's main character becoming too old for the job. It's no secret that Bond is shot early in the picture, and presumed dead. Of course this isn't true, but when he comes back he finds himself struggling to cope with the task. The film digs deep into the question of whether or not Bond is still relevant today, and there are some particularly poignant moments including Judy Dench reading poetry.

I already mentioned the similarity to Bourne. This was more a thing with Casino Royale, when Bond suddenly lifted shakey-cam and parkour chases from that franchise. Those elements are still here, but briefly.

The film plays off other Bond films, offering little origin stories for some elements, such as the 'shaken, not stirred' line. There's an Aston Martin featured from one of the old films, and Judi Dench, who played M in both the Pierce Brosnan and the Daniel Craig Bond films, plays a central role in this film. While Casino Royale represented a distinct departure from previous Bond movies, Skyfall brings the series full circle in an exhilarating fashion. If you've been a fan for a long time, you'll probably love these elements of the film.

From other films, Skyfall features a scene where the villain is locked in a prison, taunting the heroes, echoing The Avengers narratively and visually. The taunting is different though. Silva explains his motivations with a disturbing illustration that is remarkably harrowing, and cranks up the tension for the chaos that is soon to come.

Like the old Bond films, James is unafraid to kill, unafraid to die, gets any girl that he glances at twice, has excessive luck in gambling, fashion in fighting and all the best cars. They don't even bother to explain where they come from: James Bond just has awesome cars. With machine guns.

The credits sequence at the beginning is especially noteworthy. Probably one of my favourite credit sequences ever - the combination of the vivid imagery and Adele's phenomenal vocals created an atmosphere of excitement and mounting dread as we watch Bond wander through this whirlwind of crazy, cards in a standoff, guns firing, fire falling, shadows fluttering about, and through the bullet hole we go again. Great stuff.

So in all that it borrows, Skyfall improves. It's a cut above the rest, and those that call it the best Bond film ever... well, I can certainly understand it, but I'll speak for myself once I get through them all.

(The following paragraphs contain SPOILERS)

If I had to fault the film (and I do, because I strive for a false sense of objectivity), I would have to say first that the main character is unlikable, and second that the whole franchise reeks of adolescent male fantasy.

James Bond is, at several moments in this film, in a position to save someones life. In almost every instance of this, he sits and waits. I know, James Bond is no superhero, and adheres to no such idealistic code as Batman, but it was frustrating, especially when he watches Silva murder his lover in cold blood as part of a twisted joke of a game, only to moments later spring into action, kill all the baddies, and capture Silva. If he had acted moments sooner he'd have saved her, why wait? He got the jump on them, but was that element of surprise really worth her life?

Ok, so his job isn't to save the few, it's for the benefit of the many. For Queen and country or something? So letting an assassin complete his job unhindered before taking him out, in order to let his employer think that all was well, I can kind of understand. He's following the protocols of MI6, but when MI6 is in shambles what then? Bond doesn't seem to be accountable to them by the end of the film, he practically kidnaps the boss. Why is her life so worth protecting, especially when her continued existence causes the death of so many others?

At the end of the film, Bond kills Silva with a knife to the back, and M dies from her wounds. So what would be different then, if Silva had succeeded in his double suicide attempt? I suppose Silva would have won, and Bond would have lost. And it's the principal that's at stake right? But Bond, like Silva, is totally unprincipled - at least as far as I can see. He doesn't live by any consistent code of ethics except for 'get the job done', which is vague at best.

I guess what I'm saying is that Bond does some pretty repulsive things in this film, and if the 'hero' of the piece can't be differentiated from the villain by his principals, what is there that makes us want to root for him?

That said, I could say the same goes for M. And she would say to me "I made a judgement call". It adds complexity and perhaps realism to the characters, but there were times in the movie where I just didn't like James Bond.

Alright, finally, the male fantasy bit. This will be brief, as I'm sure it's been said many times before: James Bond is an immature fantasy of a suave, rich, invincible, masculine man who shoots guns, blows things up, lays with sexy woman, all under the banner of saving the world.

As if the franchise hadn't contributed enough to our culture of objectifying females as sex objects; with M's death the Bond series may have lost its only female that didn't exist for eye candy. Moneypenny is given a good role in this film, with a strong performance by Naomie Harris, but if she's the most developed female character in the next movie... feminists, grab your pitchforks.

Ralph Fiennes confidently steps into the role of M, and I have great faith in him moving forward. Same for Daniel Craig, who is signed on to play Bond for 2 more films. I'll reserve my judgement on my favourite Bond until I've seen at least a few of them, but to me he suits the role just fine.

Oh, and what was with his test scores - did he fake them? Or was he just running on adrenaline that whole time...