Skyfall

yearlatefall

Daniel Craig’s term as James Bond can, I think, be considered the gold standard of continuity reboots. From the very first scene of 2006’s Casino Royale, where Bond battles a man in a public toilet before dispatching a nameless Russian guy with a quip and a smile, we’re introduced to the film’s mission statement: To blend classic Bond film elements with darker, more realistic modern spy movie tropes.

This formula worked wonders in Casino Royale, but was disappointingly toned down in Quantum of Solace, the sequel, which tried to minimize the Bond stuff to make way for the modern stuff, and made for an underwhelming experience. Luckily, since Skyfall was intended as a celebration of the franchise’s 50th anniversary, Bond stuff was not only expected but mandated, and the contrast between the two gives the movie some really memorable scenes and images. But what catapults it to the best of Bond is more than that: Skyfall has an excellently realized story – a thematic character study and political spy-thriller both – assisted by a tight script and excellent performances.

Instead of the expected gunbarrel point-of-view opening, we get a nice visual reference to it, as Bond steps into frame against a featureless background, to the classic bombastic music (I’ll note here that every single track of the score contains a reorchestration of recognizable Bond theme cues, a move which I applaud). Things settle down as Bond, speaking via earpiece to Dame Judi Mch, discovers that someone has stolen a MacGuffinBook Pro from MI6’s Istanbul offices.

Meeting up with his handler, an Honorable Blackwoman, Bond starts a lengthy chase across the yellow-tinted streets of Turkey, moving from cars to motorcycles to rooftops to construction equipment to crowded trains. It’s not the smartest action, but it’s flashy, varied, exciting, and integrated with enough dialogue and story-driving stuff that I don’t care a bit. I also applaud how little time they spend on establishing the premise or the characters: I shudder to think how anyone without prior knowledge of the franchise would react, but this movie is made for people who know what’s going on.

Eventually, Bond is reduced to a hand-to-hand with the thief, atop a speeding freight train. Blackwoman has a sniper rifle, but the fight is happening too fast for her to get a clear shot. Since the MacGuffinBook is too valuable to lose, Mch demands that Blackwoman take the shot, but she ends up hitting Bond instead.

Since Turkey has no convenient pure white snowbanks or rainy cobblestoned streets on which to expire, Bond falls from a great height and into deep water, segueing into the title sequence. This is one of the best parts of the movie, especially after the orange-saturated, synth-filled mess that we had in Quantum of Solace. We get all the old hallmarks – death motifs, sneak peeks at the movie’s globetrotting locales, writhing Rorschach test ladies – that are put over the top by some imaginative use of CGI and Adele’s best imitation of Dame Shirley Bassey.

“Rorschach’s journal. Dead secret agent in alleyway, bullet wounds in huge pecs. This city is afraid of me – I’ve seen it’s true face…”

After the credits, Mch is called to the office of Mr. Marvolo, the go-between for MI6 and the British government, who’s unhappy with her loss of the MacGuffinBook, and tells her that she’s being fired. She gets about as angry as an elderly Brit can, but her dour looks and quiet groans are interrupted by a message from MI6 – someone has used the stolen computer to access her top secret security data and leaves her a needlessly cryptic message, before blowing up MI6 headquarters like it ain’t no thang.

Months later, in the Caribbean, Bond is finishing up the last of his Phil Coulson Resurrection Workout tapes, when he receives news of the attack. He sneaks into Mch’s house, and they trade banter on death and retirement before he officially reports for debriefing and return to active duty.

He’s taken down into provisional MI6 headquarters – an abandoned Underground station, converted into a World War II-era bunker. I really can’t say enough about how well the set design, music and cinematography all work here, establishing a nuanced tone and subtly setting up later action sequences and plot points – all with a minimum of actual dialogue. It’s just great stuff, and this sort of omnipresent, memorable imagery is what makes the movie so strong.

Bond undergoes some rigorous testing of his mind and body, but he’s far from top form: His aim is terrible, his psychological exam triggers a fit at the mysterious word “Skyfall”, and his Bane impression isn’t looking so good either.

“…And when nnnnyehGOTHam is ASHes… Sorry, let me start over!”

As Bond forlornly shuffles through the brightly-lit hallways of MI6, he’s reinvigorated by some flirting with Blackwoman, who’s on probation after her manslaughter of an agent, and Mch, who tells both Bond and her nominal superior Marvolo that he’s passed his exams. Here we get our first glimpse of the “Parenting” theme, which is luckily downplayed to make way for the much cooler “Rebirth” one, but does get a few scenes to itself. Mch is shown as a mother figure – sympathetic and supportive, but dying – whereas the strict, dour Marvolo is obviously a contrasting father figure. The theme is handled well, but I don’t feel like it adds a lot to the movie – basically all it does is let the villain be marginally creepier than he already was.

The age and rebirth themes return with a vengeance in the next scene, where Bond meets with the mop-headed, dry-witted Qid, who gives him a high-tech gun and a distress beacon, and generally plays the know-it-all as he extolls the importance of 21st-century Internet espionage and by-the-book tactics to Bond, who contemplates a Turner painting of an English warship’s last stand. It’s not the most subtle symbolism, but that’s art for you.

If you look closely, you can just make out Connor Kenway at the helm, doing absolutely everything!

Bond is then shipped off to Shanghai, where he engages in a trippy action sequence among huge, Blade Runner-style billboards, which leads him to a den of miscellaneous sin in Macau. He’s escorted there by Blackwoman, who gives him a sensual shave after they arrive – not for any real reason, or even because of their attraction, but because Bond’s shirt can’t stay on for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Maybe he’s like Superman, and he needs to absorb sunlight to fuel his powers, or something.

At the house of unclassified sin, Bond talks his way into sharing a martini with a low-level operative in the enemy’s organization – Mme. Anna Chronisme, a chain-smoking, black-wearing femme fatale who has been ripped from the early days of spy fiction, down to the slightest detail. And this is intentional: Using MI6’s patented Sherlock psychoanalysis, Bond deduces that Chronisme is a hostage of her bosses, and lays on the manly charm to get on her good side. He’s interrupted, though, by an action sequence. Since this is the Sin-Mart, your one-stop shop for ill repute, Bond takes the opportunity to fight baddies atop crowded casino tables, amid briefcases full of money, and even in a pit full of deadly, deadly Komodo dragons.

Later that night, Bond…confronts *ahem* Madame Chronisme on a yacht, which has been designed by someone watching The Man With the Golden Gun. After the inevitable cutaway, we check back in with Mch and Marvolo, both of whom are furious: The MacGuffinBook has been leaked on to the internet, MI6’s most important operations have come crashing around their ears, and a public hearing has been called, in the depths of the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic…wait, never mind.

Anyway, Bond is discovered after his encounter with Chronisme. He’s escorted to a long-deserted factory island in the Sea of Japan – very obviously a place of death and dying – and finally meets the film’s villain, Javier Bardem.

Now, Casino Royale was one of the few Bond films to be about Bond, and Quantum of Solace had a villain as forgettable as the movie he was in, so this is 21st-century Bond’s first attempt at a classic, flamboyant bad guy – and Bardem plays the part wonderfully, with an ugly hairpiece, operatic delivery, and just enough insanity to inspire comedy and fear in equal measure.

Think up your own Wrath of Khan and/or Street Fighter movie reference here, folks.

Bardem lays on the verbal smackdown. He speaks of a deep-seated resentment for Mch, referring to her as his mother (Is that an Archer reference, by the way?) telling a story of his childhood and tying it to Bond’s own. Bardem tries to tempt Bond with the promise of self-determination, power, and man-love (not a joke), but Bond’s having none of it. So to break him down even further, Bardem artfully combines the “Bad guy takes Bond out to dinner” and “Bad guy shoots a disrespecting underling” tropes, by getting Bond liquored up before forcing him to shoot Madame Chronisme, in a ghostly and decaying Town Square. “Is there any of the old 007 left?” He laughs, trying not to look at the camera.

And there is, since one of the themes of Skyfall is the reconstruction of all the campy sixties trappings of the franchise – though he can’t escape in time to save Chronisme, Bond dispatches Bardem’s goons with a flurry of martial arts and a risque quip, before activating his distress signal and capturing Bardem.

Back in London, the Joker – I mean, Loki – I mean, Javier Bardem – has been put in a specially-designed glass cell, where he’s sternly lectured to by Mch. He takes the chance to tell us his backstory: He was a competent agent, who was found out during an operation in China, and captured. He grew bitter over Mch abandoning him, and tried to take his cyanide pill to escape from the despair, only to have it fail and give him a Steven Moffat-worthy creepy face. It works much better here, though, because of how understated it is – we see it for the shock factor, we get the explanation that ties it in with the movie’s deeper themes, and it’s back on with Bardem’s false teeth for the rest of the movie.

People complain about ethnic and gay villains, but no one complains about toothless villains!

Mch is unfazed, as she has other things on her mind – specifically, the hearing in the Department of Mysteries. Since she’s the aged mentor character, though, there won’t be anyone to save her, and so she’s forced to suffer the dry-as-a-desert prosecution from Her Madge’s government.

Meanwhile, Bond meets back up with the Qid, to analyze the data they confiscated from Bardem. It’s your standard Hollywood computing stuff, where the UI was designed by an Impressionist with horrible distance vision, but at least no one enhances any pictures.

Eventually, Qid discovers that the data is structured around a 3-D map of the tunnels under London – subways, municipal maintenance, and so on – and Bond realizes that, of course, it was Bardem’s plan to get captured all along. The two go on a merry chase through the London Underground, weaving through crowds of commuters at rush hour and slithering around high-speed subway cars. I’ll take this opportunity to stop and say that the action in Skyfall is my favorite kind – not just fast action, or varied action, but smart action. Every single event in the sequence is punctuated by character interaction between Bond and Bardem, or Bond and the Qid. The focus still stays on the story and character while still resulting in awesome-looking set pieces – this is also one of the reasons I loved The Avengers so much.

Come to think of it, this “post-modern reconstruction of classic-era Bond, starring a betrayed former MI6 agent” plot is beginning to sound more than a little like Pierce Brosnan’s inaugural effort GoldenEye – which was also named after a secret agent’s palatial home. Nothing to do with what I was just talking about, or even what’s going on in the plot, I just only now realized it. One of the reasons these reviews are a year late, you see, is that I’m painfully slow when it comes to things like this.

Eventually, the two men confronting each other in a service tunnel off a Tube line, and Bardem uses a converted version of Bond’s distress beacon to send a train crashing down on him. The terminally-delayed train holds up Bond’s commute, as Bardem and his men begin infiltrating the building where Mch is currently on trial. Meanwhile, she quotes Tennyson, poses for the trailer, and does a gives a very understated performance of an old pack leader having to defend her alpha-dog position – a fitting metaphor, considering her omnipresent bulldog charm.

I’m not so sure about the casting choice for the new head of MI6…

Bardem attacks the trial, but Bond manages to distract him long enough to drive away and get Mch to safety. Aided by Qid and Marvolo, whose heads have been mercifully deflated by the scope of Bardem’s plan, Bond and Mch start going as far north as they can, to get off the proverbial grid. Their first step in this, of course, is to find the gadget-filled Goldfinger classic car, out of absolutely nowhere. It’s a cute reference, but makes absolutely no sense logically. I’ll say it again – references should make sense! The constant allusion to the real-life state of the Bond franchise can get a little grating over two hours, but at least it all fits naturally into the plot and dialogue. This is just lazy – these writers are far too competent not to be able to think of any justification for it.

The next morning, Bond has driven Mch to the misty highlands of Scotland. As they talk, we find he’s returned to his childhood home – a dilapidated manor called Skyfall, where he left after the tragic deaths of his parents hardened him for life. As if the Batman parallels weren’t obvious enough, Skyfall Manor even comes with Albert Finney as an Alfred stand-in – who has quite a few lines that make it a shame they didn’t approach Sean Connery to play the role, as was the original plan.

I really don’t like the concept of Skyfall Manor and all the rest of Bond’s origin story. The problem here isn’t that it contradicts the widely-held “Code name” theory, the problem isn’t giving Bond a backstory. The problem is that we’re expected to care about all this instantly, with almost no dramatic backing whatsoever. The actors do their best to sell this completely unprecedented concept to us, but it doesn’t make sense from a narrative standpoint.

Anyway at Skyfall, Bond, Mch and Albert work into the late night, essentially doing the Home Alone routine for grown-ups. When Bardem’s men attack, the previously pitch-perfect action is reduced to an unplayable video game boss fight: Having already scoured the non-linear area for all the ammo and power-ups he can find, Bond proceeds to fight off several waves of faceless, mute goons, receiving sporadic backup from his AI partners Mch and Albert. After he’s cleared all the enemies, Bardem himself shows up in a helicopter, blasting heavy-metal music to serve as the soundtrack for the fight. After evading the helicopter’s fire, Bond presses a contextual button to torch the place, and has to outrun the expanding wall of fire through a cramped tunnel. Bardem’s HP is low enough now for direct attack, so Bond confronts him, only for the final surviving goon to lure him into a fight – stupid multi-stage bosses! – which he wins via a series of quick-time events. Achievement unlocked!

skychievement

Bardem being still alive, Bond goes to Albert and Mch to see if they’re okay. Bardem has found them, though, and Bond arrives just in the nick of time to save Mch with a knife in Bardem’s back. There’s the dying speech, and the post-mortem quip, but things quickly turn tragic as it’s revealed Mch is dying…of dramatic necessity, I suppose.

Back in London, Bond reflects on the events, and decides that he’s willing to go back on field duty. Blackwoman – alright, I’ll stop with the jokes, here comes the twist – Miss Moneypenny has the opposite opinion of the events, and decides to stick with a desk job under Marvolo, who’s been promoted to M.

Anyway, Bond goes to see the new M to get another assignment, and the two banter before we cut to the credits, as the camera prominently displays a painting of a hardy, battle-ready warship. Again, unsubtle, but I like the classics.

Not much else I have to say about Skyfall: Good ideas, great execution, well written, sorta falls apart near the end. So that looks like about it for…

…no, no it’s not. I’m sorry, but I can’t hold this back any longer. JAMES BOND’S SKYFALL IS THE BLUE-AND-ORANGEST MOVIE EVER PUT TO FILM!

Okay, okay. Think I’m over it now. Some background here: It’s not a well-kept secret that when movies want a distinctive and memorable look, they ramp up the contrast to use lots of blue and orange. I use a rule of thumb for things like this – the earlier in the movie we see a shot of nothing but blue and orange contrast, the more original the movie is. Take, for example, the excellent RoboCop

(51:53 into the movie)

…and last year’s Hunger Games movie…

(7:50)

…a-like so. Now, I’d like to say that this isn’t a measure of quality, just originality. Just look at pretty much my favorite film of the past year, The Avengers!

(1:33, and this is counting all the production logos)

And this brings me back to Skyfall, where this contrast effect permeates every single scene: If a scene isn’t filled with contrasting blue and orange…

Each shot is from a separate scene, but this is only from the first 20 minutes of the film – there’s a LOT missing.

then it’ll be either all blue…

skyallb

or all orange.

skyallo

And so, I think it’s safe to say that Skyfall is enjoyable for everyone, whether you’re a casual moviegoer, a Bond fan, or colorblind.

TWO THUMBS UP: The plot, production design, and script

THUMBS UP: The acting and score

THUMBS DOWN: Blue and orange, some of the references

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The ending and backstory for Bond

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