Friday, December 7, 2012


Note: I am going to spoil the everloving shit out of this movie, and it is one of a very small handful of Bond films that can actually be spoiled.  If you do not want to have this happen, then come back once you've seen it.

Since about 1990, the most common state of the Bond film series has been "troubled", thanks to MGM's recurrent financial difficulties.  They held up the production of GoldenEye (and hastened the end of the Dalton era), played a role in the decision to reboot the series with Casino Royale (and the exit of another actor) and delayed the production of Skyfall while MGM went through bankruptcy proceedings.  Quantum of Solace was rushed into production in order to cash in on the success of Casino Royale, but Bond laid fallow for 4 years after that, the longest break in the series that didn't involve a role recasting.

Sam Mendes was hired to direct Skyfall very early in the development process, and the rumor mill constantly swirled around whether he was going to leave the project or not as MGM struggled to get its financial house in order.  In the end, of course, Mendes stuck around, and the end result was a film that not only reversed the massive decline of Quantum of Solace, but legitimately lands the film in the top 5 of the entire series.  I'm going to nitpick this movie, because that is what I've signed up for, but it is a fantastic piece of action cinema, marrying interesting character beats with well-shot, competently edited action scenes.  Skyfall's success paves the way for the Bond film series to live indefinitely into the future, and since I don't think there's any real clamor for the Bond series to pick an end date in order to wrap up its mysteries (who, exactly, is the mysterious person who tailors such incredible suits?), that's probably something that no one will really complain about.  I look forward to coming back in a few years to cover "The Hildebrand Rarity"*

* May not be the actual title.

Let's do the plot first, shall we?  Bond and inexperienced but enthusiastic MI6 agent Eve are on a mission to recover a stolen list of undercover intelligence operatives from some asshole.  During the course of the mission, Eve ends up shooting Bond, who falls off a bridge and into presumed dead status, and the asshole escapes with the list.

MI6 headquarters gets infiltrated and blowed up real good, forcing the department into a more (supposedly) secure underground headquarters and Bond out of his self-imposed exile (surprise - not dead).  Bond is forced to recondition himself, and despite the misgivings of a (seemingly) craven bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes, M sends Bond back into the field and after the asshole (whose name is Patrice, so I'll stop calling him that, but really.)

Bond follows the leads up the food chain until he eventually gets to Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent played by Javier Bardem.  Silva is bent on revenge against M for abandoning him to torture at the hands of the Chinese, and he puts a plan into place to kill M at a public hearing into her part in allowing the list to get stolen, and although he is unsuccessful he manages to escape, so Bond takes M to his ancestral home in Scotland, to hole up and make a stand against Silva on friendly ground.  Silva arrives, is thwarted by Bond, but manages to, in the movie's big surprise, kill M before being killed by Bond.  Upon Bond's return to London, Fiennes' character (who had proven himself to be more than just a bureaucrat, and has earned the trust of our heroes) has been installed as the new M, and Eve has been revealed to be Moneypenny.  M asks Bond if he's ready to continue his work on Her Majesty's Secret Service, and he says he is, roll credits.

So I have to get this out of the way first, and that is the smallness of Silva's plot.  He goes to all the trouble of acquiring this NOC list (Mission: Impossible up in this piece!) just so he can terrorize and humiliate M (he murders some of the people on the list, and makes sure he publicizes that fact), with the ultimate goal being to get up close and personal with her so he can kill her.  The stakes of the movie, which start very high with an enormous list of undercover operatives being stolen, eventually telescope into something very small, with Bond's job simply to protect M's life.  This is a defensible choice from the standpoint that it allows for some real character revelations for Bond and especially M, but for those who complain that it makes Bond's mission seem kind of petty and small well, I sympathize with that criticism.

While I was personally somewhat underwhelmed by the big parkour set piece in Casino Royale, I find absolutely nothing to complain about in this film's opening action sequence.  This is simultaneously one of the coolest and one of the most batshit things Bond has ever done:

I'd also ask you to notice the composition of that scene.  Notice how well the geography is established, and how the scene has a kinetic action pace without relying on shaky-cam gimmickry.  The question going into this film was whether Mendes could handle Bond-style action.  Well, there's your answer.

While I'm at it, of course, I have to mention Roger Deakins, who is Sam Mendes' go-to cinematographer (and who is more famous as the Coen Brothers' regular lensman.)  It is impossible not to notice how great this film looks from beginning to end, and people have rightfully pointed out two scenes in particular, Bond's fight with Patrice on the top floor of a Shanghai highrise with neon images shimmering and swirling in the background, and the nighttime battle at Skyfall (the Bond estate) with Silva and his henchmen.  The former scene, in particular, represents a really creative way to indulge in some theatrical Bond film set design without having to break suspension of disbelief with a volcano base or its equivalent (I'll come back to the latter scene in a bit).

Some people probably love the theme song; I like it, that is all.  It's the best theme of the Craig era by a mile, and Adele proves why she was the perfect choice to sing it, but there's something a little sterile about the song.  An above average Bond theme, no doubt, but not an upper echelon one.

There is a legitimate debate about who the primary Bond girl in this film actually is, and I am in the camp of those who say that it's actually M (the other possibilities are Naomie Harris's Moneypenny, and Berenice Marlohe's Severine).

Severine is the person who actually leads Bond to Silva, and Marlohe is unquestionably in the mix for hottest Bond girl ever.  For an underwritten role, Marlohe does some good work giving the character a bit of depth, and it is probably the film's worst moment when she is unceremoniously killed by Silva.  This is the third straight film where the secondary Bond girl gets killed in really shitty circumstances for the explicit purposes of showing the audience just how bad the bad guy actually is, and it's a trope that needs to be put out to pasture.

For someone who often has chemistry problems with female costars, Craig really got linked up with a couple of solid ones with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd and now Naomie Harris.  The onscreen connection between Bond and Moneypenny has never been as smolderingly sexy as it is here, and the idea of Harris's Moneypenny continuing to show up to flirt with Bond and take him down a peg or two when needed makes me very happy.

What to do with Javier Bardem?  I'm still not sure if his performance is just the right amount of crazy, or too over the top.  The scene where he throws a bit of gay-panic shade at Bond when they first meet is pretty stupid, I will grant that, but Bardem really gives Silva a degree of menace that is often missing from this series.  Even though we only see him commit the one cold-blooded murder, he gives off a distinctively Lecter-ian vibe.  And I think his classic Bond villain deformity is perfectly creepy.

Q!  The return of Q!  As some cocky little computer savant!  Oh, this is very nice.  Ben Whishaw's dumb, floppy hair is absolutely the perfect cherry on our new Q sundae.  I wish he had cooler gadgets for Bond than a little GPS tracker and a gun that gets one use out of its unique property and then is immediately lost, but new Q is a pitch-perfect update of the character.  Yes, thank you John Cleese, your services will no longer be necessary.

Does Bond have to go to a bitchin' Macau casino?  Damn right.  Does he have to wear a perfectly-tailored tux to go there?  You bet your ass.  Does he play baccarat while he's there?  Well, two out of three ain't bad.

The film, being released in the 50th anniversary year of the Bond flicks, is chock-full of references to old Bond movies like Die Another Day was, but since I've only seen it in the theater I didn't really have a chance to make note of them.  The only one that everyone remembers, and it's a doozy of a cool scene, is when Bond opens the garage door in which sits the car that he plans to take M to Scotland in, and it reveals the Aston Martin from Goldfinger, complete with passenger-side ejection seat.

I guess I have to cover the second big, "I don't really get why they did this" part of the film, and that is the reveal of Bond as the scion of a castle-owning Scottish family that he apparently was estranged from before his parents' death.  Like I mentioned in the Casino Royale review, this undermines the background that Vesper imagines for Bond (and hers seemed much more plausible than this, that he was an orphan with anger management and self-control issues who MI6 targeted young).  I believe that Skyfall's posited background for Bond squares with Ian Fleming's, so I can't complain too much, but I certainly preferred the other background better.  Bond as an up-from-his-bootstraps orphan who takes to the finer things in life as almost a defense mechanism is more interesting than Bond as an aristocrat who was born into a knowledge of clothes and wine and good food but was too much of a self-involved brat to stick around and help manage the estate.

Yes, the final scene has some pretty clear Home Alone overtones, and everyone can enjoy making those jokes.  More importantly, though, it represents a really interesting inversion of the usual "assault the base" climax of a typical Bond film.  The base here is being guarded by, not the bad guys, but the heroes, and the villain is the one who brings a strike force to help get him in.  Like most people I am somewhat confused as to why Albert Finney is in this movie (he plays the gamekeeper of Skyfall, and helps Bond and M protect the estate against Silva and his men) but, hell, he's an actor with all sorts of gravitas, and he gives Craig a chance to do some pre-assault banter, so why not.  Like I mentioned earlier, it is one of the most beautifully composited scenes ever done in a Bond film, with the Bond manor being put to the torch against a pitch-black night sky.  And the action here, if you can get past the Home Aloneness of it all, is really well done, with the various makeshift booby traps that our three heroes set off to kill the bad guys helping to give the scene a real underdog flavor.  Our good guys are fighting for their lives, and every time they catch another henchman in a trap it's impossible not to feel a thrill.

I have mostly not commented on the women's fashions in these movies, because I am even less qualified to talk about them than I am the men's fashions.  I'll make an exception for Moneypenny's dress that she unveils at the end, which is a very nice little Easter Egg, a clear shoutout to the dresses that Lois Maxwell used to wear.  I'm a little disappointed that Moneypenny immediately gets stuck behind a secretary's desk after a single film in the field (I thought it would have been a nice right turn for the film to suggest moving her behind the desk before rejecting that idea and keeping her out in the field) but I look forward to how they manage to work her character into the film series.  This Miss Moneypenny is capable of so much more than sitting in M's office and flirting with Bond, and even if she only gets to do the sort of backup work that she does in the Macau casino scene (where she's another set of eyes for Bond, and she flits in and out of the scene while maintaining a constant stream of dialogue with Bond; it's a really cool scene, and I'm not doing it justice), well, at least that would be something.

Back in his English Patient, heartthrob days, you wouldn't have thought that Ralph Fiennes would one day be perfectly cast as a grey English bureaucrat, but you'd have been dead wrong.  It's the hair that does it.  After he asks Bond if he's ready to continue his work, we get a gunbarrel scene, the Bond theme kicks in, and the film cuts to the credits.  And I realize that I'm a total hypocrite for how much I loved this despite the fact that I hated it with a burning passion in Quantum of Solace, but I will rationalize it by pointing out that Skyfall represents a genuine evolution in the Craig era, with a new M and Moneypenny and Q now all on board, whereas Quantum of Solace represented just a boring status quo ante, with everything winding up the same way they did at the end of Casino Royale, with all the same beats repeated.

Bond sleeps with Severine, and although I like the character a billion times more than I liked Strawberry Fields, she is also here in part because none of the other women in the film were sexually available to Bond, and he has to sleep with someone.


  1. Some of the things about Bond's background, so that it does fit both Vesper's analysis and with Fleming's biography, is that Vesper is right about him being an orphan who achieved social status (prestigious schooling) through the mercies of a distant relative (I think an aunt) who sponsored him, and that while he came from propertied class (Skyfall) the family was low on money (which can be the case in the UK), which is where the disdain for the fancy clothes and expensive dining comes from. So both views of Bond's backhistory are accurate from that point of view... an additional bit from Fleming's bio had Bond get kicked out of the school for a scandal involving a maid (although Bond loses his virginity much later) hasn't been brought up yet. And I digress...

    Finney's appearance in the film was a character meant to be played by Connery as a cameo gag, but it fell through so they brought him in. He's being viewed as the Father Figure compared to M's Mother Figure. He's also part of the movie's theme of British resolve in the face of danger.

    As for Moneypenny... there were a few earlier movies where she got out of the office, so here it's established that she can perform the same duties on-field as well as in-office. It wouldn't hurt if in the next movie she helps out with another car chase (just don't shoot anyone!) just to keep that vibe going

    All else I wanna say is this: the Oscars better well damn nominate this movie for Best Cinematography AT LEAST. One of the luxuries of the Bond series has been the fantastic foreign vistas: this is one of the few movies to have done so beautifully.

    1. Thanks for filling in the blanks on his background. I have never read any of the books (and honestly I don't imagine I ever will.)

      Having Connery play the gamekeeper character would have been way distracting, and would have added very little. I'm glad they came to their senses on that.

  2. Is it just me, or did Bond and Moneypenny not clearly get it on the night before they visited the casino?

    I know a lot was made of the Home Aloneness of the defense of Skyfall (Because booby traps, I guess?), but I saw callbacks to another film, also set in the secluded British countryside -- Straw Dogs. (Both have their share of misogyny, too, and feature protagonists with woman issues!)

    Re: the smallness of Silva's scheme: In one way, you're right. In another, mommy issues are a foundational theme in Western mythology. I loved the way the film ratcheted those up, with both Silva and Bond.

    I also have to say I found Bardem's Silva to be just the right amount of crazy.

    I rank this one behind both On her Majesty's Secret Service and Casino Royale, but just barely.

    1. I liked Skyfall a hell of a lot, obviously. That's an interesting point about Straw Dogs, I didn't even think about that.