Midweek Movie Review: Skyfall

Bond is back, and in top form in Skyfall. Although not quite reaching the consistently gratifying levels of 2006’s Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s third outing as British secret agent James Bond is leagues ahead of disjointed previous effort, Quantum of Solace. Coherent action scenes. A fun villain. An intensified focus on character. And the most stunning cinematography of any Bond film. All of these make the twenty-third official 007 flick well worth watching on the big screen.

Plot-wise, Skyfall avoids the brain-straining twists and betrayals of so many other espionage actioners. Things are kept simple and individual focused. A cyberterrorist has acquired a list of undercover agent names and is gradually revealing them on YouTube. The thing is, his actions seem driven less by a desire for political destabilisation, and more about the public disgrace of veteran MI6 head M (Judi Dench). Still shaken by a near fatal mission, Bond accepts the task of tracking down the mastermind, named Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

Directed by Sam Mendes, Skyfall delivers the Bond formula essentials (for the most part, anyway) – real-life stunt work, exotic locations, a glamorous party and sexy Bond girls. But, and this is a major warning, Skyfall is Ian Fleming’s iconic spy as seen through a Christopher Nolan filter. Anyone expecting the breezy, smirking escapism of say,  Pierce Brosnan’s previous 1990s Era Bond will be disappointed. Instead of luxury car chases and gadgetry, it’s all about on-foot pursuit and close quarters combat with improvised use of the environment. Instead of wisecracks, dialogue foreshadows events and highlights themes.

In particular, Skyfall has a lot to say about letting go of the past and starting fresh. It’s no coincidence that in the film the authorities are sniffing around for M’s successor, and MI6 now employs fresh-faced agents like Eve (Naomie Harris) and quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw).

Although I could have done with fewer speeches that blatantly underline the film’s themes, Skyfall is the most strikingly artistic Bond film ever made. Three days after watching the film, specific moments are still burnt into my mind – a crunching initial pursuit through Turkey, an unedited, gloriously coherent fist fight shot entirely in silhouette, a lantern-lit entrance to a luxurious Macau casino, an underwater battle... Skyfall is stuffed with rich colours and breathtaking visual beauty.

In terms of performances, Skyfall is a breath of fresh air. Craig isn’t the bullet-proof Bond of old. He’s still incredibly resourceful, but this a weakened Bond – physically and mentally – experiencing a crisis of confidence. And given the amount of time he spends bare-chested, he’s also the most sexualised of the Bonds, with more skin on display than any of the Bond girls in the film. Speaking of which, Harris is likeable as vivacious, take-no-prisoners Eve, and Berenice Marlohe’s sultry but anxious Severine is a lot more interesting than the bog standard Bond femme fatale. Pity she is underused, with Dench receiving the most screen time, as the film’s most important female character by far.

As for Bardem, although his schemes are unusually unambitious for a Bond film, he actually the most old school-style Bond villain we’ve seen in a while – flamboyant, mentally unstable and utterly confident. His unhinged brashness provides a good deal of the chuckles in Skyfall.

If there are any complaints to be made about Skyfall, it’s that the film doesn’t consistently feel like a James Bond movie. Perhaps only fans will care (and I number among them) but something of the franchise’s distinctiveness is lost with the move away from unusual settings to the more mundane, domestic and familiar. The tube chase is excellent but Skyfall’s UK-set last few Acts comes across like the a blending of Silence of the Lambs, Straw Dogs, Home Alone, Die Hard and a hundred other urban-set action movies. And although the film’s final few scenes are appropriate given everything that has preceded it, I personally don’t want to see the Bond series morph into something like, say, Mission: Impossible or 24, where the squad behind the loner hero becomes more of a focus.

Regardless, Skyfall is an excellent end of year blockbuster, mixing action and intelligence. It’s polished and ambitious, making up for the misstep of Quantum of Solace. Now let’s just hope that moving forward the series can maintain its identity, even with its more realistic approach.

4 stars out of 5.


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