Sunday, November 25, 2012

Skyfall (2012) - Bond Comes Back to Rescue the Boss

Skyfall: A New James Bond Who Is No Different than All the Other Action Heroes

Film poster Skyfall
"Skyfall" (2012).

The James Bond film series marks its 50th year of films with "Skyfall" (2012), and it does not disappoint fans of action. Directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") for MGM and EON Productions, it is full of the usual Bond themes: he must come back from an injury; the world order is at risk; Bond fakes his own death; a villain who delights at the very idea of Bond and of having the secret agent under his control takes his sweet time disposing of him.

Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall
It wouldn't be a Bond film without a shot like this in "Skyfall" - note the martini.

Once again, Bond is "updated for the times," which happens about every decade or so. Where once it was big news that James Bond no longer would be seen smoking, now he faces cyber-terrorists who are faceless and nameless. However, ultimately there is a person behind the new threats, and Bond roots him out as always using the usual methods.

Daniel Craig and director Sam Menzies in Skyfall
James Bond hiding in plain sight in "Skyfall."

British agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is assigned to retrieve a list of British agents that has fallen into the wrong hands. He chases the man who has the list onto the top of a train, where they have a fight. Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is another British agent watching this who is ordered by their boss M (Judi Dench) to fire at the struggling men in hopes of helping Bond to win the fight.

Judi Dench as M in Skyfall
Now, James, you're not the only big lover around here...

Eve hits Bond, and he falls into a river, apparently stone-cold dead. The list is lost to the enemy, and so M is forced to retire. Before leaving, though, she determines to rectify the situation. Bond returns from seclusion after surviving the train fight and assists M in retrieving the list.
Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall
Having Moneypenny shooting crooks in "Skyfall" is kind of weird.

"Skyfall" is a fairly simply story. As Alfred Hitchcock would say, there is a MacGuffin, and everybody fights over it. Despite the fact that this film is not derived from at all beyond the main characters such as Bond himself (and Fleming is not credited by the producers at all, which is bizarre and unforgivable), it plays exactly like an Ian Fleming tale except in this way: it is not as clever or interesting.

Daniel Craig holding a gun as James Bond in Skyfall
"If you don't pay for that broken statue, I'm going to be very mad"

It is easy to nitpick "Skyfall," so let me go through a few issues with it.  If you are going to update a classic, you can't go half-way and expect it to make sense. Bond fighting to retrieve a list of names is absurd in an age of instantaneous uploads and the Internet. The idea that someone could have such a list for months and then be prevented from disseminating it is just ludicrous and flies in the face of "updating" the series. There are vestiges of Fleming's influence, but subtle references (such as having Bond drive a 1960s Aston Martin rather than a, oh, more environmentally sensible gas-sipping Fortwo or something) are not enough to give this generic story a unique flavor. Still, nods to the classic Bond cars are appreciated as long as they are respectful and not obligatory, and this reference is fairly respectful.

Daniel Craig as James Bond aiming a gun in Skyfall
Using a dead man as a shield in "Skyfall."

There is plenty of action in "Skyfall," which unfortunately is one of the problems. How likely is it that British agents these days ramble atop trains and traipse around remote islands, when cyber-criminals can work out of any office or from any mobile device at any time and in any location?  Too much updating brings the entire idea of a world-conquering secret agent into question - and that is not a good idea when that is the basis for the entire franchise. Thus, the whole idea of "updating" is stretching the entire concept of James Bond out of all plausibility. Poor choice of "Macguffins" is part of the problem, but it extends beyond that to an attempt to make a bruiser into a techie - and the two do not mesh.

Daniel Craig as James Bond standing on a roof in Skyfall
James Bond reflecting on a roof-top

The James Bond series also is becoming inbred. The character of M increasingly has become a sort of side-kick agent to Bond, rather than his remote boss. The idea of having Miss Moneypenny out in the field firing a gun at villains is pretty wacky and contrary to the history of the series and the conception of the character by Ian Fleming. Turning inward by upgrading traditional characters beyond their normal limits rather than outward by creating dynamic new characters is never a good sign for an aging franchise.

Daniel Craig as James Bond running down a street in Skyfall
When I do this, there's always someone getting in my way....

This is a long film, at 143 minutes, the second-longest film of the series after "Casino Royale." Whether that is an issue is up to you, personally I think they could have but at least ten minutes without losing a thing and perhaps improving the flow. The title is fairly trivial, referring to Bond's Scottish childhood ancestral home, and has nothing to do with the mission at hand. Pure sensationalism is attempted by having the main villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) be apparently gay. The problem with him, though, is that he simply is boring, not that he is gay. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but it all shows that the producers are trying to create a new story while keeping the superficial trappings of the traditional tale in order to fool the viewers.

Daniel Craig as James Bond having a fistfight atop a train in Skyfall
Watch out for that... telephone line....

It is impossible to say that this is a great Ian Fleming story, because it is not a Fleming story at all. In fact, the idea of a list of agents being the MacGuffin sounds awfully similar to plots in "Mission Impossible" and "Charlie's Angels" and appears nowhere in Fleming. If you have a list of agents, mail it in a letter to yourself if you have to, as the song goes. Without a unique plot, "Skyfall" becomes a fairly routine action/adventure movie with echoes of the past that are intended to keep the Bond tradition alive while actually beating it to death with a sharp stick. Bérénice Marlohoe does well as the Bond girl, keeping that tradition alive. The theme song by Adele did well on the charts because of her current fame, but it is one of the dullest and least interesting songs in the series, down there with the themes for "Quantum of Solace" and "Die Another Day."

Daniel Craig as James Bond standing in front of his Aston Martin in Skyfall
Perhaps the most depressing title sequence in the James Bond series opens "Skyfall."

The title sequence is another major problem: why have they become so dreary lately? Where once James Bond films opened with dancing girls and pistols flourished, now Daniel Kleinman shows James Bond floating in the water apparently dead, and even in a graveyard. How depressed do you want to make us, anyway? This is not Dostoyevsky, everyone doesn't have to die. You may say, "Well, the intro fits into the narrative, so it makes sense," but earlier entries in the series have prologues that have nothing to do with the narrative, and they work brilliantly. Even some films that did fit the title sequence into the narrative did so without being outright graveyard scenes. For example, when Pierce Brosnan played Bond, they would show him falling off a building or something and at least landing on his feet. They kept it fairly light and showed Bond surviving and moving onward. The point is - the producers don't have to have depressing title sequences, they do so by choice. And that is a dreary, unnecessary choice that continues the growing underlying theme that the people behind the James Bond films no longer respect the character and actually wish him dead.

Daniel Craig as James Bond standing in front of his Aston Martin in Skyfall
That's the classic Aston Martin DB-5 in this promo shot for "Skyfall." This shot is perfect, because it shows the fantastic strains on a character built for the early '60s being adapted for the 21st Century - with very mixed results.

None of this really matters for "James Bond" as a business, of course. As usual, after a four-year wait for a new instalment, "Skyfall" was hugely successful at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film in the franchise (without accounting for inflation). Of course, it opened at 3505 locations in North American locations, making huge numbers easier to achieve. It was an expensive film to make, at $200 million, so it remains to be seen how profitable it will be, though it is inconceivable that it could lose money. Reportedly, "Skyfall" grossed somewhere around $1 billion. Not bad for James Bond the businessman.

James Bond being touched by Javier Bardem in Skyfall
Now, I know you like me....

Creatively, though, "Skyfall" is a failure, with the series becoming indistinguishable from other spy tales. Having hack writers masquerade as Ian Fleming and create tales that make no sense and have no unique Bond flavor is the death knell for the James Bond series. What's amusing is that Craig was sold to the public originally as being a return to the "real" Bond, a tough man of action, when in fact the series is leaving the real Bond behind altogether. James Bond has become this morose tough guy punching out guys to get computer lists. It is almost as if the graveyards in the opening credits is saying his kind is dead. The film poster itself reflects the dysfunction - it shows Bond as simply one of a group of people, off to the side, looking fairly irrelevant like he is just walking by. Who is front and center? Moneypenny, the (fairly pedestrian) villain and one of the (worst) Bond girls. If the producers don't like the Bond character anymore or are embarrassed by him, that's fine, but downgrading James Bond's status in the marketing while pretending this is still a James Bond film certainly seems odd.

Daniel Craig as James Bond firing a gun in Skyfall
Firing a really nasty gun in "Skyfall."

There is nothing endemically wrong with "Skyfall," though, and this review should not be taken as implying as much. "Skyfall" is an exciting spy film with lots of action. You likely will enjoy it if you favor that type of action film. However, it is high time for the producers to be honest and stop pretending that this is a continuation of the story of James Bond 007. From all appearances in this film, that character is long gone. James Bond is dead. Just as in 1967's prescient spoof "Casino Royale," now all you have is someone identifying himself by that name without, in fact, being James Bond at all. James Bond has become a poser, a man out of time, reciting tired old cliches that no longer make sense. I say that as a big James Bond fan, but unfortunately - the way the series is driving - that is the reality.

Daniel Craig as James Bond talking with Berenice Marlohe in Skyfall
Bérénice Marlohe and Daniel Craig in "Skyfall."

But it is all about the money in the end. Early reports are that , who wrote the screenplay for "Skyfall" along with and

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IMAX poster for Skyfall
"Skyfall" (2012).


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