First things first: Roger Deakins is the god of cinematographers. As you know, he’s the Coen Brothers’ long-time DP—your cue to salute—and he’s on the job here in Skyfall, the latest Bond movie. Another Coen film crew member, Dennis Gassner—salute, goddammit!—is handling the production design. So the visuals oughta win Oscars, but they won’t.
Fuckin’ Deakins, that guy can shoot, man! You’ve gotta see the night sequence in Shanghai! Scary-tall skyscrapers with their huge panes of neon-reflecting glass, against which men with guns stalk around and lose themselves in patterns of swirling, shifting colored light. It’s so staggeringly beautiful, you think, “Huh, turns out modernity was worth it after all.”
Beautiful cinematography—luxurious, decadent, eye-sating imagery dragging at your attention just as you most want to concentrate on who’s killing whom—can be very effective in action films that are really cranking. And the first half of Skyfall really cranks.
The opening action scene is one of those classically great chases punctuated by fights that everyone has loved since back in the old silent-film-serial days, especially when they involve more and more daunting modes of transportation. Here, the featured transpo goes from cars, to motorcycles—there’s a kind of motorcycle-parkour scene, if that makes sense, riding up stairs and over roofs and through windows and all that I-Brake-For-Nothing-and-No-One kind of urban fun—to a speeding train, to a bulldozer on TOP of the train…
The explicitly stated moral of the film is, “The old ways are the best.” In honor of the 50th anniversary of Bond films, the whole movie’s a tribute to the glories of Bonds Past, and to doing it old school. This is more classic genre stuff, because action films generally, even the most high-tech ones, find a way to old-school it, casting off unsatisfactory long-range weaponry and computerized gadgetry for knives and kung fu kicks and fisticuffs. They often have to get very contrived to manage it, as Skyfall does. There are big laughs to be had in the much weaker second half of the film, watching the narrative struggle to shove Agent 007 back into the Bondian past—look, it’s the Aston Martin!—and then ever further back to a kind of wishful Tory paradise—look, it’s the wilds of Scotland, where English toffs go to rip off Celtic warrior culture and get kilted and primal!
Skyfall is a true genre film in its reliance on audience familiarity and affection. If you don’t like action and you don’t like Bond films, stay away, no matter how big the box-office momentum is. (It’s huge.) Me personally, I’m not a Bond fan as a rule. Too many quips, too much Tory-love, all that God Save the Queen crap. That whole thing at the Olympics, with Daniel Craig as 007 going to fetch Queen Elizabeth II? Blech. Wish he’d dumped her out of the airplane for real, after forgetting to give her a parachute.
So I was kinda suffering through parts of it. What saved the experience was, as I might’ve mentioned before, I am a big action fan AND a big film noir fan, and this action is noir-ized all over the place. Personally, I liked the Casino Royale move to noir up James Bond, make him a muscle-bound, brooding alcoholic who looks like an irritated blonde ape in his tuxedo. I thought it made all the difference as far as what the film industry calls “relatability.”
So while others are complaining that James Bond has been turned into Jason Bourne’s glummer cousin, I’m the one hugging myself with glee when Skyfall goes totally noir and—
—kills off James Bond right at the crest of that splendid first action scene. Yeah! You get to see it in pristine detail! Take that, Bond, you martini-drinking Type-A wanker! It’s gorgeous! First the friendly-fire gunshot, then the long plunge off a bridge into deep water, Daniel Craig as Bond sinking down and down, the thick red blood drifting up and up…aaaand roll opening credits!
Now THAT, my friends, is how you start a movie properly.
I never realized till that scene how much I yearned to see James Bond die convincingly. Give the people what they want and they’ll turn out every time! Love those opening credits, too, so hilariously doomy and Dali-esque and elaborate, full of swirling red and tombstones and kaleidoscopic nudie girls getting split up the middle and recombined.
Though in certain critical quarters there’s some doubt expressed as to whether this death-drive is good for the Bond franchise. Dana Stevens of Slate wrinkles her pretty brow over this one: “Skyfall leaves you wondering whether this incarnation of the character has anywhere left to go.”
Ha, these provincial rubes trained up in a blandly life-affirming school of filmmaking! They really oughta get out more, cinema-wise!
Protagonist-death is wonderful in film, gets the whole party started afresh, as film noir routinely demonstrates. People back from the dead, in films anyway, tend to return improved in every way. They’re supernaturally powerful and therefore fascinating or, in the noir/action regimes, they’re angry and surly and kill-hungry and in a state of morbid despair shot through with occasional gleams of black humor.
Either way, they’re my kinda people.
When Bond returns, resurrected by some miracle we never get to see or hear about, boy, is he pissed off. And he was already pretty testy to begin with because, I forgot to mention, Bond is getting old. Aging Daniel Craig has this angry grimace, in the early film scenes when things aren’t going his way, that’s so big it’s like tectonic plates shifting in his craggy face, and you can read its meaning from space: “What the fuck’s going on, I’m better than this!”
Only, maybe not so much anymore.
Oh, it’s terrific. Sure it’s self-reflexive in a way that would be dopey if you thought about it—the James Bond franchise itself is getting old in more ways than one, see?—but you don’t have to think about it, the film’s big and fast enough to distract you. Screenwriters who came up with this mid-life crisis plot, we salute you as well. (Robert Wade, Neil Purvis, and John Logan, for those keeping score at home.) Bond getting slow and achy and grey, and fighting it desperately, straining every sinew trying to do as many macho pull-ups as he used to do—and failing! It just plain couldn’t be more inspired. Because again—in case you forgot my larger argument—pay attention here—we WANT this fucker dead! Then we want him to return in another sequel so we can watch him suffer and fall apart some more, for real, the whole biological nightmare of aging, and then kill him again with even greater enthusiasm! Die, Bond, die die die DIE!!
Though I should point out, before you get too excited to see this thing, that after the terrific early stuff the movie slows down considerably. Everything grinds to a halt in order to present us with the Bond villain, Silvo, played by Javier Bardem. This performance is getting a lot of press because Silvo brings the gay to Bond films, which some might say is bringing coals to Newcastle, but okay. To hear the promoters tell it, Silvo induces homosexual panic in 007 (and the audience) by inflicting loving caresses on him during the obligatory torture scene.
It’s very tame stuff, though. Bond stays pretty blasé with that villainous hand on his thigh. “What makes you think this is my first time?” he smirks. He was educated at Eton, after all.
And oddly enough, Bardem isn’t all that amazing here. Good, of course, but nothing to tweet about. Maybe after Bardem’s hair-raising achievement as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, a mere Bond villain, even one sporting an unsettling dyed-blonde coiffure and matching eyebrows, looks pretty quaint.
Silvo also drags with him a load of exposition, all about—
—how he and Bond were both orphan boys recruited by M (Judi Dench doing her best doughty old dame shtick), who notes coldly, “Orphans make the best agents.” M stands for “Mum” in this tale of mother-hatred. So the plot is, both orphan boys are mad at Mum, who sacrificed them when expedient For the Good of the Country, though only one boy plans to kill her in ludicrously elaborate and protracted ways, while the other boy tries to save her.
It’s a Bond family melodrama, if you’re up for that.
The whole rest of the movie never really lives up to the great early stuff. For one thing, Bond gradually starts to cheer up. Lotta quips, lotta quips. And apparently the sun never sets on the British empire, because irony-free Anglophilia is rampant: the Union Jack waving bravely all over the place, Tennyson quoted at length, and M’s desk prop, a Winston Churchill-esque china bulldog that can’t be destroyed despite London bombings, keeps turning up, cracks mended, to represent Great Britain’s ten-millionth finest hour.
Also, Ralph Fiennes insinuates himself into the franchise as—
—the replacement M, playing a seemingly uptight bureaucrat revealed to have hidden depths, i.e. he earned his stripes in the field battling the Irish Republican Army. In this movie, that’s considered a GOOD thing, and Fiennes sports such a clichéd stiff-upper-lip, quiet-British-valor air, it makes you love the IRA even more, if possible.
And finally, you get to the insane Scotland sequence, the grand finale of the film. Here’s Dana Stevens again, still batting a thousand:
…[T]he last act, which takes place at the gloomy abandoned Scottish estate where, we learn, James Bond was born and orphaned, is one of the few passages from a Bond film I can remember that’s genuinely moving.
God, she’s hilarious! And so is this sequence, a real hoot, as in “Hoots mon!”
Yeah, turns out James Bond is of old Scottish stock—this is revealed in one of the Ian Fleming books, apparently, but who cares?—which you discover when he piles M into the vintage Aston Martin and heads for home. He drives up the long dirt road through the moors to Skyfall Manor, past the statue of the giant stag on top of a stone pillar, and here’s where you expect to hear bagpipes skirling and have some old world plaid-wearing servant come out with a torch and greet 007 as “THE Bond,” the last of the great Clan Bond!
Instead, Groundskeeper Willie comes out and says, “I was wrestling wolves when you were still suckling at your mother’s teat!”
Nah! It’s actually “Gamekeeper Kincade” who’s bearded to the eyebrows and ready to fight to the death for any reason whatsoever, so same difference. Roguish old Albert Finney plays him looking as if he wants everyone to realize he thinks it’s a pretty funny joke, plus they’re paying him boatloads of cash.
Still, like I said, the first half’s good. British director Sam Mendes, a useless blot on the American landscape up to now, making drearily “meaningful” films for the pompous middle-brow set like American Beauty and Rendition Road, has found his purpose in life: making juiced up James Bond films.
Yet another misguided director saved by genre film! Huzzah!
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