Thursday, November 8, 2012

Let the Sky Fall - James Bond is Back!

I think it says something grand about the film industry and Hollywood in particular that you can still get absolutely floored by a franchise that's a half-century old. James Bond has been through the Cold War, the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the digital revolution, and now lives in a world of global terrorism. He's driven outrageous cars, fired uncountable weapons, visited seemingly every corner of the globe - you'd think there wouldn't be any surprises left in 007.

But you'd be - if you'll excuse the expression - dead wrong.

Skyfall marks the twenty-third outing of the world's most famous MI6 agent, and the third with Daniel Craig wearing the suit. The series received a much-needed overhaul with 2006's Casino Royale, a Batman Begins-style reboot of a franchise that had gone insanely far afield during the twilight of Pierce Brosnan's tenure in the role. But while Casino Royale was a damn fine action movie (courtesy of Goldeneye director Martin Campbell, making him responsible for TWO great entries in the franchise), it felt in many areas like a necessary setting of the board so that the franchise could get back into swing. Several of the iconic Bond elements were still missing, and continued to be MIA through the competent-but-unimaginative Quantum of Solace. Something just didn't quite feel right yet.

Now the balance has been found - Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) has delivered cinematic gold. Not only is Skyfall a Bond movie that combines Craig's emotionally-grounded and character-focused portrayal of the character with the sense of fun that marked the best earlier entries, but it turns out to be the best Bond film full stop.

Yep, the best. Now bear in mind this is coming from someone who has a great deal of love for the franchise's past, both recent and distant. But this is the real deal - a movie with great craftsmanship, real drama, and awesome entertainment, but also a film that wears its love of the Bond franchise on its sleeve. Skyfall isn't ashamed of its legacy (a fact it makes abundantly clear in its brilliant opening credits), but it's equally unafraid to take chances, delving into the history of characters long held as distantly untouchable by the mythology. Here we have a Bond who is starting to pass his physical prime - and feeling it - living with a world that questions the relevance of 00 agents, and a supervisor with whom he has an increasingly complicated history.

Craig really gets a chance to flex his acting chops here, giving the best performance the character has ever had. The relationship between Bond and M is more crucial to this movie than it's ever been, with M essentially filling the role of central "Bond girl" (no, not like that) for the dramatic beats of the story. Skyfall a surprisingly personal film, both for 007 and especially for M (Judi Dench could do this in her sleep, but is in rare form) as they grapple with someone who targets MI6 for personal reasons after Bond is left for dead.

I won't venture too far into spoiler territory, but once the curtain is pulled back on the main villain, he's easily worth the wait. Javier Bardem's Silva is a shadowy reflection of Bond with all of 007's recognizable traits twisted into something sickening and monstrous. Silva is slimy and discomforting, smart and dangerous and eerily entertaining. Watching him is a little like watching the Joker wreak havoc on Gotham in The Dark Knight, but with even deeper personal stakes.

Like Nolan's best Batman film, Skyfall is a meaty movie, clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, but it uses every second. The film is always in motion, either peeling back a layer of the well-written plot or moving through the next carefully-constructed character beat, or providing the next thrilling set piece (sometimes all at once). The movie makes sure to give the viewer time to breath, but never feels slow. While this Bond film doesn't make the concerted effort to pack to the rafters with action scenes, there are chases, gun fights, fisticuffs, and some really fun twists that I don't want to give away. Suffice to say, it earns its blockbuster stripes, and is obviously having a blast with itself while doing so.

More than anything, it's this sense of fun, the acknowledgement of the need for a little absurdity that puts this movie on the map. Here is a film that plays for keeps, with what may be the highest stakes the series has ever known, but it deftly avoids the trap of trying to be too similar to The Dark Knight or the bleaker Bourne films. That glowering seriousness and relentless depression is not what Bond is about, even when everything in Bond's life is on the line, and that's a tough game to play. The tone of the series has always wavered, especially in recent years, but if writer John Logan (who's returning for two sequels alongside Craig) is as responsible as rumor has it for the film's brilliance, the franchise is in good hands indeed.

Speaking of which, there's been a bit of drama over the past year as movies have gone digital in favor of actual film - well, if you want proof that digital is up to the task, look no further than here. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (long-time collaborator with the Coen brothers) said after shooting Skyfall that he'd never go back to shooting on film. The movie has real texture and rich color, creating vibrancy and depth and even using its own visuals as a lynchpin to one of the more memorably tense sections of the film, and is sure to be a go-to "demo" disc for home theater systems once it's released on Blu-ray.

Bottom line, Skyfall deserves your attention, whether this is your first James Bond movie or your twenty-third. Newcomers can get a taste of what the fuss has been about this whole time without any of the campy baggage or tiresome world-building of previous movies - you can just dive right in. But series veterans will have plenty of callbacks to appreciate (Q's quip referencing Goldeneye was brilliant). If you've been waiting for the Craig films to "feel" like Bond, this is it. Skyfall isn't bogged down by things like Casino Royale's fake-out ending or Quantum of Solace's dreary humorlessness and choppy editing. Bond has his swagger, but he never lets us lose track of the man behind it.

See it for the locations. See it for the visuals. See it for the surprising emotional depth. See it for the incredible supporting cast. After a summer full of promise that it mostly failed to live up to, it's nice to have a Fall season that's been hitting it out of the park so reliably. Skyfall is one of 2012's best, and I've never been happier to be assured that James Bond will return.

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