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Skyfall (Theatrical Review)

9 Nov, 2012 By: John Latchem



(WARNING: The following may contain slight spoilers, though I tried to maneuver around the major stuff)

With all the baggage James Bond has built up in 50 years, it’s hardly a surprise it took three films to sort through it all.

In the acclaimed Casino Royale, we are shown Bond (Daniel Craig) as a newly minted 00 agent, armed with a licence to kill he’d just as soon give up to spend his life with Vesper Lynd. When she dies, he spends the next film, Quantum of Solace (not as acclaimed), coming to terms with her loss while seeking a measure of revenge against those responsible.

When we meet up again with Bond in Skyfall, the 23rd film in the franchise, he’s a battle-hardened 00, not lacking in compassion but fully aware of his duty. He’s frustrated by failure but resourceful enough to find other ways to achieve his objective.

Bond’s mission this time around is to retrieve a hard drive containing the names of undercover NATO operatives, while M has to answer to the political establishment for her failures and defend the need for cloak-and-dagger theatrics in a modern world of techno-terror.

The man responsible for stealing the list taunts MI6 as he reveals the true identities of the agents, focusing in particular on spymaster M (Judi Dench). That would be Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) a Wikileaks-style hacker whose complicated past is directly connected to M. His scheme soon becomes deeply personal for Bond as well.

All of this is foreshadowed in a harrowing title sequence that reflects Bond’s tortured psyche. Adele’s serviceable title song takes on greater weight under the context of the story.

In the hands of Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, Skyfall is easily the best-directed Bond film ever, a visually stunning tribute to both the character and the franchise that made him iconic. The script both literally and figuratively returns Bond to his roots, providing a fitting conclusion to what could be deemed the “Bond Begins” trilogy.

The major plot threads make the film feel like Goldeneye meets The Dark Knight, yet it’s complex enough in its own rights to withstand such comparisons. Skyfall pays homage to many classic elements of the franchise, some ways that are obvious, other ways not so much. The result is ultimately very satisfying, especially for longtime fans of the franchise, even after it becomes clear how the broad strokes are coming together. Skyfall will likely be brought up for years to come in any discussions of the greatest Bond films.

The setup is all the more effective because of the two primary motifs running through the story.

The first and most obvious one is the idea of M, Bond and Silva as a sort of dysfunctional family. The interplay between Bond and Silva takes on the dynamic of a sibling rivalry, with Silva the older brother jealous of the affection shown by M, the mother, toward Bond as the new up-and-comer.

Bardem’s Silva brings to mind Heath Ledger’s Joker not only in his commitment to anarchy, but also the unnerving strength of his will. Silva is a relentlessly intricate planner, which often puts him several steps ahead of Bond, especially in a sequence that seems all-to-familiar to the Joker’s interrogation from The Dark Knight and similar scenes from other recent films. Trapped in a cage similar to Loki’s in The Avengers, Silva dispenses enough psychological angst to evoke memories of Hannibal Lecter. Viewers know something is awry, even as the details have yet to emerge.

Then there is the prevailing theme of Bond’s journey to rediscover himself, which manifests not only in Bond’s character arc in this film, but for the film itself in relation to the franchise.

In rebooting the series with Daniel Craig, the past few films have put a hard-edged distance between this new era of Bond and the casual yet occasionally campy coolness of the earlier movies. While many fans were enamored, and even amused, by the change, others found it to be an unnecessary detour that detracted from the entertainment value a Bond film could offer as escapist fantasy. The Craig films have been methodically deconstructing the Bond formula, and Skyfall gradually reintroduces familiar elements to ground the film firmly in Bond lore.

For Bond himself, the rediscovery is a bit less meta and much more literal. After a brush with death, Bond returns to service a broken man, a shell of what he once was. He fails all the tests MI6 throws at him, and can’t even shoot straight.

But this goes to the nature of what Bond is. A key exchange occurs between Bond and a bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes, who asks why Bond didn’t stay out of the game when everyone thought he was dead. To Bond, this is a ridiculous question, asked by a man who has never served in the field. Bond simply isn’t himself when he isn’t on duty. His skills are only as good as his ability to use them.

Later, Bond is symbolically confronted with his past when he revisits his childhood home in Scotland during the film’s thrilling finale. M tells him orphans make the best operatives because there is nothing tying them to their old lives. Thus, it’s no coincidence that the film’s final battle returns Bond to the last vestiges of his late parents while he tries to protect his surrogate mother, M.

And it is here the film’s two thematic threads come together, propelling Bond toward his ultimate destiny.

With all the proper components back in place, we can’t wait for James Bond to return.
 


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