Monday, December 3, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again: Skyfall

By the time I got around to seeing Skyfall, I was aware that it had been called (at least perhaps) the best Bond movie of all time. By whom and how many, I'm not sure, because this wasn't stuff I was seeking out — the hype on Twitter was simply impossible to avoid. I mention this up front because I'm definitely not the guy who should be evaluating where this picture ranks within a franchise that is now 50 years, 23 films and six Bonds strong. In theaters, on VHS, on DVD or on TV, I've seen almost all of the Bond movies at this point, but most of them only once, and I've never read so much as a page of Ian Fleming's original novels. So all I know about what a James Bond movie "should be" comes from a relatively distant appreciation of what James Bond movies typically have been. Still, when it comes to Skyfall, of this much I'm certain: I've never had a better time watching a Bond movie.

As good of a time? Well, sure. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon Casino Royale on TV and was reminded of the transfixing sexual tension between Daniel Craig's Bond and Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, and I appreciated anew the boldness of rebooting this James Bond as an emotionally raw character. Meanwhile, I've always felt that Goldfinger was the quintessential Bond flick, what with the presence of Sean Connery, the girl painted in gold, the laser aimed at Bond's crotch and the mere existence of Oddjob and Pussy Galore. And even when I think of a ridiculed installment like Moonraker, I'm put in touch with my childhood fascination for the oh-so-Bond-villainous Jaws, the tall guy with the metal teeth who you figure Vince McMahon would have dreamed up as a 1980s WWF heel if he hadn't been conceived for the Bond universe. That said, while Skyfall isn't as playful or imaginative as most of its predecessors (very much by design), it's also more sensitive, more personal and more visually daring than almost all of them. And that's thrilling.

Of course, if a Bond expert tells you I'm wrong about all that, trust the Bond expert. But if we can agree that one of the core elements of Bond Cinema is the indelible impression — a combination of the picture itself and the awe or sexuality encoded within it — then we must also agree that Skyfall is particularly rich in that regard. (Spoilers ahead.) The first unforgettable image from Skyfall comes near the end of the traditional opening set piece, in which a fistfight on top of a moving train (of course!) is interrupted by a bullet from a sniper rifle: the bad guy gets away, even though the long-range shooter has ample opportunity to take him down, but Bond doesn't — and what's so striking about that moment isn't just the jaw-dropping sight of Bond falling from a moving train (wow!) but also the free-falling effect of seeing Bond take a bullet: it's overwhelming and disorienting — the worst kind of adrenaline rush. Skyfall's next indelible impression is a fistfight before a different fall, this one taking place in a dark, vacant Shanghai skyscraper, with the action unfolding in silhouette — black against midnight blue, occasionally highlighted by a giant LED screen providing an additional psychedelic backdrop. But for my money the most dazzling image from Skyfall is, like the gold dust girl in Goldfinger, comparatively straightforward: Bond standing tall in a raft, passing through the mouth of a bright red-orange dragon that serves as the illuminated gate to a floating Macau casino — a shot in which legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and the ruggedly sexy Craig both do everything in their power to take our breath away.

I'm limiting myself by selecting just three awesome images above (hello, shaving scene!), but perhaps it's more important to dig into what these images achieve: stylized realism. That's been the modus operandi of this entire Craig-starring reboot (previous Bonds had no interest in realism), and Skyfall, written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Josh Logan, and directed by Sam Mendes, finds the perfect balance of the two, nicely grounding the series after Quantum of Solace birthed a Bond too interested in becoming Jason Bourn. The plot of Skyfall is about an agent who has lost a step and might be over the hill, but Craig's performance and Mendes'/Deakins' framing repeatedly reinforces Bond's handsomeness, swagger and strength, making this tux-clad cat cool in the only way that Bond characters can be cool: without trying. Craig's Bond isn't "original," and thank goodness for that: from a pop culture perspective, James Bond should always provide our working definition of smart, sexy and suave. But Craig's Bond almost feels new, because the screenplay taps into that rage that's still so refreshing after all those Bonds who were neither shaken nor stirred, no matter how they ordered their martinis, and because these days the multiplex is overrun by badass-posing, catchphrase-dropping, punch-line-slinging comic book superheroes who are only cool in the way of Michael Cera's Paulie Bleeker in Juno: they try really hard, actually.

Craig's Bond is so compelling, so charismatic and so accessible (despite his aloofness) that Skyfall didn't need to dig into Bond's childhood for us to figure out that he'd gone through life with a chip on his shoulder — since Craig took over the role, that chip has been the only thing bigger than his bulging lats. But the appropriateness of Bond's origin story shouldn't be taken for granted. Until now, Bond was a character who seemed born at full maturity, so it's no small task to draw his childhood convincingly, even in the abstract. And in the end it's worth it for the poetry of Skyfall's finale, which has Bond utterly destroying his former life — utilizing some of the gadgetry of former Bond movies — to battle a villain who is obsessed with the past (Javier Bardem's Silva). Skyfall ends with Bond at the end of an era and yet starting all over again. And for a series that never quite gets old, maybe that's exactly where Bond should always be.


Roderick Allmanson said...

I'm glad you pointed out the cinematography - if this isn't the best Bond Film of all time, it can certainly claim to be the best-looking. We should also contrast the bright LED lights of Shanghai and the gorgeous Macau scene you mentioned with the drab and muted tones of the Scottish Highlands of the film's conclusion - bereft of sex but shot with equal emotional potency.

Richard Bellamy said...

The cinematography in this film makes me as enthusiastic as I can be about yet another Bond movie. The first half of the film bored me. Can't take another chase through the streets of Istanbul, another fight on top of a train, worst of all - another chase through a subway, sliding down the escalators! I was engaged from the point of the shootout in the hearing chambers to the end, and the cinematography of the Scottish section is a huge contributing factor. Your appreciation here is well done.

The Film Doctor said...

A nicely written appreciation, Jason.

I grew up in a family of Bond freaks, so I tend to associate the franchise with the obtrusive televised sound of crashing orchestral music and bombs going off on the other side of the house that I'm trying to escape. You describe four images to help convey your enjoyment in the movie, but for me, part of the problem were scenes like one in the which Bond sits in the British museum and gazes at a Turner painting before talking with the new Q. Yes, very high Art, a very sophisticated visual moment among many (and, definitely, the film is gorgeously shot), but the basic Bond cliches persist underneath them. So you could get caught up in Bond's cool, but to me it seemed like more of the same conventions (as much as Mendes tries to play them down). Sometimes, the scenes would allude to a Bond convention (such as when Silva would point to his computers in his evil lair), but almost in an offhand way, as if Mendes would prefer to get back to that high Art (or Oscar-award winning) museum.

Roderick Allmanson said...

Bonds are built on conventions, perhaps more so than any other current franchise. The first Craig film, Casino Royale broke a lot of these (less gadgets, no Q or Moneypenny), and as one of those "Bond freaks" myself, I'm glad to see a bit of it back in Skyfall - there's always the mindless fans like us who need a sense of vindication that we're still watching that special film. Still, many of us did praise Royale for throwing out a lot of our staples. What's more interesting about Skyfall is how it finds ways to toy with conventions to find critical things to say about the character and franchise - for instance, Bond's alcoholism isn't cheeky, funny, or clever, it's detrimental to his health, mental state, and job performance. Also the largest Bond Girl in this film is M for goodness sake.

Sam Juliano said...

Jason, I can't say I am any kind of a serious Bond Fan, though I have dabbled here and there. I found the pyrotechic essence of Craig's CASINO ROYALE hard to take, and I took a lot of heat from friends when I turned my nose at it. I don't think I affored a satisfactory defense either. However I am ready to proclaim my love for SKYFALL, which despite a buffo opening and spectacular conclusion, offered some great character-driven narrative, and classically-focused Sam Mendes direction that was ably assisted by a magnificent cinematography by the master Roger Deakins that took the appreciation for this action series to another level. Craig was again irresistibly animated and Judi Dench and Javier Bardem (Finney and Finennes showed up too!) really made a mark here. Judy even wielded a gun in the Scottish castle! Ha! Loved the scene where Craig showed up Dench's home too. I didn't have the problem that my friend Film Dr. had with the museum scene and it's underlining ramifications, but do see where he is coming from. SKYFALL was pulsating, stylish and emotionally accented entertainment. I really can't see what else one could really expect from a Bond film. Is it the very best Bond film of them all as some are saying? Hard to really say, but surely for all sorts of reasons this belongs in the top tier. I was way too busy having my pulse quickened and my emotions spurred than to worry about possible cliches.

This is yet another engaging, beauttifully written piece at THE COOLER, one I can profess a good deal of agreement with to boot.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, all, for the wonderful comments. A few replies ...

* B.C.: "Emotional potency" -- well, fuck, that's it exactly. Wish I'd used that description. Indeed, the shots are striking all on their own (the Scottish Highlands shots are brilliant), but they all have feeling -- and feeling is something that many previous Bond movies lack.

* Hokahey: I totally see where you're coming from, and I was surprised to find so much enjoyment in the admittedly tired gimmicks. The motorcycle chase was 'just enough' without being too much. The dive down the escalator seemed to have more grace than the so many to come before it. And so on. I will say that I've long been bored by the whole "is he on this train? should I get on? did he get off?" gimmick. This movie definitely lags in places -- mostly stuff with the pissy M, and Bardem's villain was kind of a bore on the whole -- but not those places.

* Doc: I'll be honest: I wasn't sure what to make of that scene at the museum. I'm still not sure. You seem to have felt Mendes was dealing with the Bond conventions only begrudgingly. I guess I could see that. But I felt Mendes was deeply invested in giving Bond a strong, cool aura. There's art in that (character driven), but there's convention, too.

* B.C. More stuff I wish I'd written: "What's more interesting about Skyfall is how it finds ways to toy with conventions to find critical things to say about the character and franchise - for instance, Bond's alcoholism isn't cheeky, funny, or clever, it's detrimental to his health, mental state, and job performance. Also the largest Bond Girl in this film is M for goodness sake."

* Sam: "Hard to really say, but surely for all sorts of reasons this belongs in the top tier."

Yeah, that's the way I feel about it. I respect that in many ways this is a departure from Bond Cinema while at the same time a further rebranding of it. But as a cinema experience, this has so much to offer. I wouldn't call it a "great" movie necessarily. But it's at least a great Bond movie.

Helen said...

I'm convinced that a big part of the continued viability of the Bond franchise is its unmatched opportunity for comparisons and list-making. Wherever one comes out on the question of whether SKYFALL is the best Bond movie (or the best "Bond movie"), debating confirms the pleasures of viewing.

"But Craig's Bond almost feels new, because the screenplay taps into that rage that's still so refreshing after all those Bonds who were neither shaken nor stirred"

Interestingly, something the advocates of LICENSE TO KILL as Best Bond Movie also point to.

Roderick Allmanson said...

The Dalton Bonds are interesting in that they essentially just came out twenty years too early and couldn't gel with a populace used to the goonery of Roger Moore - they're certainly worth a reexamination in our current cultural mood, but they left such a sour taste that no one's really willing to do so.

And right on with that list-making point, Helen haha!