My experience with the James Bond film franchise is admittedly rather slim. The first one I distinctly remember watching in theaters was Die Another Day, a film so goofy that it seemed more like a Bond parody than a proper Bond film (a couple of jaw-dropping sword fight scenes notwithstanding). Even to my untrained eye, that film made it patently obvious that the franchise was in need of some fresh blood. A few years later, the Bond franchise was revitalized in a big way with Casino Royale in 2006. The film had a splendid mix of drama and fun, with old action staples presented in new and exciting ways. The breathtaking Parkour chase at the start is one example, though the film somehow managed to make card games look tense as well. In practically no time, Daniel Craig proved his naysayers wrong and firmly established himself as the James Bond for a new generation.
And then... things went wrong. Through no fault of anyone involved with the franchise, things just kept going horribly wrong.
For example, consider Craig's second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace. Though I don't personally think the film is quite as bad as most Bond fans say, it's definitely a sophomore slump. The film was very muddled and forgettable, though I'm inclined to think that it was hobbled by the WGA strike.
But oh, the strike was just a warm-up for the clusterfuck to follow. See, the film rights to James Bond were owned in some part by MGM.
By the time QoS had hit theaters, MGM was already millions of dollars in debt. The company floundered for months, unable to finance the films they needed to release in order to stay solvent. Yet MGM was determined to hold onto their films and movie rights for as long as possible, stubbornly waiting for the highest bidders to claw them from the company's cold dead hands. Several MGM films hung in limbo through this period, stuck waiting in various stages of development as the company died its slow, excruciating death.
Fortunately, MGM's bankruptcy ordeal ended in December of 2010. They've gone from being a full-blown distribution company to a relatively mere production shingle, and the worst of the resulting fallout appears to be over. Cabin in the Woods was finally released last Spring, the Red Dawn remake is coming out in a few weeks, and The Hobbit (easily the biggest problem of the MGM bankruptcy proceedings, though Bond was a close second) is finally set to bow next month. There's also the Robocop remake, currently in production for release next year.
But today (or yesterday, rather), there's Skyfall. The long-awaited return of Agent 007, along with the reintroductions of series favorites Q and Moneypenny, just in time for the franchise's 50th anniversary. And honestly, I think the hiatus worked to the film's advantage.
The themes of change and adaptation manifest themselves in multiple ways throughout the film. Right at the start, for example, 007 has to prove himself capable of continuing work in the field after going AWOL for three months (he actually faked his death, but I'll get to that later). The trick, however, is that a lot of pivotal things happened while Bond was out. Everything about his work that Bond came to depend on -- the structure of MI6, the support of the British government, M's strong leadership, etc. -- has fundamentally changed in response to some great crisis. As such, the real question is whether or not Bond can adequately function in the new status quo, particularly with some new government lackey (Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes) looking over everyone's shoulders.
Of course, it bears mentioning that this film belongs to M every bit as much as it belongs to 007. While Bond deals with a new kind of international terror -- namely cyberterrorism -- that he was never trained for, M has to face charges that she's getting past her prime and applying a Cold War mindset to 21st century problems. But in ways both large and small, the film argues that just because something is old doesn't necessarily mean that it's obsolete.
When the modern MI6 headquarters are compromised, the agency finds shelter in old WWII bunkers. When Bond and M need a change of transport, they acquire a decidedly retro car. Hell, the climax of the film takes place in an old stone mansion. Even when 007 and Q are admiring a painting together, the movie takes a moment to implicitly decry the wasteful destruction of something great, simply because it's old.
Time and again, this film shows how the old school and the new school can work wonders together. This works even better in the context of a Bond film, as the movie repeatedly pays loving tribute to the Bond films of yesteryear while resolutely maintaining its own identity. The title theme is an excellent case in point: Adele performed the song, and a retro sound with modern sensibility is more or less what her career has been built on.
Getting back to M, it's worth remembering that Judi Dench has played the character in two previous movies, six if you count the Pierce Brosnan era. She's been playing this part for nearly twenty years, when all is said and done. I don't know if she spent that entire time establishing M as a mother figure for 007, but I know that the point was greatly stressed under Daniel Craig's tenure. And all of that history pays off tremendously in this film.
On the one hand, M and 007 clearly have some amount of compassion for each other, particularly since Bond has been in the system since he was a boy and M is the closest thing to a mother that he has. On the other hand, M is still a government employee entrusted with the security of Britain, and James Bond is... well, he's a spy. Bond (and all of his fellow MI6 operatives, for that matter) put their lives on the line and keep a very low profile so that they could die for the greater good and no one would know or care. Bond is supposed to be expendable because that's part of the job.
That said, it's one thing to be sacrificed for crown and country. It's quite another thing when a mother figure sacrifices her surrogate son for the greater good. M and 007 both have to grapple with this relationship, especially when the villain makes himself known, but I'll get to him in a minute.
As for 007, I'm glad to say that his issues with Vesper Lynd were resolutely put to bed in QoS and play no part in this movie. Instead, the film deals with emotional baggage that's far more potent: Bond's childhood. Though we never learn all of the details, Bond eventually has to make his peace with who he was and what he had to deal with before getting recruited into MI6. The result is a satisfactory treatment of something that's always been hiding in the background ever since Daniel Craig took the role.
In the end, 007 and the franchise are both given clean slates. The character and the franchise have both essentially gone back to basics, freed from their respective historical burdens. I feel like the past three Bond movies have been part of a single origin story, all geared toward getting Daniel Craig's character back to where he was in the franchise's golden age. And I don't mean that in a negative way.
At this exact point in time, the sky is the limit for this franchise. The filmmakers could be as silly or serious as they want. They could follow in the footsteps of the previous movies or blaze their own trail entirely. Personally, I'm hoping for something that has some respectful fun with the character's legacy without being beholden to it, just as this film did. Also, Daniel Craig is under contract for another two Bond films and I hope the filmmakers are smart enough to let the guy do his own thing. As great as Craig has been in this role, Skyfall makes it clear that he's just getting started. And that's an exciting thought.
Moving on, I suppose I should talk about the villain. Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former MI6 agent. Like Bond, Silva had a sort of surrogate mother/son relationship with M until he was captured and M cut him loose. Some time later (I don't recall exactly when or how), Silva built up his own enormous freelance intelligence ring. He's got operatives all around the world, and he can remotely carry out the most complex of cybercrimes with the touch of a button.
And he uses all of this massive power for revenge against M. That's it. Yes, there's a subplot in there about how he's publishing the identities of undercover agents around the world, putting their lives and operations at risk, but that's really just an afterthought. His primary target was always M. And it isn't even because she's a high-ranking government official or the leader of Britain's Secret Service, it's purely because what Silva calls "betrayal," others might call "making a hard choice for the greater good."
I have very mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, I appreciate Silva's vendetta against M because it leads the film to explore 007's relationship with M in some very compelling ways. Additionally, Silva's approach to terrorism -- technologically advanced, superbly hidden in plain sight, and unaffiliated with any particular country -- is nicely reflective of the enemies that covert operatives have to battle with in the 21st century.
On the other hand, I can't help but get hung up on Silva's motivation. Funnelling so much power and so many resources into killing a single woman for entirely personal reasons seems incredibly petty, especially for a Bond villain. Compare that to Blofeld, a criminal mastermind who routinely launched campaigns for world domination. Think about Goldfinger, who wanted to nuke Fort Knox and irradiate the entire nation's gold supply to augment his own wealth. Even Le Chiffre was a banker who profited while manipulating national economies and bankrolling global terror.
Yes, Silva is affecting covert operations all around the world, and he has a vast international spy ring with tremendous power, but the film relegates all of that to the background. There is no greater plan for 007 to stop, which seems like a huge waste of potential. The movie doesn't even remotely tie Silva to Quantum, that mysterious crime organization hinted at in the previous two films.
Sorry, but I feel like Silva's priorities should have been switched. He should have been hired by Quantum to carry out some massive global conspiracy, and his perceived betrayal should have been his motivation for getting into crime to begin with. Just like that, we get our larger-than-life Bond villain and our M/007 thematic material too.
Speaking of which, I suppose I should comment on Bardem's over-the-top performance as Silva. Bardem is clearly having the time of his life playing this character, and there's always something fun about a villain who enjoys himself to a creepy degree. Bardem puts in an amazing Bond villain performance, but I'm not sure it should have gone to this particular Bond villain. Silva is a character motivated by vengeance and betrayal, which doesn't exactly mix well with the particular kind of energetic joy that Bardem went with. Of course, the character does get some chilling moments of pathos and seething hatred, though that only serves to further highlight the uncomfortable contrast with Silva's more "Joker-like" demeanor.
I'll put it to you this way: There's a scene in which Silva shows M the gruesome injuries he picked up while being held for torture. If Bardem's performance in the entire film had been more like his performance in that scene, we'd have had a truly great villain for this picture.
As long as I'm addressing nitpicks, I may as well talk about the franchise's latest Bond Girl. First of all, Berenice Marlohe proves that she can't act to save her life. Though she certainly looks the part of a femme fatale, every word out of her mouth was exaggerated to a laughably campy degree. Of course, it certainly didn't help that the character was terribly weak and tossed aside the moment her brief contribution to the plot had been discharged. I know that Bond Girls are supposed to be expendable by nature, but this still felt like a wasted opportunity. If only the character had been written more strongly, cast more strongly, and/or played a larger part in the plot, her unceremonious departure from the film might have been something significant or memorable.
For comparison's sake, consider the latest iteration of Moneypenny, here played by Naomie Harris. The film introduces her by way of a car chase at the start of the film, which was a very smart move. Right off the bat, Moneypenny is established as a woman who can keep pace with Bond in action and in wit. Though she may not necessarily be Bond's equal, she saves his life enough times to prove herself as a worthy partner. Of course, it also helps that the chemistry between Craig and Harris is absolutely sizzling. If Harris is going to continue as a regular love interest for Bond (as Moneypenny damn well should), I can't wait to see more of the same.
Speaking of returning characters, let's talk about Q. Right off the bat, it should be obvious that Q is now a much younger man than he was in the previous films. This works for obvious reasons, because of course the master of gadgets at MI6 would be someone of the younger tech-savvy generation. Also, it helps that Q's initial scene with 007 pokes loving fun at the previous films (apparently, Q-branch doesn't hand out exploding pens anymore) while doing its own thing. As with the rest of this film's balance of new with old, it's done wonderfully. Last but not least, Ben Whishaw brings a uniquely detached sort of calm to the role, which contrasts nicely against Bond's bold attitude and sells Q as a character who's more at home behind a computer screen than out in the real world without being pathetic about it.
On a technical level, the film is superb. Aside from some blatantly fake CGI Gila monsters, the visuals in this film are absolutely flawless. If you're on the fence about seeing this film in IMAX, I certainly hope that the phrase "Roger Deakins photography" is enough to convince you. The name alone should be proof of quality, especially after his recent work with the Coen Brothers.
That isn't even getting started on the action, which is worth the cost of admission five times over. This movie contains set pieces that are mind-blowing in their creativity and spectacle. The climax features the biggest, most destructive, most beautiful explosion I've seen all year. Just during the opening chase scene, I found myself asking multiple times how they managed to film those stunts on location. It's phenomenal stuff.
However, I do have one last nitpick regarding the opening action scene. Leaving aside that the film doesn't sufficiently tell how Bond survived what looked like absolutely certain death, there's still the matter of the depleted uranium bullet. Yes, James Bond takes a depleted uranium bullet to the chest, shrugs it off, and proceeds to keep the shrapnel in his chest for three months.
For the uninitiated, depleted uranium is a metal heavier than lead, often used to make armor-piercing rounds. Though safe when handled properly, uranium can be very toxic if particles are inhaled or ingested. And James Bond takes one of these armor-piercing bullets to the chest (without any armor at all, I might add), then carries around shrapnel deeply embedded in his skin for three months, all without any ill side effects whatsoever. Sorry, but I'm calling bullshit. I don't care if he's 007, Bruce Wayne, or some other poor mortal in the bullet's way. I'm calling bullshit.
So, to sum up: Is Skyfall a good movie? Absolutely. The photography is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the action scenes are all incredible, and the film elegantly manages to pay homage to the past while blazing its own trail moving forward. I was particularly fond of how M and 007 are both physically, mentally, and emotionally put through the wringer as the film goes on. It adds a few welcome layers of thematic depth without distracting from the spectacle.
Though I have my share of complaints about this film, it's entirely possible that they're the problems of a jaded amateur film critic and not those of someone more familiar with the Bond franchise of old. In any case, the film is absolutely worth a look, and worth an IMAX ticket as well.