Friday, November 6, 2015

The Craig's: Skyfall

Once More into the Security Breach, Dear Friends...
"Old Dog.  New Tricks."

Bond is back, as promised, a longer wait than usual.  But with the Bond series (this is the 23rd "official" film from EON), that's usually a good thing.  After 50 years, there have been enough of the slap-dash ones that have been sub-par in order to get "product" into the theaters every biennium. The Bond films have always been best when original producer "Cubby" Broccoli's kids take a couple years to plan, take a breath and then throw themselves pell-mell into a fury of film-making that lasts less than a year, but creates something above and beyond what has been done in the past, both within the series and by its competitors. Those interruptions usually occur with a change-over of studio or lead actor. In this case, M-G-M's past financial cliff (if we want to be current) gave a couple more years distance between this one and its predecessor, Quantum of Solace—which entered production with an unfinished script, an overcompensation of chase scenes, and a misguided editorial effort to make the Bond series re-"Bourne." It was a decided stumble, after the brilliant series re-boot in Casino Royale, which tossed aside the easy laughs that were purloined for the "Austin Powers" movies and went back to Fleming's book (written in 1954) and found ways to make it work in a 21st Century without jet-packs.
EON should take all the time it wants if something like Skyfall is the result. Based on a story outline by Peter Morgan (The Queen), then fleshed out and re-tinkered by series regulars Purvis and Wade, and polished by John Logan, the script is a fine thriller in the odd "out-there" Bond tradition, while also making comments about the series and its relevance in the world. And as directed by Craig-pick Sam Mendes (they'd worked together on Road to Perdition), photographed by Roger Deakins, and edited by Stuart Baird, it takes the Bond series to stylish heights it hasn't achieved in years. This one is sumptuous, looks great, has great dialogue, and isn't one long chase from start to finish. This one is decidedly old-school, God save the Queen.
Somebody had better save her, and if Her Majesty isn't directly in danger, her stand-in, head of Her Majesty's Secret Service, will serve. An assassin has swiped a hard-drive with the names of embedded agents in terrorist organizations. Two agents are dead. One's dying, and Bond (Daniel Craig) tries to staunch his bleeding, but is rebuffed by his boss "M" (Dame Judi Dench, again) over his head-set: "Leave him." And with a curt "Yes, mum" Bond abandons the dying agent, miffed, but in pursuit, throughout the bazaars, streets and railways of Istanbul, with the aid of a female operative named Eve (Naomie Harris, a fine addition to the cast). It's a rough-and-tumble, messy fight with a lot of improvisation, a lot of destruction to property, old and new, and a last minute attempt by Eve to try to take out the assassin (Ola Rapace) before the train disappears into a tunnel. But she hesitates, fearing she'll hit Bond. "Take the bloody shot!" barks "M" and she fires, and Bond is hit, knocked off the train and falls hundreds of feet into a river, where his body is swept away. The assassin and hard drive are gone, and so is Bond, sinking into a particularly macabre title sequence by Daniel Kleinman to Adele's defiantly melancholy title song
Wow. But, we HAVE seen this before. Bond died (surreptitiously) in You Only Live Twice, and Fleming's novel of the same name had Bond lost in a mission,* only to have him return in the next novel "The Man with the Golden Gun," brainwashed by Soviet agents to attack MI6 headquarters and kill his boss. That doesn't happen here, but the outcome—"M" sending 007 on a mission, somewhat ill-prepared, to either prove himself or die in battle—does. As far as "M" is concerned, she's on the way out anyway, a victim of the botched operation and its ramifications in what the Minister of Intelligence (Ralph Fiennes) euphemistically calls "retirement planning." Seems that hard-drive has fallen into the wrong hands, a particularly misguided hacker named Silva (Javier Bardem), with a score to settle with MI6, exposing its agents and doing as much damage to the organization and Lady "M" as possible. Britain's spy network is in retreat, ironically having to go to ground and reorganize with means both high-tech and historical to gain the upper hand.
That's the first 15 minutes or so of Skyfall, and one is loathe to reveal much else, even though, for a series that has depended on formula story-telling for so long, there is much that is surprising and different about this chapter. For instance, despite the film being (as it always is) about Bond, there is much more supporting cast here with more to do than previous films in the series, more humor than previous Craig films (and not the kind of low-pun stuff that passed as humor—and writing—during the Moore and Brosnan years) with nice jabbing dialogue that doesn't just reveal plot, but attitude and character. For instance, an MI6 analyst doing a perfunctory word-analysis on Bond (we've seen a bit of it in trailers) is a fine examination of 007's sophistication, wit and grit. And when, later he's grilled by Silva about his hobbies, Bond says one word: "Resurrection."
Apt answer, that, but one can apply it to the entire series, as well. Whenever the movies push the envelope on outlandishness (You Only Live Twice, Moonraker, Die Another Day) the production team steps back, takes a breather, and takes Bond back to his roots creating better than average entries (On Her Majesty's Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, Casino Royale) and reinvigorates the possibilities of where the character and the movies can go, usually falling back on Fleming for a guide.
Roger Deakins' cinematography is often breath-taking.
But the Fleming titles are gone (except for three odd ones), the stories (mostly) filmed, so Skyfall only takes inspiration from the author, specifically the novel version of "Golden Gun," and instead of the film having Bond "go rogue," this time, he does just the opposite, coming back to the fold in a time of crisis, tossed out on his mission by "M" to prove himself and the viability of the secret service and its methods.
The results are extraordinarily good, making this the best of the original movie stories not directly linked to Fleming and depending less on protracted action scenes, but emphasizing suspense and crackling good dialogue. As "M" speechifies in her competency hearing, the targets are smaller, more dangerous, less predictable, and no longer tied to nation-states that can be manipulated by politics. Now, it's individuals with access to disrupting vulnerable infrastructures that hold societies together and who will cause damage just to make a point. One can draw parallels to Julian Assange (Silva uses YouTube to identify agents) and his unquestioning devotion to exposing anything and anyone—as long as it's not himself.
The cast, as it has been for awhile, is uniformly excellent. Craig's Bond is just as steely, just as obstinate, but the actor enjoys playing him as a bit of a wreck, physically and mentally. His Bond, after a time away, is not the man he was, and he goes through the film slightly hampered, his eyes hooded and bleary, his appearance often haggard and mussed, his demeanor prickly and defiant. Dench has far more to do than any "M," and any past tremulousness is gone, and she's excellent in every way. Ralph Fiennes plays his role quietly and competently with a heavy gravitas—he's a fine addition to the cast. The Bond women, this time out, are very interesting and not just decorative: field operative Eve is cheeky and gives as good as she gets (that'll become important later), and as the femme fatale of the piece, Bérèniece Marlohe has a brief, but well-played expertise—her Severine has a dragon lady's cool, with a sex-worker's high-contrast too-bright smile that droops with a crash, revealing a trapped animal. Ben Whishaw's "Q" is a contrast to what has gone before, far younger, far more tart than Desmond Llewelyn's court-jester toy-maker, but a whipper-snapper computer whiz.  Albert Finney has a small, pertinent role (that could have easily gone to Sean Connery, but it was thought he'd be too 'distracting," according to Mendes). And Bardem makes his villain creepy-scary in the best tradition of the series, jolly in his evil, but believably so, cracked from his past and with an atypical physical deformity (as Fleming was wont to endow) that feels right given the context and is the stuff of nightmares.
There is a high-powered finale—yes, things blow up as they do in Bond films, but not the way one expects—and by the end, Bond truly has gone back to his roots, as anyone who's looked at the early Bonds will be able to tell, with ghosts left behind, family in place, and tradition—the old ways—firmly established. Bond is back, and will be back. With pleasure.
Can't wait.

* Fleming killed Bond off twice...or at least left readers on the edge of their last pages—in "From Russia With Love" and "You Only Live Twice," and one suspects he had the same love/hate relationship with his character as Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, killing him off over the Reichenberg Falls, then returning him years later, at readers' request.

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