007 Review: Skyfall

Old dogs, new tricks.  That’s the message we’re told to receive when viewing Skyfall, the latest in the line of the ever-popular 007 franchise.  But before we can say whether or not the dog truly learned or simply scratched its fleas, I’ll first offer up the obligatory synopsis for those who are not yet in the know.  Minor spoilers ahead, but there’s no chance I’ll give it all away and spoil the fun.

The story begins in media res.  Bond finds a fellow MI6 operative critically wounded, a laptop hard drive (with unknown contents) missing, and a professional hitman that just needs a good rundown.  As we know from Daniel Craig‘s previous outings as James Bond, this version of 007 is just the man to run him down against all odds.  In one of the most spectacular opening sequences to a Bond film, the scene ends with M (Judi Dench) having to make a choice between possibly losing 007 or definitely killing the hitman.  As we’ve all seen in the trailers by now, Bond’s fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) is ordered to take the shot, and Bond falls to his “death.”  From here, the story unfolds as we learn the hard drive in question contains the secrets of MI6 itself: the names of agents, subterranean maps of London, all of it.  The man delivering this information is Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee who “suggests” to M that she should retire in the wake of how badly the situation unfolded.  M, of course, refuses and determines to track down whomever is responsible.  MI6 Headquarters – specifically M’s office – comes under attack, making this not just another cyber-terrorist situation; this one’s personal for the mastermind behind it all.  In a subtle callback to Dench’s first scene as M in GoldenEye, Bond – who is alive and well (because you can’t kill the hero in the opening scene and not expect a resurrection) – receives the bad news via CNN and returns for duty to protect Queen, Country, and the one person on earth that actually understands him.  He becomes M’s one and only ally as the identities of agents are globally leaked and the attacks on MI6 continue.  A bonus problem: Bond is not fit mentally or physically to return to active duty.  From here, the hunt begins for the man known as Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent of MI6 who represents the kind of “obsolete” agent from the past that 007 represents, a standard of operative that British Intelligence believes is no longer necessary in the modern, “safer” world.  Rounding out the cast are Ben Whishaw becoming the voice of the younger generation as the new Q and the beautiful Bérénice Marlohe as Silva’s henchwoman Sévérine.

Skyfall offers an abundance of used tropes classic bits, and this should be of no surprise to anyone with any sense of this character.  This is, after all, the 50th anniversary for 007 on screen and the 23rd official outing for the franchise.  The current generation’s need for the vulnerable hero does wear a little thin in this outing as we had decades of a super-competent 007 before Craig stepped into the role.  I get why it’s done this way.  To paraphrase Craig’s own words, it means more if you see this guy fail and then overcome in the end.  As a longtime Bond fan, I don’t think this is necessarily so, but some may disagree.  Whatever your opinion, mine is that watching Bond fail here and there only to win in the end is false drama.  Realism is one thing.  Repeated “realism” is sloppy writing.  We know he’ll get up and win in the end, and after the memorable beatdown he received in Casino Royale, I just don’t think it needs to be repeated on any level.  Since the foe is similar to GoldenEye in that Bond is facing one of his own kind, I think it means more to see both hero and villain at their absolute best.  And this one tiny point, my friends, is remarkably my only gripe with the film.

First, let me address a personal concern I had going in to the movie.  I’ve always found Ralph Fiennes to be lacking as an actor.  I was never impressed by him, and sometimes he just outright bothered me for all the wrong reasons.  It might have been the roles I’ve seen him in just weren’t to my liking.  I don’t know.  When his name was first mentioned in the lineup, I cringed a bit.  I realize I’m in the minority on this as most consider him to be an incredible actor, one of the finest of the current age.  I had a similar experience with Paul Giamatti, but I’m glad I stuck with him because his performance in John Adams was beyond amazing, and he hasn’t let me down since.  I’m never ashamed to admit when I’m wrong, and I’m never so closed-minded that I can’t change my mind when something is convincing enough to change it for me.  Such is the case here with Ralph Fiennes.  His character here begins as the clear opposition to M from within MI6, and while the standard setup unfolds, there’s something incredibly understated and truly convincing in Fiennes’ performance that just sells it, sort of the same way that I would expect if Liam Neeson were cast in the same role.  Fiennes’ character Mallory is not the bad guy; he’s just doing his job, and there’s more to him than meets the eye.  Needless to say, this was a pleasant surprise for me when his performance goes toe-to-toe with the ever-authoritative and classy Judi Dench in such a way as to stand on completely solid ground in her presence.  That’s hard to do, and I respect that.

On the flip side, there are very few things in a Bond movie I look forward to more than the villain, the Bond girl(s), and Q.  I wanted more from Bérénice Marlohe’s character Sévérine.  She’s a beautiful woman, and her role had potential, but it’s almost like she was put in this movie as an afterthought.  Still, she’s convincing in what little capacity she serves beyond eye candy, so the lack of screen time is my only disappointment on that front.  Naomie Harris delivers a rock solid performance as Eve.  We get to know her character little by little, and longtime Bond fans are going to smile big as she helps to drop the classic bits into place as the movie progresses.  I know I did.  Ben Whishaw as Q… there are two ways to look at him.  The first is from the perspective of the longtime fan, which means immediately comparing him to the late Desmond Llewellyn.  This would be a mistake, but if such a comparison must be done, then it’s fair to say the combative repartee  between Q and Bond is there.  Instead of it being a question of 007 returning his gadgetry intact, it becomes a generational gap, but the relationship still works and serves to accent the movie’s theme of the old guard vs. the new regime.  Again, old dogs, new tricks, reflected in both plot and subplots.  Which takes us to the film’s big bad.  If you’re looking for a completely over-the-top supervillain of the old Dr. No or Blofeld caliber, you won’t find it here.  Javier Bardem’s Silva is cast in that mold, but he’s kind of a cross between the classic villains of the past and the more subdued “realism” of the current generation.  Don’t let that fool you into thinking he doesn’t stand out, however.  Bardem is a professional whom I’ve admired as an actor for years now, and he plays this role straight.  He does have a little fun with it, and that does serve to make him somewhat less “big” than in some of his other roles, especially in the finale, but there’s no question that you believe he can do what his character is doing.

As a 50th anniversary franchise film, Skyfall has to serve double-duty.  First, it has to impress the current generation who were introduced to 007 under Craig or perhaps Brosnan.  Second, it has to remain faithful to the legacy left behind by Connery, Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton as well.  It’s not about the actors in this case, it’s about the character of James Bond.  Craig’s run has been all about redefining Bond as the younger rookie, the one who’ll make mistakes and learn from them.  This time around, Bond is clearly a seasoned agent.  He still makes mistakes, which as I said before gets a little tiresome because they beat the dead horse, but there’s no question when you leave the theater that Roger Moore is right.  In each generation of Bond, the attempt was made to distance from the previous generation and still remain true to the character, and as Moore points out, in the end it comes back to formula.  Why?  Because formula works.  Formula can be fresh all over again, each and every time, provided the creative team understands why and how it works, remains true to it, and treats it with the respect a venerable franchise of five decades deserves.  This is a drum I beat with determination on pretty much every long-standing franchise I support.  Very rarely do drastic changes to appease the younger generation work for long, if at all.  Bond is one that keeps trying it out and returns to classic for all the right reasons every single time.  So where does Skyfall end up?  Exactly there: with a return to classic in every last sense of the word, with a nod to the “grimdark” realism that modern audiences expect.  I think Ian Fleming would be proud.

In short, Skyfall may not take home any awards this year.  In the final analysis it may not even be declared as the best of the best Bond films.  But I can say with certainty that for fans of 007, it will be hailed as one of the better ones.  Movies like this help us to understand why the franchise is the most successful and longest-running in film history.  It’s because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and parts like this make it what it is.  The creative teams, cast, and support crews pulled out all the stops and gave us classic 007 without the side dish of corn.  So help me, even Adele‘s title track and Thomas Newman‘s score serve to announce to any and all who listen that this is classic Bond.  Unlike the previous outing in Quantum of Solace where Bond became a pale shadow of his own knock-off Jason Bourne, this time around 007 demonstrates with resounding success why he’s the one that sets the standard in his subgenre.  Old dog, new tricks?  No.  Old dog, old tricks, new world, new way of presenting the old tricks.  To everyone involved in making this movie, as a fan I say thank you, from the bottom of my heart for rewarding my faith and showing the world that “it really can be done.”  Welcome back, James, and here’s to another 50 years.

And incidentally, now that the generational argument has been laid to rest because we know it can be done…