Skyfall is an instant Bond classic

In keeping with the rebirth of The Villanova Times blog, what you see here every Tuesday will be a new column, separate from my Fetching A Rug column in every print issue of The Times (on racks tonight!). This new web-only column, Nova Bytes, will explore current and on-going stories in the world of technology, but for today, I hope you’ll enjoy my review of the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall”.

Let me start of by giving you a brief background of my love for the James Bond franchise. Every film in the official canon sits not three feet from my head while I sleep, the “best” Bond will always be Sean Connery, Die Another Day was a slap in the face of every Bond fan in the world, and meeting Daniel Craig not 48 hours after he finished filming the final scenes of Skyfall this past May was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Now that you know my history with the franchise, let us begin.

From the outset, Skyfall has been subject to a very high degree of scrutiny from the franchise’s diehard fans from the outset because it is the first installment of the reboot not based on Ian Fleming’s original source material, the James Bond novels and short stories. While Casino Royale is based on Fleming’s first Bond novel and Quantum of Solace is VERY loosely based on a Fleming short story, Skyfall is an entirely original story. For fans, the transition to an entirely non-Fleming storyline was seen as a crucial test for the continued viability of the series.  Fortunately for us, Skyfall passed the test with flying colors.

At its heart, Skyfall is the film that has eluded franchise producers for years and years: a classic Bond film in the tradition of Sean Connery but set in the modern era. Starting in the Roger Moore era, the franchise moved from espionage thrillers to over-the-top special effects spectacles, mirroring the trend in Hollywood towards visually-intense films. In some installments, the new formula worked because it was rooted in a solid plot, good acting, and excellent direction, but that success was largely seen in the 1990’s with Pierce Brosnan as Agent 007 in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies. Other installments fell short once the shift was made to flash and pizzazz. The greatest indicator of this is that, if you ask people who have seen every film in the series which one is their favorite, most will pick a Connery or early Brosnan film, and almost nobody will pick either one of the Timothy Dalton films. Skyfall has done what Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were both able to accomplish: strike a working balance between proper plot and visual spectacle in one of Hollywood’s greediest eras. What sets Skyfall above its predecessors, however, is that it did not rely on a Fleming story to get this done.

In Skyfall, we see MI6 under attack by a cyber-terrorist who has arranged to have a computer hard drive containing the identities of all NATO agents embedded with terrorist organizations around the world stolen. The pre-titles sequence depicts Bond and a female MI6 agent (Naomie Harris) in pursuit of the thief through the crowded streets and over the roofs of a Turkish city, very reminiscent of the Spanish rooftop pursuit in Quantum of Solace. During this extended scene, viewers are twice reminded of Bond’s mortality, a theme that was missing from the original canon until The World Is Not Enough and has been subtly eluded to in the previous two installments of the reboot. The female MI6 agent has a shot at Bond and the hard drive thief atop a moving train on a very high bridge and the shot is not clean. She is ordered by M (Dame Judi Dench) to take the shot, despite the risk it presents to 007’s life, and she hits Bond in the chest, missing the thief completely and thus allowing him to escape with the list of undercover NATO agents on the hard drive. As Bond falls into the river below and floats off a waterfall, his plummet into the frothy waters below plunge the audience into the titles sequence, set to “Skyfall” by the British songstress Adele.

So far, the title songs of the rebooted series have been phenomenal, but not really “Bond material” so to speak. “You Know My Name” by Chris Cornell in Casino Royale was a catchy anthem that screamed “Bond is back!” from the rooftops, but lacked the traditional essence of a Bond opening number. “Another Way to Die” by Jack White and Alicia Keys was also quite a bit of fun, almost a rock version of Sheryl Crow’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” in the way it saluted Bond’s superspy lifestyle, but also fell short, although I suppose it’s hard to craft a decent song with the phrase “Quantum of Solace” littered throughout. It took three tries but Adele’s “Skyfall” certainly hit the mark for a good James Bond opening number that is catchy enough for today’s absolutely atrocious popular music scene. It was like having Shirley Bassey of Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever fame back in the fold, and the critics agree that “Skyfall” is fabulous, with Adele’s song appearing on most Top Ten Bond Song lists released in the past month. After the titles sequence, which Adele held together, since the accompanying visuals were just dreadful, the film got even better.

To save everyone the surprises and not give too much away, I’ll not go into specifics about the plot of Skyfall after the titles sequence. Fans all but knew that this would be Dame Judi Dench’s last hurrah in her role as M, the head of the British Secret Service. Dench has held the big office in MI6 since Pierce Brosnan first base-jumped into the role of Agent 007 in 1995’s Goldeneye, and brought a very welcome change to the character. While she may not have been as popular as Bernard Lee was as M, Dench’s cold, calculating demeanor as Britain’s spy chief mirrored the world in which her outfit operates today, one with very few known enemies, even fewer opposing organizations, and more shadows. One of Britain’s theatrical matriarchs, Dench had become too old for the role and it shows in Skyfall. Her performance as a spy struggling to hold on to the game in her senior years is breathtaking and really humanizes the first female “M” in Bond’s world.  As this was the final Bond film on her contract, it is safe to say without spoiling anything for fans that Dame Judi Dench has been replaced as M going forward. Her successor, who shall remain nameless in this review so as to not spoil anything, is a perfect pick for the role, a true spiritual successor to Bernard Lee that helps capture the essence of the traditional Bond formula in the Connery and early Moore years.

The other change at MI6 that will delight viewers is the reimagining of MI6’s Quartermaster, also known as Q. While the final two Brosnan films tried out John Cleese as Q (and previously “R” as Bond quipped in The World Is Not Enough), the fit was not ideal, as Cleese brought too much of his British comedy background into the role, losing a lot of the fatherly warmth that the second Q, Desmond Llewelyn, brought into Bond’s often cold world. For the first two installments of the reboot series, the producers opted not to include Q or Miss Moneypenny, two of the most iconic recurring characters of the original canon. Q’s brief departure from the franchise was seen as a nod towards a more self-reliant Bond, who uses his physical skills and intelligence to overcome obstacles, rather than using gadgets that had become more and more ridiculous as the years went on and finally culminating in the incredibly-absurd invisible Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day. Fortunately, Q makes his grand return to the series in Skyfall, albeit in a very different way. Bond’s new Quartermaster is now played by the young Ben Whishaw, a British actor who was largely unknown outside of the UK before stepping into the role. Whishaw’s youth, computer prowess, and dry sense of humor serve to reinvent the role into more of a partner-in-crime for Craig’s Bond rather than an old guy who hands out spy toys before being subjected to often obnoxious quips from 007. Q plays a significant part in Bond’s pursuit of the film’s main villain, Silva (Javier Bardiem), and proves to be a more worthy successor to Llewelyn’s most famous role than Cleese was. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how Whishaw develops the character further in future films, but his performance was not the one that will have people talking Oscar after seeing Skyfall.

When it was announced that Javier Bardiem had been signed to play the villain in Skyfall, diehard fans and general moviegoers alike got tingles. Bardiem has defined himself as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood over the past decade, with three Academy Award Nominations and one win to his name. His Oscar-winning portrayal of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was the stuff of Hollywood legend, an absolutely breathtaking tour de force. Spectacular performances in Before Night Falls and Biutiful earned Bardiem a pair of Best Actor nominations, but he failed to win those Oscars. Bringing such a talented actor into the fold for Skyfall certainly raised expectations for the film, and Bardiem’s performance as Raoul Silva/Tiago Rodriguez was magically terrifying. There are three types of prime villains in Bond: those who are brilliant, those who are crazy, and those who are both. Bardiem’s Silva is both. He slips on the character like a second skin and lives in the role, giving audiences the gift of willing disbelief that we crave in cinema and theater. Never before in franchise history has there been a villain who is so deserving of sympathy and hate in equal measure. If the Academy sees it the way I do, Bardiem should be earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and, with any luck, he’ll win the statue as well. Whoever plays the villain in the next installment is screwed because Javier Bardiem just set the bar higher than anyone before him. I believe it is safe to say that he gave us James Bond’s best single-film villain.

Another huge triumph for Skyfall is the film’s successful portrayal of women in Bond’s world as strong and independent figures. James Bond has long since been a role model for young men around the world, albeit not always a perfect one, but young women have not really had a positive role model in the series until now. Strong female characters in Bond films have previously been saddled with some flaw or abnormality that prevents them from being a positive role model. The previous strong female characters almost all ended up “needing” Bond to save them, or they were villains, or they were airheads made to look strong. In Skyfall, Bond frequently encounters a female MI6 agent named Eve, played by Naomie Harris, who redeems herself after shooting Bond in the pre-titles sequence to become a useful recurring character in the film. She is resilient when faced with Bond’s legendary charm and is a strong, independent woman. While the other “Bond girl” in this film, Sévérine, played by Bérénice Marlohe, is a spiritually-broken former child prostitute and pliable in Bond’s arms, Eve is made of tougher stuff and I am very pleased that audiences will get to see more of her in future Bond films, although I won’t reveal why.

As far as plot goes, Skyfall is the film that we should have received at the onset of the reboot instead of Casino Royale, but with how much criticism the original story of Die Another Day received, the studio played it safe by exhausting the remaining Fleming source material before venturing into original stuff with the franchise reboot. In the third Craig film, audiences are subjected to far more detail about Bond’s life before becoming a spy than has ever been seen outside of the novel series. The source of the film’s title is rather intriguing, being mentioned once shortly after the titles sequence and then being ignored until right before the plot climax. The reboot series has focused more on James Bond as a human being rather than as a womanizing, lethal arm of the British government and Skyfall takes this humanization of Agent 007 to new heights, which works very well, largely due to an excellent performance by Daniel Craig. As audiences saw in Casino Royale, Craig is adept at playing Bond as the cold badass of Connery, Moore, and Brosnan fame but also able to channel the more vulnerable Bond of Lazenby. This mixture of styles, combined with a plot laden with facing Bond’s past as well as his own mortality, crescendos as Bond’s storyline and M’s storyline merge together as the film speeds towards the poignant climax. While Skyfall would have been a wonderful start to the reboot, what with its attention to detail of Bond’s origins, it works just as well sitting pretty at number three.

All in all, Skyfall is one of the greatest Bond films of all time. Director Sam Mendes brilliantly blends the visual firepower that Hollywood demands with a well-honed plot and exceptional performances from veterans and new faces alike to deliver an instant classic. By the end of the film, fans of the series recognize that the reboot is transitioning into a more traditional Bond formula for the future, which is a very welcome homecoming for the franchise. The final scene between Bond, Eve, and new character Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) nearly caused me to wet my pants in giddy anticipation of the next installment. With three excellent James Bond films now under his belt, I am comfortable in saying that Daniel Craig can be compared to Sean Connery, although Connery will always be the best Bond. It’s also safe to say that, somewhere up in heaven, Lois Maxwell is flashing her brilliant smile down on the cast of Skyfall

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