Skyfall (review)

Skyfall Daniel Craig green light

I’m “biast” (pro): loved Casino Royale…

I’m “biast” (con): …but Quantum of Solace somewhat less

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Ah, finally we understand the masterplan that has been quietly ticking over since Casino Royale. That movie was not, in fact, the 007 reboot, though in our ignorance we assumed it was… as we were meant to. It’s clear now that Royale was but a feint, a cover op to disguise the real work happening right before our very eyes. Because we wouldn’t have been able to handle the truth, that “James Bond” as a thing, as a pop-culture artifact, needed not so much a reboot as a low-level reformat. It would have been too much madness to take in all at once.

So Royale merely set the stage for the reboot, by giving us a new Bond and a new origin story for a post-Cold War world — it introduced us to Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn) and raised him up from a pup to a supercool secret agent rockin’ a tux and a forever-broken heart. But though it hinted at the new global mess of ideological terrorism and financial supervillainy supplanting the threat of mutually assured destruction or, at a minimum, tanks rolling across Europe again, it kinda avoided delving into such matters more than it had to. As if, perhaps, it didn’t know quite what to make of this new world yet. And fair enough: none of us knew what to make of it. In 2006, when Casino Royale graced our screens, the post-9/11 other-shoe — the 2008 financial crisis — had not yet fallen.

Today, however, we are fully trapped in the quagmire of Homeland Security and military misadventures sucking up whatever resources might be going to prop up sinking economies. How does a relic like James Bond fit into such a world?

This is the sneaky cleverness of Skyfall: it is, at last, going to tell us why Bond still matters. It is not going to make it easy on itself, though, nosiree. Bond is taunted by his villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem: Eat Pray Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), who likes himself some cybercrime, with a hearty “Chasing spies: so old-fashioned!” M (Judi Dench: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, J. Edgar) is grilled by an MP who accuses her and her agency of lingering in a lost “golden age of espionage.” Skyfall is confident enough to face the Cold War legacy of Bond head-on, and with the sort of glee that comes from knowing it has a wicked riposte up its sleeve.

(I have no idea if there actually has been a masterplan for these three Bond movies since the beginning. I suspect not. I suspect that no one quite realized until they sat down to actually figure out what the heck to do with Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond — particularly after the less-than-satisfying second one — that they needed to do yet more housecleaning. But it’s a fun metaphor. Though there’s still no good excuse for Quantum of Solace, frankly.)

(It also suddenly makes sense why the Bond flicks of the 90s didn’t work: Bond really was completely unnecessary during that brief flowering of peace and prosperity, when our biggest collective problem was waiting for DSL to be deployed in our neighborhood so we could finally get off dialup.)

Oh, right: but in order to tell us why Bond still matters, it will have to give us a world very different from the one Bond has been associated with. It all needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up in a place more recognizable to the second decade of the 21st century. And Bond-the-man needs to be torn down and rebuilt, too… yes, even though Bond was rebuilt once in Casino Royale. So Skyfall beats Bond up — badly — psychologically and physically and morally, in ways that are stunning and shocking, that challenge our notion of stolid, invulnerable action heroes as well as the clichés surrounding them.

Everything that makes Bond Bond is challenged here, in fact, and if that sounds kinda depressing, kinda like it’s beating up on our fantasies, too… well, it isn’t. There’s an astonishing cool elegance to Skyfall, as if director Sam Mendes had stumbled over the idea of The Action Movie itself, and so was compelled to lay it all out for us with an air of wondrous discovery: Look what the movies can do! (Mendes hasn’t made a film quite like this before, but the grimly graceful Road to Perdition perhaps comes closest.) I felt like I’d never seen a motorcycle chase before, or fisticuffs on top of a train. The returning Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace screenwriting team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with an assist by John Logan (Hugo, Rango), have invented some audacious action setpieces, and Mendes makes them glossy without seeming slick, and suave without seeming glib. Gosh, and Skyfall just plain looks gorgeous, too: I’m not sure that skylines either neon-slick (Shanghai’s) or stone-gray (London’s) have ever looked so beautiful onscreen; thank you, Roger Deakins, secret agent of cinematography.

The action gave me delicious chills; the rest of it is even more thrillingly witty and classy. The plot revolves around the hunt for a stolen hard drive containing some very sensitive information — it’s less of a Macguffin than it sounds — and revolving around the plot is some toe-curlingly mischievous play with motifs of fear and aging and *gulp* even death. Honestly, Bond looks like hell though much of Skyfall (in, never fear, a still scrumptiously sexy way), and much is made of how perhaps he’s getting too old for this shit. That’s reflected in the brand-new Q (Ben Whishaw: Cloud Atlas, The Tempest), younger enough than Bond to haul 007 and MI-6 and this universe into the Matrix-y futureworld of cyber warfare that is already occurring around them; Bond’s snarking on Q’s nerdery does make him seem old-fashioned, but he wises up soon enough. It’s reflected in another agent, Eve (Naomie Harris: Street Kings, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), who is fully Bond’s equal in the field and is a clear slap in the face to the notion of the “Bond girl” who exists to be only his bed partner, not a professional partner — she’s also younger than him. But on the flip side, there’s M being challenged by the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes: Wrath of the Titans, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), who sees her as no longer able to do the job required of her; she is a remnant of the almost-swept-away past that he would like to be rid of. Woven through it all is a frisson of worry: Just how far are they going to go in re-creating James Bond? Could it actually involve getting rid of James Bond? What the heck does “Skyfall” refer to, anyway, and why does it sound so damn ominous?

Madness! Or is it? This is no spy fantasy but a slice of pragmatic reality just barely wrapped up in something that looks escapist. This is a Bond flick that is haunted by the past and deals with that in, ahem, explosive ways. What we witness here is the destruction of the old Bond mystique, and the creation of a new one. Welcome to the brave new Bond world, fueled by the catharsis of a clean break. It is a wild ride that has only just begun by the time it’s over.

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