Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)
A little informal back story is needed here, not least because this review can’t possibly have the command over its own context that it perhaps should. The James Bond films have always been a thing I tended to end up sitting in front of because they either happened to be on and I didn’t find them disagreeable enough to change the station (I watched a lot more TV when I was younger), or because my family was actively watching and enjoying them. Usually it was the latter — my dad was a major fan of the films, and he passed this along to both my sister and brother. Though I fondly remember spending the afternoon in front of Live and Let Die and Goldfinger with them, the movies themselves were less the event than the fact that nearly everyone in the household was for once in agreement about whether something was worth staring at. Anyone who’s ever lived with much older siblings will surely hear me on this one. As I got older, apathy about Bond grew into mild distaste as the cartoonish, surface-level quality of much of the series became clear to me and my tastes shifted dramatically away from genre films, especially highly slick and macho ones like these that struck me as a little… uncomfortable? In their wish fulfillment? I don’t know. Having grown up obsessed with a number of films and TV shows that either inspired (North by Northwest) or took the wind out of James Bond (Get Smart, Help!), I suppose I was destined to be a skeptic. Plus in case you haven’t noticed, I can be kind of a self-righteous grouch in general. But a friend’s pithy paring down of Bond pretty much nailed it for me: “James Bond fucks a few girls, saves the world, yay James Bond.”
All this in mind, why did I therefore take a trip down to the IMAX theater — a first for me, for a non-documentary feature — to see this particular Bond? One key reason is I didn’t have to pay for my ticket. It was a family outing with my mom and stepdad and I tagged along, in part because I just felt like getting out of the house. But I also admit to being quite curious about Skyfall, which may or may not be the 23rd Bond film depending on which convoluted method of counting you abide by. The reviews were largely ecstatic, the cast was terrific, and I like director Sam Mendes and love cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Thomas Newman, so it seemed like a worthwhile stunt. It was a blast, as it turned out, and I was glad I went. Prior to this, the last “new” Bond I’d seen was a full seventeen years earlier: GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s first… and Skyfall was enjoyable enough as a piece of popcorn giddiness that I felt it might be worthwhile for me to investigate the two earlier entries in the series that also feature Daniel Craig.
Craig is a major facet of Skyfall‘s appeal. I am in the extreme minority that never cared for Sean Connery in the James Bond role; always a bit of an overrated actor, he took the confidence instilled in the character by Ian Fleming well past the point of smug condescension and I found him tiresome to watch. If he was questionable, Roger Moore was a disaster, though as in the comparable questions that come up in regard to the Star Wars series, I honestly prefer self-conscious if earnest campiness to the dire pretension of something like Thunderball. (My favorite Bond film until this one had been The Spy Who Loved Me, and even it is problematic.) Craig, meanwhile, is perfect casting — human but steely-eyed, robust and impressive but consistently believable, he’s as charged both with sexual energy and intelligence as you imagine the creature that lived in Fleming’s brain would’ve been, fully exploiting the more ambiguous (but still sympathetic) textures that the fine actors George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton got such limited time to exploit.
But it’s the supporting cast that does more than anything to make Skyfall something of a curious delight — you’ve already met Judi Dench, she of Bonds all the way back to the Pierce Brosnan era, and you’ll remember Javier Bardem from all those Oscar ceremonies and legit “important” films he was in, which makes it doubly amusing that he plays a completely over the top KAOS supervillain funhouse mirror of himself here — the kind of person who says stuff like “Mommy was very bad!” in a scolding tone. (Yeah, that’s the sort of eye-rolling silliness that can thwart even the better entries in this series, but we’ll come to that.) For this entry, now, Mendes and company bring in Ralph Fiennes as a new bigwig, Albert Finney as a distant Bond relative (lots of people said it shoulda been Connery but fuck that), plus a show-stopping Naomie Harris as the future Miss Moneypenny, and the devilishly funny new Q presented by freshfaced, sarcastic Ben Whishaw, whose grand achivement is undercutting Bond’s inflated sense of self without hurting our own perceptions of him. The days of exploding pens, alas, are behind us.
The characterization is surprisingly good for the series but still, of course, quite rote and surface-level, which is fine; no one comes to a Bond movie for deeply rooted demons cast out upon the world — we have Batman movies for that, and give me the cartoon world if Chris Nolan’s fingerprints are all over the real one. Bond stories are really a series of setpieces, and this contains several fine ones: the opening loop-de-loop atop a train through various tunnels and gunshy hesitations, a rather devious confrontation in a nightclub, and some train-hacking tomfoolery. All great, whiz-bang. But nothing stands up to the Deakins showcase of the year, a nearly silent sequence in Shanghai overlooking one building from another against a stark neon backdrop; it’s balletic, beautiful, breathtaking. Who knows whether it will translate to smaller screens for home viewing, but on IMAX filling the senses it was a woozy and incomparable pure-cinematic moment, and the peak of Deakins’ formidable visual design for the feature — a shot in the arm so severe you can’t help wishing he’d stick with the series and dreading the effect on the rest of his career if he does so.
That theater vs. lasting experience question does haunt a little, though. It’s inescapable that a big event picture like this is altered by its context, crucially and almost unrecognizably — I can’t offer any clue as to whether Skyfall will endure or will ever again feel as pleasant and breezy as it did on my Saturday matinee, but if we allow that films like this are engineered specifically for this kind of an experience, this one is an undeniable success (even after it turns into a bizarro Straw Dogs remake at the end). We must wonder how much my opinion of previous Bond films would’ve been affected by seeing them theatrically, which is advantageous to most movies (I’d never seen one of the series projected before) — the over-the-top, gruesomely goofy villainy was still there, right? And so was the casual sexism (Bond’s rapey mounting of a disposable B-girl in a shower aboard a boat she didn’t know he’d climbed onto being a lowlight), despite its quantity reduced and its nastiness mostly limited to one brutal murder scene. Nevertheless, food for thought — and it hasn’t escaped me that, having not watched more than half an hour of another James Bond movie in well over a decade, I should likely work to check my bullshit detector.
What’s equally fascinating, though, is the number of people who don’t like the Bond films at all — never have — and yet have responded kindly to Skyfall, and by turn the quantities of devoted fans who’ve turned their noses at the popularity of this entry. Some have gone so far as to compare it directly to The Dark Knight, which is just silly — Mendes knows how to direct an action sequence competently, for one thing. We should take time out to note, in fact, just how wonderful a job Mendes does with this film, coming off a high with Away We Go to craft something like the exact opposite of its moviegoing experience — the big scenes are all breathlessly exciting and, in contrast to so many modern action movies, splendidly clear. And for this particular non-fan, Mendes’ slow reintroduction of the icons of the series — starting with the psychedelic title sequence, with the font of the titles even, on into the closing falling into place of Ashton Martin, characters, catchphrases, and the iconic gun barrel image — builds and suggests a relationship with tropes you never knew you cared about. But I got a little thrill just like everyone else when Craig announced he was reporting for duty — me, the lifelong Bond skeptic! — and I think that says a lot about the pop smarts of this immensely enjoyable movie, as well as the continued cultural moment atop which it expertly rides.