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Review: Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012)

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Premise: A follow up to Quantum of Solace. James Bond (Daniel Craig) must uncover the identity of a terrorist bent on destroying the British intelligence service.

What Works: Skyfall is a very well made film that is unique both within the James Bond series and among contemporary action cinema in general. The picture is directed by Sam Mendes and Skyfall recalls Mendes’ 2002 crime drama Road to Perdition. Like that film it uses dramatic lighting that recalls film noir crime dramas and its story invokes many of the same themes. This is a story about a killer reckoning his life and finding some new sense of purpose. And that is where Skyfall really impresses. The James Bond films have never been very deep. Bond has always been a flat character; he does not change much within or between films and he is typically unflappable and without weakness of character or fortitude. The James Bond of Skyfall is different as he not only gets hurts physically but also psychologically and this may be one of the only Bond films to acknowledge the character’s age. This same complexity is lent to M, the head of MI6, played by Judi Dench. As the head of an intelligence unit, M bears responsibility for the organization and her part of the story is about the sacrifices people make in the name of duty and country. The stories of James Bond and M parallel very effectively and there is an understated maternal subtext between the two of them that gives their relationship some emotional heft, which is unique in a series that has consistently avoided any kind of emotional resonance. Skyfall also has a villain, played by Javier Bardem, who is distinct from other Bond adversaries. Most Bond villains are motivated by greed dreams of domination. Bardem’s character has much more personal motivations and Bardem’s performance is great. He has the kind of psychotic threat shown in films like No Country for Old Men but he also conveys a sympathetic dimension that makes him more than a killer. The emphasis on the three main roles in Skyfall is in service to a broader attempt to make Bond relevant. The reimagining of James Bond that started with Casino Royale in 2006 was about adapting Bond for the post-9/11 audience. Skyfall continues that very aggressively and the film shows a self-awareness and intelligence about life in the age of international terrorism. Of course, it should not be forgotten that this is a James Bond film and people go to Bond films to be entertained with action set pieces. Skyfall has the action and when the film picks up it meets or exceeds anything in the action genre.

What Doesn’t: Although Skyfall has a great deal going in its favor, this is a very baggy film. The picture runs two hours and twenty-three minutes and it often feels that length. This isn’t a very economically told story and it has a lot of characters and narrative threads that are introduced and later discarded with little or no payoff. The film starts with a pursuit over a hard drive containing the identities of covert MI6 agents and the filmmakers establish the recovery of that data as the focus of the story. But then the filmmakers abandon that element to go off in other directions and the film has no narrative engine pushing the drama and the characters forward. Javier Bardem’s character is not introduced until well into the running time of the feature and there isn’t enough direct conflict between Bond and the main villain. Skyfall is also problematic in its regard for female characters. The James Bond films have historically had a problem with women. Casino Royale showed an awareness of this and dealt with that intelligently but Skyfall often marginalizes its female characters and it is a step backward for the series in that regard.

Bottom Line: Skyfall is among the better James Bond films. As a standalone movie it delivers the action and excitement expected of a Bond film and within this current incarnation of the character it advances many of the innovations made by Casino Royale. It’s just too bad the plot isn’t as tight or as compelling as the action scenes or the characterization.

Episode: #416 (November 25, 2012)