Friday, February 15, 2013

Skyfall - Guest Review

Mendes, Craig, Bardem, and Deakins

By David S. Muhlfelder

Full disclosure: I have been a James Bond fanatic since age nine when my grandfather, in an effort to defuse a fight between my mother and older brother, took us all to see “From Russia With Love.” To this day, FRWL remains the gold standard for all Bond films in my (And may other original fans’) opinion. It was the second Bond film, and it followed closely on the heels of “Dr. No.”

The series had begun with very little fanfare. “Dr. No” was made for $800,000, a modest sum even in 1962 dollars. In major markets like LA and New York it opened as the second feature on double bills. Exhibitors avoided it like the plague. One was quoted as saying “Nobody wants to see a movie about some limey detective.” I’m amazed that with instincts like that this guy didn’t wind running a studio. It turned out people did want to see it, and the film turned a nice profit. By the time FRWL opened less than a year later, exhibitors were clamoring to book it into their theatres. With the release of “Goldfinger” the following year, Bond mania was in full flower.

Unless you were there, it’s kind of difficult to fathom. It was somewhat akin to Beatlemania in the way that all things James Bond suddenly dominated pop culture c. 1964. “Goldfinger” was the first movie blockbuster. Theatres ran it twenty-four hours a day to accommodate the crowds. It recouped its $3.5 million budget in less than two weeks. This was unheard of at the time. Movies had always made their money back over time through multiple releases. “Goldfinger” was a game changer. “Thunderball,” released in 1965, remained until last month the most financially successful Bond film of all time, adjusting for inflation. “Skyfall” ended that forty-eight year reign as the biggest Bond movie of them all. It has so far earned $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office, and it’s still playing in China. It is the seventh highest grossing film of all time. It deserves to be. 

Until the arrival of Daniel Craig in the role, I was a Connery purist. I’m glad people liked Roger Moore. It kept the franchise going, but for me the movies became like generic action/adventure with a brand name attached. Dalton was too one note. Brosnan was okay. Then came “Casino Royale.” It was something of a reboot, and it was based on Ian Fleming’s first novel, which had not been sold to the producers with his other novels. Craig and “Skyfall” pick up where Casino Royale left off in this rebirth, the disappointing “Quantum Of Solace notwithstanding.

“Skyfall” is the best Bond movie since “Goldfinger.” As much as I love “Thunderball,” it’s the first movie in the series that shows signs of buckling under the weight of its own success. Connery looked older than his thirty-five years, and even though his health was part of the storyline the sequence at the Shrublands health clinic was overlong. One of the brilliant things about “Skyfall” is how it turns the biggest knock on the Bond franchise, whether we even need human intelligence in the age of predator drones, and turns it into the underlying theme of a story that feels at once fresh and familiar. Without giving too much away, the plot centers on a cyber-terrorist with a grudge against MI6. That is a thoroughly twenty-first century conceit. Yet “Skyfall” is an unapologetically old fashioned piece of moviemaking. It’s a travelogue in the best Bond tradition. Cinematographer Roger W. Deakins luxuriates in the locales. From the heat of Istanbul to the chill of London to the humidity of Singapore and Macau to the fog shrouded Scottish Highlands, you don’t just see where you are you feel it. This is a very visceral Bond, with a steady, but not hectic, pace. 

Gone was the kinetic and frenetic Bourne style editing of Quantum. “Skyfall” marks the return of “Casino Royale” editor Stuart Baird. This is the guy who gave us “Superman: The Movie,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard II” among others. He does an especially good job on the long teaser sequence that features a motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s bazaar, and a fight atop a train. 

Craig’s character goes much deeper than it ever has. In “Casino Royale” we learn that Bond was an orphan. In “Skyfall,” we get to see him deal with that unresolved childhood trauma. This is an emotionally fragile Bond, which is a great character trait for a man who is essentially a government assassin. Connery gave us a ruthless and cruel Bond with a wicked sense of humor. With Craig, you get that too, but you see the toll it takes. It feels like a story Fleming, himself, could have written. Fleming alternately described Bond as morose and saturnine. Craig gives you that, but without the heavy handedness we got from Timothy Dalton. 

There are basically two Bond formulas. The FRWL formula is spy vs. spy, with the consequences contained within the world of espionage. The “Goldfinger” formula is the super villain with the bigger than life scheme that threatens the world. “Skyfall” hews toward the FRWL formula, but with hints of the “Goldfinger” model structurally. Like that film, “Skyfall” starts small as a simple quest for a computer drive, but soon morphs into a much more complex story about loyalty and duty.

One unique twist is that this is M’s story. For the first time, we get to see Bond confront the ambivalence that underpins his relationship with his boss. It’s pure Ian Fleming. Judy Dench is excellent as M. Javier Bardem is a sort of unwanted stepchild as Silva, her once favorite operative. He equals his fine performance in “No Country For Old Men.” And Albert Finney makes a late appearance as Bond’s surrogate father figure. It all leads to the expected explosive climax, but with plenty of emotional weight behind it. And it’s all orchestrated perfectly by director Sam Mendes. 

By the time Bond walks in to M’s new office at the end, the very same office that Sean Connery first walked into fifty years ago in “Dr. No,” the series had come full circle. And I was once again that nine year old boy at the movies with my grandfather. And as for the question of whether or not we need human intelligence, the answer is clearly yes. As long as that human is James Bond.


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