Arts and Culture

'Skyfall'

A quantum of solace: this meaty Bond flick is a worthy rebound from previous franchise installments.

By Steve Burgess 9 Nov 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

On the sad day that Daniel Craig decides to step aside as James Bond, they really ought to consider replacing him with Rick Steves. The Bond tradition of starting off with a big chase in a scenic locale could benefit from Steves' tour guide style: "Now my motorcycle is smashing through a stained glass window at Istanbul's historic Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world! As I skid around the labyrinth of shops and stalls in pursuit of evil, notice the colourful local garb on the pedestrians who scramble for their lives..."

Istanbul is indeed the kick-off locale for Bond 23, a.k.a. Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame. It's only the third for Craig as Bond -- perhaps it's the unusually long gap between the recent Bond films that makes it feel like he's been around longer. But that sense is heightened by Skyfall's depiction of Bond as a weary, aging warhorse. No old-man prosthetics à la Cloud Atlas, but early in the film there are shots of Craig's worn visage that seem designed to be rather unflattering.

After some initial misfortunes that manage to showcase both scenic Turkey and Bond's name brand wristwatch (in this scene we discover that Bond's stylish timepiece is fully waterproof!), the focus shifts to London where M (Judi Dench) is having troubles of her own. Someone has compromised MI6's online security systems with catastrophic results. The redoubtable M finds herself in the political doghouse with the key apparently held by government minister Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Reports of 007's demise having been predictably exaggerated, Bond sets off to find out who has been messing with M, and MI6. Eventually the trail will lead to the very charismatic Javier Bardem, aka embittered ex-agent Silva. And away we go, eventually all the way to a Scottish ancestral manor estate called Skyfall.

The screenplay, by the Bond-writing team of Neal Jarvis and Robert Wade, along with Hugo writer John Logan, goes to considerable lengths to humanize its mythological hero. It's actually remarkable, in this sixth decade of Bond movies, how much back story was available to be filled in. Has there ever been any hint before now that the archetypal English spy is actually Scottish (and with a French mother)? I suppose Sean Connery's accent should have been a clue. Better Bond scholars than I will have to dig for any conflicting histories in earlier Bond flicks. But in fact, this Bond's spiritual home may not be the Highlands so much as Gotham City. As we find out the youthful history of 007, it's clear that Mendes and his screenwriting team are borrowing from the Dark Knight vision of a flawed hero psychologically damaged by the deaths of his parents.

One of the plot's most intriguing elements is the regular reminder that MI6 agents are dispensable, Bond included, and that M is not allowed the luxury of sentimentality. Those who love Judi Dench, a description that ought to include everybody, will be pleased to know that she is front and centre in Skyfall as never before.

You can see Mendes and company going down the checklist here. Big action scenes -- check. The grittier, more human Bond debuted by Craig three films ago -- check. Real back story with some psychological complexity -- check. Charismatic villain played by master thespian -- check. Sudden retro throwback to '60s-era, Aston Martin-driving Bond -- um, didn't see that coming, but another box marked. A complete, satisfying film that measures up to the modern Bond standard set in 2006 by Casino Royale -- I'm leaving that little square blank.

Shakiness won't stir you

Skyfall is a definite rebound from the 2008 entry Quantum of Solace. And it does get points for effort and good intentions. So what Skyfalls short? That's a bit of a mystery, but whatever problems Skyfall has come in the second half.

The retro angle is one issue. It pretty much comes out of nowhere, complete with the lovable dun-de-la-lun-dun Bond theme and machine guns in the Aston Martin DB5 grill, but it makes you wonder if the filmmakers really thought through the implications. Is Daniel Craig the same dude we saw in Goldfinger? Seeing that beautiful old car come out of the garage is like watching one of those Simpsons episodes where one of the characters suddenly makes a self-aware remark. It smacks of cheap pandering.

Speaking of the Simpsons, I'd be inclined to pick Homer's old boss Hank Scorpio as my all-time favourite Bond villain. Bardem does his best to join the pantheon, and he is fun to watch as always. But ultimately his aura of menace proves to be a damp squib. You can't endanger the peace and security of all mankind on personality alone, and ultimately the screenplay doesn't give Bardem that much to do -- although it does saddle him with a few of those annoyingly implausible "Yes-he-knew-that-would-happen-all-along-and-it's-all-part-of-his-evil-scheme" plot points that have been stretching credulity since the first license to kill was handwritten and stamped. The Scottish climax offers more charming scenery (keeping the Simpsons theme going, we are introduced to an honest-to-goodness Groundskeeper Willy) but is otherwise rather rote.

It does credit to the Craig-era Bond that Skyfall is being held to a higher standard than, say, Moonraker. That it does not quite shake together as the perfect cinematic martini is no great crime. There's still plenty here for Bond buffs to enjoy. And if nothing else I left the theatre with a renewed desire to visit the Scottish Highlands. Minus the explosions it looks quite charming.  [Tyee]

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