Monday, December 03, 2012

A Tale of Two Bonds

Warning: Spoilers for SKYFALL, the latest James Bond film, follow. 

Skyfall ranks among the best of the Bond films, but it does suffer from two weaknesses: there are a number of plot holes and continuity errors, and the film's two themes are somewhat at odds with each other.

As with many Bond films, Skyfall opens with an exciting and elaborately-staged chase scene. This time Bond is after a stolen list of undercover Western agents who've infiltrated various terrorist organization. The list isn't really that important; it's the film's plot device, meant only to set the movie in motion, and as such it is at least a more realistic conundrum than the various conquer-the-world plots we've seen from previous Bond movies. Like the previous two Daniel Craig Bond efforts, Skyfall remains relatively grounded in reality, outrageous stunts and improbable coincidences aside.

Unfortunately Bond is accidentally shot by a fellow agent just as he's about to recapture the list. He falls off a moving train while it's crossing a high trestle, and Bond's limp, seemingly lifeless body crashes into the river far below, becoming part of the elaborate opening titles sequence. This time around Adele provides the opening song, a haunting and dramatic melody foreshadowing the big changes to come to the franchise.

While Bond is presumed KIA, Dame Judi Dench's M is left to deal with the fallout of the loss of the list and several agents, Bond included. In many ways Skyfall is very much M's story, and the film is all the stronger for it. Not only is she being forced into retirement, M will be called to face a public inquiry into her competency and that of MI-6 while also facing the wrath of a rogue agent who's intent on revenge for perceived wrongs. Dench's M handles all these troubles with aplomb and steel; as a character, she is in many ways more admirable than Bond himself.

When MI-6 is subjected to a terrorist attack orchestrated by the film's as-yet-unseen villain, he returns from the dead and shows up on M's doorstep, willing to take up the fight for Queen and country yet again. But is he really ready to go back on duty? Exhausted both mentally and physically, Bond throws himself back into action despite his many weaknesses - and lives are lost because of it. When Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva shows up - charismatic, intelligent, powerful, sexually voracious and perhaps insane - Bond is ill-prepared to deal with him, and in fact winds up inadvertently furthering Silva's plans. Bond allows Silva to get dangerously close to M, and in the end Bond and M go on the run, eventually finding themselves with only one option: make themselves Silva's only targets to reduce further MI-6 casualties and hope they can ambush the villainous ex-agent before he kills them both...

Sam Mendes' direction is well-suited to what turns out to be largely a character piece punctuated with the requisite action beats. Bond, M, the new Q, Silva and a couple of new characters I shan't spoil any further are well-drawn and believable, with commanding performances all round. The cinematography is typically lush, making the most of the film's various exotic locations; a night-time battle is particularly gorgeous and compelling.

However, there are some flaws. A continuity issue with Bond's wounds is distracting, but not fatal (pun intended). Silva's omnipotence stretches credulity, and at least three characters make stupid decisions that serve only to move the plot forward - a transparent flaw of lazy screenwriting that annoys audiences and harms the credibility of characters.

But the film's inability to balance two competing themes is what really detracts from the film's final impact. Without giving too much away, Skyfall is clearly meant to serve as a bridge of sorts, showing the final maturity of the Craig Bond and settling him into more conventional Bond adventures. The "reboot" phase is over. In order to prepare audiences for what's to come, Bond's dialogue is now peppered with one-liners and puns of the sort we're more accustomed to seeing from earlier Bonds like Moore and Connery. A couple of scenes are a little ham-handed in their efforts to reference the earlier films while at the same time differentiating between old and new; it gets a little schizophrenic. And while part of me cheered the nostalgic setup that serves as the film's coda, another part rebelled: after taking remarkable chances with the Craig reboot, have the producers at last lost their courage? That remains to be seen.

Despite these flaws, Skyfall is almost as good as Craig's first outing as Bond, Casino Royale, better than most of the Roger Moore outings and even better than the weaker Sean Connery installments. The character arcs of both M and Bond are compelling and believable, the supporting players are likeable and the emotional beats fitting and quite correct. 008 out of 0010.

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