Monday, November 05, 2012

The end is the beginning


                It has been fifty years since "Dr. No", the first James Bond movie came out, and to celebrate that anniversary we have before us twenty-third installment in the series, "Skyfall". For the first time in the hands of an Oscar winner (Sam Mendes), new Bond has a list of very respectable names attached to it. First draft of the screenplay was written by Peter Morgan while one of the authors of the final version is John Logan. The music is written by Thomas Newman, and Roger Deakins was handling the cinematography. The cast is surely one of the best ever, with Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney and Ben Wishaw. And of course, there's Sam Mendes at the helm. Having liked the previous two Craig's Bond movies and looking at that list of names, I was really convinced that this could be the best Bond ever. After watching it I'm not that convinced anymore.

                So what's it all about? Someone stole the list with the names of every British secret agent and trying to recover it Bond went missing. It becomes obvious that whoever has the list has some personal quarrel with M. After an attack on the MI6 headquarters Bond comes back and helps M find the person behind it. It turns out to be Tiago Rodriguez a.k.a. Raoul Silva, a former MI6 operative who's after M because of some things from the past. Luckily, Bond is here to save the day. Or is he?

                With the arrival of Craig as James Bond, the character, as well as the series, was given a new look. Bond became vulnerable, more violent and not so well-mannered. But this time there is another change, with considering Bond's age and is it interfering with his abilities. Probably motivated by 50th anniversary and the talk of the series becoming old and redundant, the movie discusses Bond's ability as well as the ability and necessity of the whole MI6 department and shows us in the end that they still have a lot to give and we still need them. Talking of course not about just Bond and MI6 but the movie series as well. This theme is not the only thing inspired by the anniversary. In fact, there are a lot of smaller and bigger details pointing back to the series' roots. From the classic silver Aston Martin DB5 ("Goldfinger", "Thunderball") which even has the same license plate number, and the locations in Turkey and Scotland ("From Russia with Love"), to a criminal mastermind with his own island ("Dr. No") and a little deranged personality (all of the early Bond villains). There's also a sense of going back to the roots in introducing new versions of key characters, and even the office in the end and M giving Bond a new assignment remind of old Bond movies.

                Alongside that with the early entries in the series, there's another parallel "Skyfall" draws, the one with Nolan's Batman trilogy. Nolan's Batman and new Bond are both troublesome characters trying to overcome their weaknesses to do a greater good, which isn't so uncommon, but some of the similarities with "The Dark Knight Rises" are striking. In the first place it's the relation with the main bad guy. Just like Batman and Bane, Bond and Silva share the same training and mentor. For the first it's the League of Shadows and Ra's Al Ghul, while for the others it's MI6 and M. Both Bane and Silva were discarded by their mentors which filled them with rage and both of them brought chaos to the cities of their enemies (in Gotham it's the stadium which collapses while in London it's a part of the London Underground). There's also previously mentioned issue of being too old and incapable to do what has to be done, discussed in the latest Batman movie as well. The movies even share a line foreshadowing the imminent destruction ("A storm is coming.").

                But this is still a Bond movie. It has great action, beautiful locations, beautiful women and a sense of humour, although not all of that to the same extent. The action really is great and the locations more than beautiful mostly thanks to Deakins's cinematography which is outstanding and deserving of his 10th Oscar nomination. Of course, credits go to Dennis Gassner's (interestingly, another frequent Coen brothers' collaborator) production design and Mendes's direction as well. The other two things I have a problem with. There are two women in the movie, aside from M of course. One of them can't really be called a standard Bond girl due to her probably continuing appearance in the series, and the other is given very little screen time, appearing and disappearing in the middle of the movie, and thus for the first time making M the most prominent female in a Bond movie. In accordance with the story, of course, but strange nonetheless. With the lack of women, but without greater meaning than to provide a comic moment, comes Bond's first homo-erotic moment, Silva touching his legs and Bond implying it would not be his first time. It gives Craig a great line, but sticks out as unnecessary in the same time making us aware of how little humour there is in the movie.

                Comprised mostly of action and drama, "Skyfall" is one of the most serious Bond movies to date. All of the actors have done their job as good as expected, though Bardem's interpretation of Silva will probably generate polarizing opinions. It's especially good to see Ralph Fiennes who fit in perfectly, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of Naomie Harris's reinvention of her character. Of course, there's the question of the theme song paired with the opening credits, one of the most important things about a James Bond movie. This time it shares the movie's title and is sung by Adele, one of the world's best female vocalists at the moment. It's evocative of the old Bond themes (another return to the roots) and has beautiful music accompanied by great lyrics, which can be fully appreciated only after watching the movie. The thing I'm not so thrilled with is the screenplay. In addition to the things I've already mentioned, some of the set pieces seem underdeveloped (especially the part on the island) and dramatic moments lack weight (mostly because of Silva's lunacy). It's probably the result of a change in the screenwriting team, with Paul Haggis gone and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, writers of four previous Bond movies, being joined by John Logan. Logan is an excellent writer but it seems they didn't manage to perfect their cooperation, or maybe just didn't have time to because of the anniversary, for which the movie had to be ready.

                What to say in the end? My biggest problem with "Skyfall" is that it didn't get me emotionally involved. Now that's a big thing, but it's partially so because of my expectations. I came in looking to see pure modern Bond and got a mixture of modern and classic. A cocktail of serious themes, crazy characters, high-tech crimes and old-fashioned storytelling, spiced with some stating of the obvious, and all together shaken and stirred. It felt strange at first but I'll put it aside for now and take a sip some time later. Something tells me it will taste better.

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