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Review: "Skyfall"

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad

Skyfall arrived on US screens Friday with such multiplex flattening hype that you'd be forgiven for thinking the title literal. The Cubby Broccoli estate, which controls the adventures of the super spy, was pulling no stops for the 50th anniversary installment of the granddaddy of film franchises. We've been inundated with Bond Mania for months now. So you'd think at this point that the actual film would be an afterthought. Not so.

The 23rd official Bond film delivers… and not just the five mandatory goodies no Bond film is complete without: Action (Particularly the Opening Setpiece), Theme Song, International Villain, 007 Himself and the Bond Girl. Unlike most modern franchises, the Bond series favors stand-alone storylines with only the five-pronged Bond template uniting them. Even Bond himself changes though Skyfall happily sticks with Daniel Craig's impossible zombie handsomeness and dangerously erotic icy blues.

Five mandatory goodies and Daniel Craig's sexual pull AFTER THE JUMP...

1. Action / Opening Setpiece
Skyfall's pre-title chase, as Bond frantically tries to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing the identities of all of MI6's secret agents, is a real corker. If Skyfall has a significant flaw it might well be that this proves a difficult setpiece to follow. My favorite bit finds Bond dropping into a moving train car he's just demolished with a backhoe. He adjusts his cuffs; why look sloppy when lives are on the line? The scene ends with a very tense "M" (Oscar winner Judi Dench) ordering a kill shot which doesn't go as planned. Bond plummets from the top of a moving train with excruciatingly steep verticality to the water far below and into…

2. Theme Song
…the soundscape of Adele's booming vocals and its accompanying animated title sequence, a theme-song staple. Skyfall is quite literal about its title visually, with daggers or swords falling with Bond into the bottom of the ocean landing like crucifixes to form a makeshift cemetery filled with blood and gunshot wounds. The meaning of the visuals will eventually become clear but that would involve spoilers, which you're not getting here. It's worth noting that Adele's theme song is much better in context than in the vacuum of an mp3.

3. International Villainy
The stolen hard drive traces back, eventually, to the complicated plans but simplistic end goal of Bond's newest villain "Silva" (Javier Bardem) who is obviously targeting "M" and wants to really see her suffer. In the film's most riveting scene, Bond and Silva are face to face, with Bond at a considerable disadvantage in bondage, while Silva taunts Bond and details his M fixation. "Mommy was very very bad," Javier Bardem explains with a hilariously childlike grudge. He's spooky, riveting and eventually moving in the role.

It's worth noting that this sequence, the most explicitly homoerotic scene from any Bond film, might well read as homophobically perverse were it not for...

4 ...007 Himself
I urge you not to spoil the sequence for friends who haven't yet seen it but Bond's retort to Silva's sexual tease is about the most succinct example yet of how essential Daniel Craig's expert performance has been to the modernization of the series. He's arguably the best thing that happened to the franchise since Sean Connery watched Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) emerging from the ocean, wet and beautiful, in Dr. No (1962) laying the foundations for it all. It's surely no accident that the franchise confidently announced just as much by putting Bond himself in Honey Ryder's position in Casino Royale in that infamous baby blue speedo. Not for nothing did Daniel Craig first come to critical notice in two very provocative roles as Derek Jacobi's rough trade boyfriend in Love is the Devil (1998) and the randy lover of a senior citizen in The Mother (2003). His polysexual screen persona has blown a hole right in fixed sexuality of the Bond series, making Bond himself somehow less predatory, less sexist and just as eroticized as any of his conquests, i.e. the…

5…Bond Girls
Perhaps with Daniel Craig in the mix the notoriously heterosexual Bond series hasn't felt the need to indulge as much in its one undeniable previous camp pleasure, the ritual drag-queen naming of Bond Girls (Pussy Galore, Plenty O'Toole, Strawberry Fields, Octopussy, etc.) which is not to say that the Bond Girls have suffered; Eve (Naomie Harris) and Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) both have beautifully handled moments within good scenes that give them plenty to do besides getting Bond off.

But the most satisfying subtle detail of Skyfall's screenplay may well be the narrative positioning of "M" as a sort of symbolic Bond Girl. Dench is more central than she's ever been with her "sentimental favorite" James Bond as her devoted protector. They're not fucking but you'd be hard pressed to deny that he loves her.

This is all a long way of saying that though there are 23 Bond films there is also only 1 Bond film, each a remix or variation on themes… making the best efforts indispensable (given Bond's stature in popular culture) and the worst skippable. Best and Worst are usually determined by the style with which the key ingredients are handled and Skyfall has that to spare.

If there's a problem with Skyfall it's with its sobriety in both senses of the word. Bond drinks a couple of times and there's an amusing blink and you'll miss it twist on Bond's usual ordering martini sequence, but most of the film's humor is exceedingly subtle like this. Skyfall errs, as so many modern franchises do post Chris Nolan's Batman, on the side of intense self-importance as if to crack a smile would be to invite dismissal as "mere popcorn entertainment." What's wrong with slightly inebriated popcorn entertainment?

One final note: Craig's ongoing superb rendition of 007 was not quite enough to save Quantum of Solace from itself. So the filmmakers wisely pull out all the stops here. If Skyfall lacks the element of surprise and revitalizing electricity of Casino Royale it leans hard on Craig's gifts and assembles the most remarkable group of talented craftsmen than a Bond film has ever known: the legendary cinematography Roger Deakins makes this the most beautiful of all Bond films and superbly visualizes its constant references to espionage as a life in the shadows; Sam Mendes (American Beauty) may well be the most acclaimed director ever handed a Bond film and his technical team from editors to sound engineers do fine work; the actors too are an incredible mix… if Oscar winner Javier Bardem doesn't quite steal the film it's only because Skyfall has assembled the most lauded acting troupe that 007 has ever seen. You can't entirely steal a picture when rising stars Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, Oscar nominees Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and Oscar winner Judi Dench all stand in your way.

Even if you could, you'd still have Daniel Craig and Daniel Craig's Speedo to contend with.

Grade: B+
Oscar Hopes: Too large a topic for an addendum so an article is forthcoming

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Reader Comments (18)

Strawberry Fields is in "Quantum of Solace" so while Craig was Bond.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeith Quinn

Just saw this earlier tonight. Had a blast. Didn't really live up to the hype - I don't think it's anywhere near the Best Bond movie ever (I don't even think it's the best Daniel Craig Bond movie!) - but that's fine. The opening sequence was indeed superb, Bond's first scene with Silva is an instant classic, and the ending packs the kind of emotional punch that Bond movies very rarely go for. Some of the episodes in between didn't reach the same heights, but I can easily forgive that. And I'm already looking forward to the next one. Feels like they've finally found the thoroughly modern Bond that the producers have been seeking for the last ten years or so.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

A question do you think that it's possible the oscar nomination to Javier Barden and Judi Dench or a Bond film can't be nominated in important categories?

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermiguel

Aha, then zombies are supposed to be handsome now? I always thought that they'd be disgusting. And that people who don't like and/or don't get Bond just can't stop praising Bond for not being Bond anymore... Take the traditional opening sequence for example. First you've got to open with the gunbarrel. Which Skyfall doesn't. Then you've got to develop a scenery that focuses on Bond and his oponent(s). Which Skyfall doesn't. Both the colleague and the headquarters interfere way too much. It's actually more of an Eve scene than a Bond scene. Then it all has to result in a major action set piece. Which isn't really the case in Skyfall. The opening scene can't even define what kind of action sequence it would like to be and therefore opts for several minor ones. Is it a car chase? A shootout? A bike chase? A brawl? Most importantly, you've got to use some spectacular Bond action choreography this early in the film, but unfortunately, that's something Skyfall avoids almost completely throughout the entire film. The digger bridge comes closest, but even that one is comparatively weak for Bond standards and was given away in every single trailer anyway, simply because they didn't have anything else to show. What a letdown.
I do accept that you're blissfully unaware of the Bond formula and its destruction in a film like Skyfall.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy -- simply put: we saw entirely different movies.

November 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was unimpressed with the film for many reasons, and even a bit angry about the Q and Gareth Mallory characters - poorly poorly developed, useless, pathetic and eventually played by two amazing actors, why oh why were they involved?

I liked Dench and Bardem, but once they went up north to Skyfall I started heavily losing interest in the film.

For anybody out there: Want films that entertain and surprise at the same time? Watch Looper and Argo. If you've watched them revisit something from the past.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Don't mind Willy. He's just upset that they didn't do another Thunderball remake. ;-)

I had a good time but, like everyone else it seems, I liked Casino Royale better. The scenes at Skyfall were a little "Home Alone" if you ask me. Still, it was a fun, beautifully rendered film. I imagine that it will be hard to top this film's cinematography.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

I prefer Skyfall to Casino Royale. The earlier Craig films were noticeably stripped down, to good effect in the first one, poorly in the second; this one reincorporates the major elements of the old status quo in a novel, effective way.

After the new M, Q, and Moneypenny were given lengthy introductions in this movie, I'll be interested to see what the future movies do with them. .

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSean C.

Nat, we didn't see entirely different movies, we're just on different steps of familiarity with the Bond formula.
Evan, in which way? Never Say Tradition Again? The reason why I took a closer look at the opening sequence was that I believed an example would make something abundantly clear. But unfortunately, your comment indicates that I failed in this regard. So, let me put it this way: what applies to the opening scene applies to just about everything else in this film. It's not enough to just throw a few ingredients of the Bond formula on the screen, no, you've also got to do it in the right, i.e. the Bond way. The rejection and distortion of the formula isn't Bond. The formula is Bond.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy: It's entirely likely that if you're watching Daniel Craig Bond films, looking for places where it's unfaithful with the pre-set formula, you are setting yourself up not to like it. It doesn't mean that people who love it are unfamiliar with the Bond formula. It might just mean that they have a different level of acceptance for the evolution of the brand.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Willy, formulas are for science--not movies, Bond films or otherwise.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Mike, as I've said before, the true crime is the direction of the change, because the makers threw their own brand away. And as long as people pretend that Bond not being Bond would still be Bond, no one should accept such an "evolution", unless the producers rename their new creation.
Brookesboy, if you don't want to see formulaic movies, then you should not watch movies at all. Movies are the absolutely most formulaic thing out there, and action-orientated movies in particular.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Oh God, does M die in this one? Poor Dame Dench. :( :(

I usually don't give a damn about Bond films (haven't seen one since Brosnan), but with all this Oscars buzz, I guess I should give it a try. People are saying this could be a BP contender. Like, seriously? Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem for acting nods? Are we all high or something?

Question: Will I be totally lost not having seen any of the other Daniel Craig Bond films? Is it stand-alone enough without knowing any of the Bond references?

I can say this: Adele's "Skyfall" is truly awesome. Just bought it off of I-Tunes today! Wooo!

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNolan

Oscar buzz for Skyfall - at least insofar as it involves the words "best picture" - is INSANE. it's just a Bond movie, for crap's sake!

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark


November 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

This had a better chance for Best Picture than Avengers, Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises, and on and on. Nothing funny at all about it, especially with the widened field. It's happening.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKit

Based on the films title, trailer, and the scene with the psychiatrist, I figured Skyfall would have a big, emotional resonance with Bond or the plot in general. So I was disappointed to find that all it amounted to was "yeah, James grew up here." Talk about a letdown.

Other than that I really enjoyed the film, especially Javier Bardem's performance, creepy and darkly funny at the same time. Of the Craig films, it was definitely better than Quantum of Solace but doesn't come close to Casino Royale. And I smell a definite Academy Award nomincation for the title song, very well done by Adele.

November 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

For me it is the best movie Bond movie ever made it break the bunches of records. There many reasons of behind its success one of most important is Daniel Craig he worked tremendously in his first two Bond movies and given a chance in Skyfall and buddy again he stunned everyone who tell he's not a best Bond. Personally for me he is best Bond in 50 years career of James Bond.
Another major reasons were the great story and direction thanks to the Sam. But last not the least his clothing. As we all know that Bond is familiar because of his great clothing and Daniel Craig worn unique and exclusive suits in his all three Bond films which were giving them a powerful character, we should give credit to them too.

Jimmy Wilson- Quantum of Solace Suit

August 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJImmy Wilson

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