Saturday 24 November 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall (2012)

The 23rd James Bond movie on the 50th anniversary of the franchise is a personal affair. Skyfall brings the drama and danger close to home for both Bond and M. While the more intimate tensions are welcome, the plot insists on discordant evil excesses that side swipe the intended impact.

After a brutal chase in Istanbul, Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow-agent Eve (Naomie Harris) fail to retrieve a digital file stolen by the mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) containing the identities of all undercover MI6 agents. Eve accidentally shoots Bond and he is believed to be dead.  M (Judi Dench) starts to receive cryptic warnings hinting that the file theft is an act of revenge against her, and the MI6 headquarters in London is bombed. With British agents around the world being slaughtered after their identities are revealed on-line, M faces unprecedented scrutiny for the security lapse, with Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, demanding her resignation.

Bond re-emerges after a period of recuperation and hunts down Patrice in Shanghai. He then traces the clues to Patrice's employer to Macao, where he meets and seduces the glamorously dark Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe). She leads him to an abandoned island city, where Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) turns out to be the evil mastermind behind the theft of the file. A once highly regarded MI6 agent from decades past, Silva was abandoned by M when he fell into Chinese hands, and his attempt at suicide to escape torture by swallowing a cyanide capsule only caused him horrific disfigurement. Now seemingly captured by Bond and brought back to London, Silva's revenge has only just begun: he has an elaborate plan to personally go after M in the heart of England.

With most of the frantic chase scenes taking place in the pre-credit sequence, Skyfall settles down to an action-oriented revenge story line. With the key moments mostly taking place in Britain, director Sam Mendes repatriates the series to its comfy home fires. The plot revolves around M's past coming back to haunt her, Bond returning to his family roots, and both facing down an enemy who, rather than seeking world domination or untold wealth, just wants revenge of the most personal kind.

The focus on a more snug plot is welcome. But the execution in the film's second half betrays both the spirit and the intent. Silva suddenly has access to a small army of men and sophisticated equipment, breaking out of his confinement and going after M with resources that would make many small countries proud.

The second disappointment in Skyfall is the over-involvement of M's character in the dirty work of espionage at the front lines. This has been a creeping tendency in the series to capitalize on Judi Dench's appeal, but in Skyfall the screenplay (by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) loses most of its credibility by intentionally placing M in harm's way as part of an ill-conceived trap mission. In a film purposefully designed to be less outlandish, dropping the head of intelligence as bait for a crazed criminal is most incongruous.

The performances, however, are excellent. Daniel Craig, now well-settled as Bond, brings a resigned world weariness to the role. Instead of a search for glamour and cheerfulness, Craig portrays an agent disgusted by all aspects of the world and under no illusions that he is one rat among many, assigned to simply find and kill other rats. M needs to carry the weight of a furious nation on her shoulders, and Dench's most prominent Bond role is also her most nuanced, maintaining a steely resolve while fending off politicians and staring down a furious ghost from her past.

A bleached blond Javier Bardem as Silva is one of the more memorable Bond villains, a chilling mess of derangement, internal damage and self-conflict. Bérénice Lim Marlohe could have been a deliciously complex emotional mess, but her character is sketched in quickly and just as hurriedly sketched out. Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw (as a young and tech-savvy Q) portray characters who will return in future episodes, while Albert Finney makes a welcome appearance as Kincaid, a curmudgeonly but resourceful gamekeeper from Bond's past.

Mendes infuses Skyfall with an invigorating visual style emphasizing silhouettes, shadows and dancing lights, while the editing of the action sequences errs only slightly on the side of excessive sharpness. Bond may be 50, but amidst his unavoidably preposterous adventures he remains a nimble entertainer, not just stirring but shaking the action.

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