Saturday 3 November 2012

Cleaning out MI-6's closet

Sam Mendes was obviously keen on Bond. After the release of Quantum of Solace, the Reading-born director was tapped to helm the then-nameless next film in the franchise. Mendes stood by the film faithfully even after MGM's bankruptcy cast it into development hell. Bond 23, soon titled Skyfall, finally saw the light of day - albeit on a reduced budget - , sparing people like me the horrid prospect of having to grow up.

For all that Mendes wasn't an obvious choice to direct a Bond film. After all, he earned his spurs with character dramas (Revolutionary Road, backlash victim American Beauty) and dramas-in-disguise (Road to Perdition, Jarhead). So if you said 'I bet Skyfall will have excellent character moments but be lacking in the action department', I salute you: for it does and is.

The film opens, sans gun barrel (which annoyed me far more than it should), with James Bond (Daniel Craig) chasing a man named Patrice (Ola Rapace) through the streets of Istanbul to recover a stolen hard drive. Bond manages to follow Patrice onto the roof of a moving train and into the sniper-rifle crosshairs of his backup Eve (Naomie Harris). Eve can't be sure of hitting the right man, but after being given the go-ahead by M (Judi Dench) she fires, hitting Bond in the chest and sending him hurtling off a bridge and into a river while Patrice escapes.

The image of a wounded, bleeding Bond sinking segues into Daniel Kleinman's sixth stab at a Bond title sequence since GoldenEye. And a good sequence it is, continuing Kleinman's latter-day trend (since Die Another Day) of foregoing nude women dancing in favour of working Bond himself in. Here he fights his own shadow and stops by silhouettes that will become meaningful later, in a black-and-turquoise colour scheme. Meanwhile, Adele's 'Skyfall' is a rousing earworm that loses points for being too tasteful and failing to go over the top in the Jonesian manner I demand of my Bond themes.

Months later. Bond has been declared dead but is (surprise!) actually hiding out somewhere in the tropics, frequenting the sort of bar where one's manly valour is proved by doing shots with a scorpion on one's hand. Meanwhile we learn that the hard drive Bond failed to recover contained the details of every NATO agent embedded in terrorist organisations around the world, and as those agents begin to be exposed M is in pretty big trouble even before somebody hacks into the MI-6 headquarters and blows them to smithereens. Bond returns and is sent back into the field by M, who does not tell him he's failed his evaluation.

Bond's first stop is Shanghai, where he follows Patrice up a skyscraper and watches him assassinate a man in the building opposite. Bond kills Patrice before being able to find out who hired him, but a casino chip in the dead man's possessions leads him to Macau, where he trades the chip in for a suitcase containing four million euros. Here he meets Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a sex slave who promises to lead him to the man he is looking for if Bond will promise to kill him. They sail to an island off the coast of China, the headquarters of Silva (Javier Bardem), who kills Sévérine before Bond manages to apprehend him and bring him back to London.

That brings us to the film's halfway mark and a pretty severe shift in tone. After Silva is revealed to be a former agent hellbent on revenge against M, who abandoned him in enemy hands, the film turns to inspecting the skeletons in the closets of MI-6 and Bond's own past. The screenwriters may be plagiarising their own back catalogue - Neal Purvis and Robert Wade wrote The World Is Not Enough, another film that features a bomb in MI-6 headquarters and a villain seeking revenge against M for making a tough decision - but they take the story different places. Places full of plot holes acquired by stealing from The Dark Knight, to be sure, but interesting new pastures all the same.

It's far and away the franchise's most thorough and morose exploration of what it means to 'work for the British government' when the empire has shrivelled into a septic adjunct of the United States. Hence the scenes of M being interrogated by a parliamentary committee, the Union flag draped over coffins, and discussions about goals and methods between M and her superior (Ralph Fiennes). It's a whole lot more navel-gazing than one would expect after the already-introspective Casino Royale, but it also moves all the pieces into place for the probably more conventional Bond adventures of the next two films Craig has signed up for.

The second half is worthy, but the early Shanghai and Macau scenes are some of the most purely escapist spy action since the Roger Moore years: an admittedly Orientalist confection of dazzling colours, lifestyle porn, glamorous dames, a real sense of danger and far and away the film's two best action scenes - one of which features a timely intervention by a CGI Komodo dragon as awesome as any 'wild animal eats henchman' scene in the franchise.

Mendes, as I said, is no great shakes as an action director - he bungles the film's pre-title sequence with shots that contain no information at all - but he's largely smart enough to let his director of photography do the heavy lifting. The great Roger Deakins (who's worked with Mendes before, but is best known for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers) delivers some of the most stunning images this year: the skyscraper scene in Shanghai, all silhouettes surrounded by blue light, is my favourite, but the red-and-gold casino comes a close second. It's old-fashioned and all-round terrific.

Craig continues to be a great Bond. Now in his mid-forties he's grumpier and more irascible than the already violent version of the character he played in Casino Royale, and he portrays a weakened Bond clawing his way back from near death convincingly. In the supporting roles, Judi Dench is reliable as ever while Javier Bardem is good, although I can't quite muster the same enthusiasm for Silva as I did for Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw, who are taking up the mantle of pretty distinguished predecessors, are an absolute delight and look to be a real asset to the franchise. Bérénice Marlohe, meanwhile, is brilliant in an all-too-brief appearance that will hopefully result in more attention for her from the Anglosphere. 

Skyfall is a breath of fresh air after the disappointment of Quantum of Solace: far from flawless, but a sign we're headed in the right direction. I just hope Eon are finally done digging their way out of the hole into which the latter Brosnan films plunged the franchise, and go back to the preposterous spy adventures we know and love.

1 comment:

  1. Of all the Bond films, I thought Quantum of Solace was the worst: terrible song, hyper-depressed and no plot. While I think the Adele theme is all right, I was surprised at how restrained she is but not among the best Bond themes.