THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
I take part in a weekly feature called the Criticwire Survey on the popular Indiewire website. The feature polls several dozen film critics on various movie-related subjects. Last week, we were asked to pick our favorite James Bond film. I hedged, saying that while I enjoyed many of the 007 pictures, I wasn't really a Bond fanatic and never felt the need to see any of them more than once. For fairly generic reasons, my pick ended up being Casino Royale. Too bad that survey question didn't come a week later. Having now seen Skyfall, it would be safe to say that this is my favorite Bond film. It's flat-out terrific in every regard.
One of my biggest problems with the Bond franchise is that the plots are often overly-complicated in their globe-hopping espionage, with megalomaniacal villains who launch incomprehensible schemes to rule the world or...something. Skyfall wisely streamlines its story, giving us a basic, but effective, revenge tale. We find Bond (Daniel Craig) hiding out after being left for dead in a mission gone wrong. He comes out of hiding when MI6 is attacked in what initially appears to be a terrorist bombing. In fact, a former agent named Silva (Javier Bardem) is seeking vengeance against M (Judi Dench), and he's willing to pull out all the stops to get it. A fierce sense of loyalty compels Bond to track down Silva, even though he's got his own grudge against M; her actions are the reason he was left for dead in the first place. Silva's trail leads to several locations around the world, then ultimately back to London. Helping Bond track the man down is Q (Ben Whishaw), who is more of a computer genius than a gizmo-builder in this installment.
As far as the Daniel Craig chapters go, I liked Casino Royale and utterly hated Quantum of Solace. Blessedly, Skyfall takes all the things that worked about the former and builds on them, and takes all the things that didn't work in the latter and abandons them. Because there's no formal mission for Bond, the plot is more personal. Someone is essentially attacking his “home” and what passes for his family; therefore, stopping Silva isn't a save-the-world endeavor, but rather a quest to preserve his own way of life. The intimate nature of the story ultimately proves more engrossing than what we're usually given. I've long felt that the more grandiose Bond plots became oddly generic, since they lacked anything that made the character feel human. This time around – as in Casino Royale - he's very human.
The drama is punctuated by a handful of action scenes that are intense and ridiculously fun. You wouldn't think Sam Mendes (American Beauty) would turn out to be a top-tier action director, but he stages the sequences marvelously, as though he's been doing it his whole career. A motorcycle chase across rooftops turns into one of the craziest fights on a train that you'll ever see. And that's just the first ten minutes. Later on, you get Bond doing some astounding acrobatics on the undercarriage of a moving elevator, tearing up the London subway system, and eventually taking on an armed helicopter. Many action scenes pay subtle homage to those found in prior Bond outings, while still finding new spins to put on them. Mendes grounds the action, allowing it to be thrilling without veering into absurdity.
The acting is also among the best you'll find in the franchise's long history. Daniel Craig is a perfect Bond in my eyes – tough, fearless, dangerous, but also with a sensitive side. There's a shot, shown widely in the advertising, in which Bond leaps into a moving train car while the back of it is ripped away. He looks unfazed, taking the time to fix his cufflinks as he lands. That's badass, and only an actor as impeccably believable as Craig could pull it off. Judi Dench gets more scenes in this movie, striking up a good chemistry with her male co-star. She's tough as nails, yet you can sense the fondness she has for Bond outside of the boundaries of her job. As the villain, Bardem is everything you could want. He makes Silva suitably nasty, yet also extremely colorful.
Skyfall has plenty of other rewards, too. It's been lushly photographed by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. His whole visual scheme enriches everything else the movie has going on. And what would a Bond movie be without an opening credits sequence? This time, they've made an absolutely inspired choice in getting Adele to record the theme song. Her eponymous tune is one of the best Bond themes ever, and the sequence built around it is so magnificent that I literally wanted to rewind the movie and watch it again immediately.
Polished, tightly-paced, and extraordinarily entertaining, Skyfall is a total blast. It gets every major thing you could want from a 007 movie exactly right. There are a couple minor things I could nitpick about, but they're so inconsequential that I won't bother. Like I said, I often enjoy the James Bond films, but I never love them. Skyfall, I loved.
( 1/2 out of four)
Skyfall is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes.
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