Movie Review: Skyfall
By Matthew Huntley
November 19, 2012

He really just likes looking at himself.

Over the past few years, Hollywood has gradually shifted toward an age of darkness and cynicism, deliberately taking the lighthearted joy out of its stories. It’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer fun to be the hero. Pleasure and amusement have been replaced by depression and melancholy. Just look at the plethora of comic book movies out there, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. What a burden it would be to be Batman.

Is Hollywood reflecting society’s current state of mind or is it the other way around? Or is the one-two punch of painful and realistic simply the “latest thing”? Whatever the sociological explanation, or when it started, who’s to say, but the trend has now infused itself into the James Bond franchise.

Skyfall is the 23rd film in the 50-year-old Bond series and it’s also one of the darkest, if not the darkest. Though we saw it coming over the last two pictures - Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace - Bond has officially traded in his laser pen and other fun gadgets for simpler, more bare-handed weaponry like shot guns and hunting knives. Just as Nolan did with Batman, the makers of Skyfall want to lend James Bond a greater level of plausibility. It no longer sees its characters or action as cartoonish and over-the-top, but grounded, serious and threatening. Whether this approach to the world of James Bond works for you is a matter of personal taste, but no matter how you look at it, Skyfall is a superb action thriller, even if it does relinquish some of the typical “Bond movie” characteristics.

Daniel Craig returns as 007, whose latest adventure kicks off immediately when he and another MI6 operative (Naomie Harris), who will remain nameless so as not to spoil a small surprise, chase a bearded bad guy around Istanbul who’s just stolen an important hard drive. Then again, don’t they always steal an important hard drive?

This particular piece of hardware contains a list of all the active NATO agents currently undercover throughout the world. Should this information fall into the wrong hands…well, you know the drill. In short, it would be catastrophic.

That’s why Bond will stop at nothing - including riding a motorcycle across Istanbul’s narrow rooftops; crashing through windows; and operating a crane on a speeding train - to retrieve it. As he’s doing this, he and his fellow operative are communicating with the head of MI6, the fractious M (Judi Dench), via radio. When the female agent gets an unclean shot to take out the villain, who’s being obscured by Bond, M orders her to “take the bloody shot.” The bullet hits Bond instead, sending him into the river below. He turns up three months later, after MI6 becomes the target of a terrorist attack and a handful of agents end up dead. Just before the tragic incident, MI6’s security chairman, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), was informing M that he and the Prime Minister expect her resignation since the coveted NATO list is still out there.

But M will be damned if she’s going to retire before finding out who struck them, so she immediately puts Bond back on active service, even if his fitness is questionable and he’s still angry that she gave the go-ahead to essentially kill him. But it just goes to show Bond is willing to put his country and duty before all else. Perhaps his austere disposition stems from his still unresolved traumatic childhood, which we finally learn more about after all these years.

And while Bond may not be able to hold a grudge, the diabolical Raoul Silva (a blond Javier Barden) sure can. He’s a former MI6 agent who wants revenge after M left him to die in the field, even if she does have a worthy excuse. We come to learn Silva is the man behind the attack, which only marks the beginning of his intricate, masterminded plan to impose harm on M and the entire British Secret Service.

Bardem never finds the wrong note as Silva, playing him with a devilish charm and latent femininity, traits that are sure to make him go down as one of the great Bond villains. Bardem’s facial reactions and expressions are so distinct and memorable, they could earn him another well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. I mean, why not?

As is par for the course, not only for Bond movies, but all action pictures, Skyfall throws in its fair share of elaborate chase scenes, explosions, stand-offs, and moments of sensuality, courtesy of Bond’s short-lived romance with one of Silva’s employees, Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe). But these aren’t of the usual Bond variety; they’re more gritty and realistic (or as realistic as a movie like this can get). That seems to be the intent of director Sam Mendes: to suggest James Bond could actually exist in our world, and while his approach works, aren’t Bond’s classic idiosyncrasies - the use of toys to free himself from life and death situations; the playful sexuality; the zippy one-liners - the things that makes him who he is? Does the series have to take a raw turn? Granted, the story is well told and we see the characters as people who are capable of poignancy, but all this could have been applied to another action movie just the same. I think I’d rather see Bond stick with his own traditions simply because they are exclusive to him; they’re what make him special.

With that said, Skyfall is still a very good movie. It’s not the most original - one could argue the climax alone, which manages to utilize Albert Finney in a small role, borrows from Home Alone - but the presentation as a whole is fast, exciting, coherent and made, unsurprisingly, with the utmost production values. It’s a great-looking picture, too - sharp, colorful and picturesque with all its stunning shots of cityscapes. Action movie fans will have little cause for complaint and even though Bond aficionados will appreciate the harsher shift the series has taken from its usual polished one, I think by the time the 24th film comes along, they’ll want the classic Bond back, if only for tradition’s sake.

I do have one complaint: the opening chase scene shows Bond and the other agent are willing to do whatever it takes to recover the stolen NATO list, even if that means running over or shooting innocent bystanders and/or smashing into other cars and knocking over fruit stands (how many times have we seen that before?!). I know this is just a movie, but what kind of message does it send that so long as the good guys get what they need, any amount of collateral damage is okay? It’s ironic that what the heroes are doing is all in the name of saving lives since they seem to have no trouble taking or disrupting them in order to carry out their mission. It’s worth thinking about is all, because I’d hate to think is an accurate reflection of our real-life attitude toward matters of national security.