3 & 1/2 stars out of 5 (between Good and Excellent)
Director : Sam Mendes
"Skyfall" reaches its climax when James Bond travels into the bleak English moors of his childhood and ponders silently. The IMAX screen shows him standing in a narrow valley between two huge hills ,and mist weaves through fading light while the vintage Aston Martin is parked behind him. It is a magnificently austere canvas...a pinnacle of quiet reflection. That scene blew me away so completely that I wanted to turn to the stranger sitting next to me and remark- "What a fantastic movie!"
Skyfall is slow to establish its credentials, but then it grows steadily and impressively before... Anyway, the movie’s kick-starting sequence in Istanbul shows a daredevil bike chase which races through ancient marketplaces,alleys and rooftops all topped off with a spectacular backdrop of domes and minarets. The follow-through on a train-top, complete with car-crushing body-crunching action, reaches its snazzy apex when Bond lands dangerously on the floor, settles himself and then quickly adjusts his cuff-links in devastating style before going after his target again.The opening credits feature a beautifully sung and composed song, starting with a neat inversion of the title’s image and filled with motifs that set the tone for the proceedings.
That chase in Istanbul is not great but it will do as a solid start. The succeding Shanghai and Macau chapters are drenched in intensely atmospheric and sexy visuals which considerably help the script. The Chinese super-city is shown as a formidable futuristic kingdom and the top-floor action that transpires there acquires smooth shades of virtual reality. A hand-to-hand fight is superbly picturized in silhouettes. Macau is bathed in the sepia glow of its orange lanterns and a cool retro appeal.
Berenice Marlohe plays Severine - this femme fatale oozes sex appeal with her dark eyes and willowy deliciousness. She could have easily come across as a fire-’n’-ice temptress, but right from the start the script shows her quivering with tension. Her hands tremble as she smokes. She seems to be in mortal dread of something or someone..
The boat-ride towards the kingdom of the evil Raoul Silva is another showpiece .His island is a dystopian wonder- filled with deserted crumbling buildings. And the room showcasing his entry is another marvel of stark design. It is populated by cabinet-like shapes of grids which represent the anatomy of his technological fiefdom, and is foregrounded by naked integrated-circuits and screens showing specialized data. From here, he manipulates everything -stockmarkets, satellites, political climates.
His entry is a superb one-take static sequence -the lift doors open, he welcomes the captured Bond and then slowly walks towards him as he narrates a story of perverted wisdom. That tale amply hints at the nature of this man’s devious designs. The rest of the proceedings on the island are equally riveting.
Javier Bardem who embodied one of cinema’s greatest villains in "No Country for Old Men", rises to the challenge of portraying the maniacal Raoul Silva. A villain of such characterization would not have been feasible in the 1970s but today it plays without a hitch. This man knows Bond inside-out, and was himself a top agent before the fiend in him is ripped open.With minimal melodrama,droll humour and shifting shades of malevolence ,Bardem essays a distinctive challenge to 007.
Skyfall drives home two vital real-life truths with stronger import than previous Bond films- the increasing plague of terrorism from which no one in the whole physical world is free, and the fact that few professions are as thankless to the personal self as espionage.
The film sports various references to its predecessors- there’s a nod to Richard Kiel’s legendary "Jaws" character, the sharks are replaced by Kommodo Dragons, intimacy re-simmers in the shower-room, the original Aston Martin DB5 from "Goldfinger" resurrects. The dialogue remains invigoratingly snappy, and my favorite is Bond’s reply when Silva asks him what his hobby is.
But inspirations from other films sometimes go overboard - particularly those stemming from the Joker’s wily subterfuge ,urban destruction and even his donning of the police uniform in "The Dark Knight". But other nods, like those to the re-captured Anthony Hopkins sitting chillingly in "Silence of the Lambs" ,and a borrowed canvas from "Inception" are well-integrated into this movie’s structure.The hat-doffs truly delve deep when a scene recalls the fantastically inspired final shot of 1949’s ’Third Man’ ,and that movie may have also influenced Skyfall’s underground tunnel chase.
I find it a perilously brave move on part of the film-makers to stubbornly again reject the famous archetypes of Bond movies. Gadgetry is not only reduced to a minimum,but also openly mocked. There’s classicism of a different kind, as illustrated in the scene where Bond gazes at the Union Jack set against the backdrop of old-world buildings while the phallus-shaped "Gherkin" building -a famous symbol of modern London- is tucked into the blurred background (a sensible decision as such a shamelessly physical construct can hardly be considered a symbol of evolved Britain) Weapons in the finale are laid down in their bare essential form. I don’t mind this "return to the brass-tacks" credo as long as the next 007 movie stops short of featuring Bond as a caveman.
Daniel Craig may not have scorched the screen like he did in his first 007 turn, but there’s a mature,brooding depth in his persona that remunerates his role.With a bearded visage and tired eyes, the dear ol’ James we see here,is barely up to to the brutal physical demands of the modern Bond,but a typically British mix of masochism and patriotism compels him to plow through.He may also be comforted by the thought that the chicks will always be there, even in the worst of missions.
Judi Dench’s ’M’ is given as much coverage as Bond - an underlining of the primacy of string-pullers. Dench again nails the persona with truckloads of character and a new constant undertow of fear that is kicked open when she is repeatedly shaken and stirred. Ralph Fiennes also gives a fine turn as a bureaucrat of interesting facets.
Bond may crash and resurrect again in Skyfall but a constant hero of this film is Roger Deakins - the American cinematographer par excellence. He elects to use the Arri Alexa which is a digital camera,but still captures all the grain and pictoral character of traditional lenses .Locations change from East to West and indoor shots range from cold business to sexual intimacy ,but the lensing captures them all with equal beauty. Those wide-screen English moors best witnessed in the afore-mentioned IMAX shot, have a landscape that is is a wet, dark counterpart of the sun-baked Texan outback that Deakins captured in " No Country for Old Men ".It shows him as a master of both colour and climate.
Thomas Newman, famous for his enigmatic repertoire of strings marimba xylophone and delicate percussion ,does well in keying up the mood and tension ,but when it comes to providing a good background score to the violence, he lapses into the same old boring booming orchestra heard in thousands of other flicks.
In the finale, all that gun-fire, explosions and slow run through the moors does little to inject the story with intensity. The villain's role stagnates in much of those last stages. In that crucial stage, director Sam Mendes stumbles in reprising what Martin Campbell gloriously battled to accomplish in "Casino Royale". Campbell never forgot emotion, never jettisoned poignant charge and yet made that movie power through with energy and style all the way to the end. But here,even if Mendes was trying to achieve a completely atypical Bond movie ending, he falters on that front.The finale drags instead of gliding.
But Mendes deserves at least a hand-shake for helming much of this pic with elan. His first feature- American Beauty- was an absolute masterpiece portraying a slice of suburban America. Since then, I've seen all of Mendes' movies except ''Away we Go''. ''Jarhead'' was a superb war movie enhanced by visual chutzpah,but a knock-out it was not. ''Road to Perdition'' which charted a crime story from a bygone America, was continually ineffective in impact, and ''Revolutionary Road'' was remarkably faithful to the source novel ,yet it did not grow a searing soul of its own.Regretfully ,''Skyfall'' too, in totality, does not reach his debut movie's magnificence.And it is a remainder that Mendes is yet to reach a state of directorial ability wherein he can transcend a weakness in the script and manouever through it.
So considering the resolutely prosaic exercise that ''Quantum of Solace'', I was thankful for the considerable quantums of solacing chapters seen in this installment. Skyfall's writers Purvis, Wade and Logan have proved their chops before, but the next movie must feature a more inspired screenplay if this franchise is interested in saving face.I was shaking my head at the end - What can one do when a ride hits most of its harrowing turns in satisfying fashion before ,alas, reaching its ordained derailment in a way that doesn't quite rock one's rafters?
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