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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: Skyfall is (mostly) awesome

James Bond is getting old. The man has been killing baddies and bedding ladies for 50 years now, and the physical, emotional, and psychological wear is starting to show. Even though we've only known Daniel Craig's version for 3 movies now, from the beginning of Skyfall we can see he's exhausted. 

Interestingly, Skyfall isn't only about Bond's existential crisis. Instead we have a dual focus on him and his boss/mentor, M. M, who we've gotten to know as Judi Dench for the past 17 years, has to deal with aging as well. Both she and her department, not to mention the very idea of James Bond, become less relevant as we continue to move away from the Cold War, but nobody is willing to go quietly. Her relationship with Bond comes under scrutiny as well, from outsiders as well as Bond himself. It's all very emotionally potent stuff, but, true to the spirit of Bond movies, it doesn't skimp on the action at all. 

I'm not often surprised by or even interested in action sequences. After 60 seconds, I typically start to tune out - the stakes rarely seem real, and if there are robots or aliens involved, everything becomes interchangeable. Not so in Skyfall. Several scenes actually shocked me with their audacity and scope. I never would have expected Sam Mendes to be such a fearless action director, but I'm glad to have Skyfall prove me wrong. 

Skyfall managed to surprise me in another way: I didn't think I'd love any Bond girl as much as I do Vesper Lynd, but Naomie Harris's Eve kind of blows Vesper out of the water. She simply fizzles with energy - badass energy, intellectual energy, and sexual energy. 

Presented without comment.

But really there's a sexy type for just about everyone. As always, there's the aggressive and brutish Bond. Bérénice Marlohe plays our exotic and damaged femme fatale. The new Q (Ben Whishaw) pioneers new frontiers of tweedy hipster sexiness with a posh British accent. And Judi Dench continues to hold it down for the stern, matronly cougars. 

With all of that said, there are two glaring problems I had with the movie. The first is with Javier Bardem's character, the nihilistic Silva. On the one hand, it's exciting to have an over-the-top Bond villain again. Our last two villains were (as I remember them) a chartered accountant with defective tear ducts and a French environmental capitalist (??). They skewed closer to real world villains, yeah, but they hardly got the blood going. But here, Javier Bardem brings a sort of operatic theatricality to his role that really raises Skyfall's stakes. 

I didn't even mention that Max Zorin hairstyle. Fucking terrifying.
On the other hand, I am so fucking tired of what Brian Safi calls the homo-cidal maniac. Queering the villain in order to (ostensibly) up the creep factor is lazy, cliche, and downright harmful. Why should the male villain's stated or implied attraction to our hero be so problematic? Why does his first scene, almost an hour into the movie, introduce his bisexuality as a psychosexual threat to Bond? It's really quite tiresome, and that scene really stuck in my craw. 

My second problem is the way the women in this movie end up. I know that marginalization of female characters in a Bond movie seems almost too easy a subject to complain about, but these new movies had set a higher bar, so I'm feeling a bit betrayed. (Not terribly significant spoilers coming.) Marlohe's Sévérine falls victim to what must have been a truncated plot arc, and gets relegated to a role somewhere beneath that of Connery-era Bond girls. Meanwhile, Harris's Eve, who opens the movie demonstrating her significant skills in the field, ends the movie working a familiar secretarial job (hint: her last name is Moneypenny). I so would have liked to see her develop through the series as a badass female spy.

Still, Skyfall works as a terrific bridge between the brawny realism of Casino Royale and the silkier (but cheesier) fantasy of Goldfinger. There are more witty one-liners, more improbable action sequences, and more aggressively sexual quips than we're used to seeing from this era. There's also more darkness, more introspection, and more emotional complication than any other Bond movie. It'll be interesting to see what direction the series will take from here, and whether that direction will include an obviously exhausted Craig. But either way, I'm all in. 

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