Spy fans engage in throwing bricks from glass houses

Mission: Impossible-Fallout poster

Late next week, Mission: Impossible-Fallout reaches theaters. Some 007 fans aren’t happy, feeling the movie is, well, a ripoff.

Specifically, based on trailers, there are at least two segments of M:I-Fallout that seem “inspired” from previous Bond films:

–A villain appears to make an escape similar to the way Franz Sanchez did in Licence to Kill (1989).

–Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt makes a HALO (high altitude, low-opening) parachute jump, similar to how B.J. Worth did one doubling for Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).

The resemblances are undeniable. In fact, the current Hawaii Five-0 series did an “homage” to the Licence to Kill sequence at the start of its third season in 2012. So Mission: Impossible-Fallout doing it wouldn’t be the first time.

On the other hand, memories may be short. So the following should be noted.

–Live And Let Die (1973) when it was released was seen as inspired by “blaxploitation” movies of the early 1970s. While Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel featured a black villain, the movie utilized a few characters but dispensed with the book’s main plot.

–The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) was seen as 007’s answer to Kung Fu movies of the 1970s. Fleming’s 1965 novel of the same name was mostly set in Jamaica and didn’t have any Kung Fu.

–Moonraker (1979) was seen as 007’s answer to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fleming’s 1955 novel concerned a rocket but no space travel was involved.

–Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008) were said to be influenced by the Jason Bourne movies that were popular at the start of this century.

Javier Bardem’s Silva in a Joker-like moment in Skyfall

–Skyfall (2012) was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Director Sam Mendes even said so. Javier Bardem’s Silva definitely seemed influenced by Heath Ledger’s Joker.

If fans want to accuse another franchise of copying, it can be a matter of throwing bricks from a glass house.

Filmmakers do this sort of thing all the time. Directors channel their inner-Alfred Hitchcock (or Stanley Kubrick, or whoever) all the time.

Christopher Nolan, who helmed The Dark Knight, channeled 007 films in his Batman trilogy. Example: Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) giving Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) gadgets more than slightly resembled Bond-Q scenes from earlier 007 films.

Chances are, if you see a shot or sequence that reminds you of a famous movie sequence, chances are it’s not a coincidence.

The key difference is what does the director do with it? Does it work? Does it contribute to an entertaining film?

In the case of The Dark Knight, whatever you might think of it, Nolan delivered a memorable movie. With Skyfall, whatever was “borrowed” from Nolan, audiences found it an interesting take on a Bond film.

I can’t judge Mission: Impossible-Fallout. I haven’t seen it, other than the trailers.

The question is where M:I-Fallout writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and his star, Tom Cruise, have delivered a good movie. “Borrowing” happens all the time in film. We’ll see soon.

Skyfall’s 5th anniversary: Brief return to Bondmania

Skyfall’s poster image

Five years ago, the James Bond film franchise reached a level — unadjusted, adjusted for inflation, or whatever measure you’d like — not achieved since the height of Bondmania in the 1960s.

That was Skyfall, the 50th anniversary 007 film. It was the first (and so far only) Bond film to reach and exceed the global $1 billion box office level.

Even taking into account ticket price inflation, the 2012 007 adventure is No. 3 in the U.S. in terms of number of tickets purchased. On that basis (or “bums in seats” as the British would say), Skyfall is  No. 3 in the U.S. market for Bond films, behind only Thunderball and Goldfinger.

Bringing the 23rd James Bond film to cinemas, however, was a more difficult undertaking than usual.

Beginnings

Initially, Eon Productions hired three writers: The team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade as well as prestige film writer Peter Morgan. Morgan had been twice nominated for an Academy Award.

As it turned out, Morgan had deep doubts about the viability of the James Bond character, something he didn’t go public with until a 2010 interview. “I’m not sure it’s possible to do it,” Morgan said in 2010, after he had departed the project.

Still, Morgan’s main idea — the death of Judi Dench’s M — would be retained, even though the scribe received no screen credit.

But there was a bigger challenge. While the film was being developed, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the 007 franchise’s home studio, went into bankruptcy.

Delay

Eon Productions, on April 19, 2010, said Bond 23, as the yet-untitled film was known, had been indefinitely delayed.

MGM emerged from bankruptcy in December 2010. There was a cost, however. MGM, which had already shrunk from its glory days, was even smaller. It had no distribution operation of its own.

Skyfall teaser poster

Behind the scenes, things were happening. Eon was bringing director Sam Mendes on board. Initially, he was a “consultant” (for contract reasons). Eventually, Mendes got his preferred writer, John Logan, to rework the scripting that Purvis and Wade had performed.

Mendes also was granted his choice of composer, Thomas Newman. David Arnold’s streak of scoring five 007 films in a row was over. Roger Deakins, nominated for multiple Oscars and who had worked with Mendes before, came aboard as director of photography.

Revival

In January 2011, a short announcement was issued that Bond 23 was back on.

Mendes officially was now the director. Over the next several months, the casting of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw and Berenice Marlohe leaked out, with Eon not confirming anything until a November 2011 press conference.

Even then, some specific character details remained unconfirmed. For example, Eon wouldn’t confirm that Whishaw was the new Q until July 2012, well after the actor had completed his work on the film.

Publicity surge

Regardless, Skyfall benefited from much hype. Being the 50th anniversary Bond film got the movie additional publicity.

What’s more, London hosted the 2012 Summer Olympics. A major part of the opening ceremonies was a Danny Boyle-directed sequence featuring Daniel Craig’s Bond and Queen Elizabeth supposedly parachuting to the festivities.

Mendes, a director of the auteur school, also imported his style into the movie itself. Various segments were intended to provide dramatic moments to the principal actors.

Among them: A shaky Craig/Bond seeking redemption; a theatrical entrance for Javier Bardem’s villain; a dramatic reading of a poem for Judi Dench’s M, who is under fire by U.K. politicians.

Behind the curtain

Not everything holds up to scrutiny if you think much about it.

–Bond deserted the service, apparently upset about being shot by fellow operative Naomie Harris, while MI6 doesn’t seem to mind that at all. This was based loosely on the You Only Live Twice novel, where Bond went missing because he had amnesia. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Skyfall.

–Bond has the Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5 in storage, all gadgets still operational. Purvis and Wade originally wrote it as the left-hand drive DB5 that Bond won in Casino Royale in a high-stakes poker game. But Mendes insisted it be the Goldfinger car.

–M blathers on. She’s fully aware — because Rory Kinnear’s Tanner told her — that Bardem’s Silva has escaped.  But that’s secondary to the poem, which gives Silva and his thugs time to arrive and shoot up the place.

Unqualified success

None of this mattered much with movie audiences.

Every time the Spy Commander saw the movie at a theater, the audience reacted positively when the DB5 was revealed.

Some British fans rave to this day how wonderful the M poem scene is. Yet, when you break the sequence down, the doomed MI6 chief got numerous people killed by Bardem’s thugs by keeping them around instead of letting them disperse.

For all the trouble, for all the script issues, Skyfall was an unqualified hit. The movie’s release was the biggest Bond event since Thunderball’s release in 1965.

Oscar wins

Skyfall also broke a long Oscars losing streak for the 007 film series. The movie won two Oscars (for best song and sound editing). Both Newman and Deakins had been nominated but didn’t win.

Barbara Broccoli

Normally, a studio or a production company would want to strike while the iron was hot.

Not so in this case. Eon Productions boss Barbara Broccoli, in 2012 interviews, made clear she would not be hurried into the next 007 film adventure. There would be no quick attempt to follow up on Skyfall’s success.

At the same time, Mendes indicated he didn’t want to direct another Bond film. He relented and his hiring for the next Bond movie was announced in July 2013.

It’s possible a bit of hubris set in. You can imagine people saying something like this: “If this movie did $1 billion at the box office, the next 007 film will surely do $1.5 billion!” Or whatever. That’s human nature after all.

Instead, the next Bond outing would run into a new set of problems. Nevertheless, that should not distract from what Skyfall achieved (even for fans who didn’t enjoy the movie as much as others) five years ago.

More HMSS reviews of Skyfall, conclusion

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

Final Skyfall review originally written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

Robert Cotton, the HMSS senior of the Web site’s film section, decided to do something different when he wrote about Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film.

His piece, besides being a review, is also an essay about how and why the Bond film series has evolved. It’s also part memoir: the bookends of the story provide an anecdote of how people become fans in the first place.

To accommodate the story, we created a A SEPARATE PAGE for the essay. Some excerpts:

(M)y father and I had a shared experience with each new film. It became part of our lives no matter where we were on this earth, to mark that day, to plan somehow to rendezvous for the opening day of the next Bond. And that was worldwide. No matter what happened, where we were, we tried to move heaven and earth to be there for that single event. Sometimes, we failed due to time and place and the occurrences which pull people away uncontrollably, but no matter where we were, singularly or plural, we went to see the new Bond on opening day and at minimum discussed the whole thing, shared the experience as best we could even from a distance. This was our tradition. Enough backstory. On with the review.

Right off the bat, I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Skyfall. We will get to the usual review material as we go, but this is the smartest Bond film I can remember and while I still like Casino Royale more, mainly because of the sense of discovery, of a new agent learning the ropes as it were, Skyfall seems to me the most thoughtful of the series and that is where we are going to start.

(snip)

Yes, dear reader, instead of a barely serviceable plot with trademarked Nehru jacket and cat, we’ve been given revenge from the other side. Whereas last time Bond went after everyone on the planet to apparently burn off the death of Vesper, this time he has to stop an agent of his own caliber who is actually doing the same thing Bond was doing last time we saw him, seeking revenge as a rogue agent. It’s an interesting way to bring us back into the franchise storyline and I quite enjoyed it. We are given a villain who is actually an equal of Bond’s and who is out to destroy an organization (in this case MI6, in Bond’s case SPECTRE, QUANTUM, etc.) by toppling the head of that organization, which is what Bond does best. I quite liked the dichotomy and it led me far further into the story than I had expected.

(snip)

Silva’s motivation is Bond’s. The villain and the hero literally go through the same mental processes and that is where this film soars. Before Bond even got there, Silva was M’s favorite. She built him up and let him fall and now the same thing has happened to her new favorite. The difference is in the outcome. Bond returns to the service out of both a sense of duty and because he cannot exist in the outside world. Bond returns angry, filled with blame, but ready to do it again for Queen and country. Bond is searching for redemption. Silva, on the other hand turns those very same motivating emotions into a desire for vengeance and his return is in order to destroy his betrayer and the organization she heads. Ironically Silva’s return becomes the vehicle for Bond’s resurrection, a theme that plays out throughout the film.

(snip)
Try watching You Only Live Twice without keeping it within the context of the 1960s and you will see what I mean.
Writing styles change. If in the middle of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond had paused, had reflected on his mission, on what he was doing with his life, on his childhood, the audience would have left in droves. The same applies today if Craig’s Bond walked into a nightclub and started spouting Roger Moore lines while trying to keep his eyebrow cocked. The times have changed. I will always give the series immense credit for keeping up with the world around it.

To read the entire essay, CLICK HERE.

More HMSS reviews of Skyfall Part IV

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image


Fourth in a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Phil Gerrard

When it comes to Bond movies, tradition is treacherous. It’s why we’ve seen You Only Live Twice four times (renamed The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and Tomorrow Never Dies), Goldfinger twice (the execrable ‘A View to a Kill’) and why anniversaries and landmarks have been celebrated with greatest-hits exercises like Spy Who Loved Me and Die Another Day. So how best to mark the series’ 50th anniversary?

With Skyfall, EON’s answer is to nod respectfully to the past without it becoming dead weight. Most importantly they’ve borne in mind the lesson of ‘Casino Royale’, the first film of the Daniel Craig era, and of Ian Fleming’s novels, that one of the most interesting things that can be done with a recurring character is to find new things to do with (and to) him.

While there’s little in Skyfall’s narrative which owes much to Fleming, there’s everything in the atmosphere, in particular the all-but-unfilmed You Only Live Twice. There are the requisite bangs, crashes, betrayals, seductions, and air-punching moments of pure Bond, but there’s also time to reflect, to allow the narrative to breathe and scenes to play proper length. After the frantic Quantum of Solace, that’s a welcome reminder that relentlessness and forward motion are two very different things.

For some of us, Craig nailed what Fleming always intended during the opening shots of Casino Royale, but for any doubters (rather than haters) left, Skyfall should confirm that he’s the best Bond since Sean Connery. One more film as strong as this might crown him the best 007. His Bond is newly veteran and this suits Craig’s saturnine presence perfectly.

For arguably the first time, EON allow its lead actor free rein to explore Bond’s darker, more self-destructive side. This is a Bond pitched somewhere between the opening chapters of Fleming’s Thunderball and You Only Live Twice novels, rendered unfit for duty by a combination of trauma and inactivity.

Bond’s return from the wilderness and gradual recovery are paced perfectly within the context of the film, and crucially they restore the gut physicality so sadly lacking in the previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace. As in Casino Royale, the derring-do feels like it has a real potential cost: it hurts in a properly Flemingesque manner and again raises the stakes for a series which, on occasion, has been too keen to allow the audience to relax knowing that everything will work out OK.

One thing the Craig movies have lacked so far is a Bond villain of the first rank. Mads Mikkelsen’s Le Chiffre in Casino Royale was a fine creation, but like Fleming’s original he lacked a little something by virtue of the fact that the character is a desperate and cornered man with a bigger threat lurking in the shadows behind him. Quantum of Solace threw away a valuable actor, Mathieu Amalric, on a painfully underdeveloped role.

In Javier Bardem’s Silva, the Craig era has produced its first unqualified classic bad guy. A sexually omnivorous, capricious, and pitiful figure with a nice line in exasperated sighs, he’s motivated not by money or ideology but be the loss of any moral compass: he’s a borderline nihilist and all the more dangerous and unpredictable for it. Above all, Bardem’s work is both suitably big and subtly nuanced. He has fun with his villainy (as a Bond villain should) without ever tipping into the kind of pantomime performance which drains a movie of threat.

As the object of his vendetta, Judi Dench is given one of her too-rare opportunities to do something with the character of M. Often in previous films her role extended no further than barking orders and exhibiting clucking, motherly concern.

Skyfall expands on some of the themes established in Casino Royale, most notably the necessity for M to make hard, even harsh, decisions. Skyfall brings these consequences home with a vengeance. M is beset not only by enemies but by supposed allies, and Dench makes full use of the opportunities afforded her: M has never seemed so exposed and vulnerable, nor at times quite so defiant. Dench plays the difficult transitions with aplomb, yet without ever doing the obvious and begging the audience’s pity.

Some early reviews have stressed this is M’s movie, but it isn’t just that. All of the principal characters claim sections of the film as their own, and the movie isall the richer for it. Silva is afforded not one but two show-stopping monologues, one playfully sadistic and the other wracked; the introductory scene for Ben Whishaw’s prissily youthful Q has an extra layer of debate below the smart by-play; Albert Finney, whose screen career exceeds the lifespan even of the Bond films, makes what should have been a cameo both hilarious and poignant; and the excellent Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner registers far more than such an apparently functionary role should.

Even a character like Gareth Mallory, who could have been the standard bureaucratic-obstacle-turned-ally figure we’ve seen so often before, is given a character arc worth having. It’s a credit to the current rude health of the Bond franchise that an actor of Ralph Fiennes’ talent could be enticed to take a role which on the face of it wouldn’t necessarily require a marquee name.

The only actors whose characters don’t feel quite as rounded as they should be are Naomie Harris’s Eve, whose character is kept underdeveloped (I believe) for a specific reason, and Berenice Marlohe, whose affectingly neurotic Severine has, I suspect, ended up being short-changed by the need to keep the film down to a manageable length.

The script, by regulars Neil Purvis and Robert Wade and Bond newcomer John Logan, largely foregrounds character development and themes and leaves the plot quietly to take care of itself. For the most part this works. There are a few slightly too-neat coincidences and points glided over, but it’s hard to think of an action movie, let alone a Bond movie, which avoids these problems with complete success.

More problematic is the deliberate attempt to reintroduce humour to the series. The one-liners which the series had largely abandoned are back. It’s a mixed blessing. Craig handles them supremely well — he’s naturally deadpan and even manages a surprisingly effective bit of Roger-Moore-style physical comedy at one moment. Still, one wishes more work had been put into the gags which don’t quite hit the spot and the rest left aside. Above all, it bespeaks a surprising lack of confidence on EON’s part. The humour was already within the script (for example in the Q scenes). It shouldn’t need mildly crass punchlines to point it up.

These are minor concerns when balanced against the strength of the piece as a whole and the fact that the film’s human drama is so well shaded – something which happens all too rarely in the race to the next explosion or blatant appeal to sentiment which characterises so much modern action movie scripting.

Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Sam Mendes was to direct Skyfall, but he proves yet again that the Bond films do themselves nothing but good by hiring A-list talent. He’s a smart enough director to know when to trust his source material, get out-of-the-way, and allow craft to prevail over tricksiness.

Where Mendes does demonstrate an auteur’s eye, it works in the film’s favour. Having shown us one brutal hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Ola Rapace’s Patrice, he understands that their next encounter has to be something quite other, and the result, silhouetted against an ever-changing neon background, is not just a highlight of the movie but of the series to date. Where ‘Quantum of Solace’ staged one frenetic action sequence after another without giving a great deal of thought to contrast, Skyfall breaks down into acts and discrete sections so perfectly that one can imagine Fleming’s chapter headings as the film progresses.

It’s also the best-looking Bond film in years, particularly when seen in IMAX, thanks largely to Roger Deakins’ cinematography. There’s an immersiveness and depth to the visuals, most in-your-face in the neon jungle of Shanghai, most subtle in the muted tones of the Highlands climax, and a subtle audacity to some of the shots which doesn’t become apparent until one thinks about them later: no straining for effect here, just the kind of quiet visual intelligence which gives a film’s imagery a resonance far longer-lived than that of many action movies. Meanwhile, the hugely welcome return of Daniel Kleinman after MK12’s mundanely generic titles for ‘Quantum of Solace’ makes one wish that imaginative and thematically rich opening sequences weren’t all but a dead art.

One letdown is Thomas Newman’s score. While efficient and by no means poor, it’s very wanting when it comes to the kinds of melodies and counter-melodies at which John Barry was so adept. Where Barry could conjure up depths of mood which the movies frankly sometimes didn’t deserve (You Only Live Twice is a better movie to hear than to watch), Newman’s work seems often too timid.

Of Craig’s three Bond films to date, where does this one rank? It’s very hard to call. Casino Royale certainly scores higher as far as its construction is concerned: it’s far more watertight than Skyfall, which has its fair share of shortcuts and plot holes. Then again, so did many of Fleming’s novels, and it was the famous “Fleming sweep: which propelled the reader past these.

The things that make Skyfall are its emotional heft, its emphasis on character, and its attempts to create a film which is fine in its own right as well as being an excellent addition to the canon. Casino Royale was a welcome step forward for a series which from time to time (most notably during the 1970s and 1990s) seemed to confuse tradition with stasis, and Skyfall continues and expands upon that approach, while at the same time reintroducing and reinventing elements of the past. To have brought that off so successfully is a hell of an achievement by any standards.

There was a sound enough reason for the repetition within some of the Bond films of the 1960s and 1970s, when once they left the cinema they were gone apparently for good. By the time of the Pierce Brosnan movies, it was starting to feel like a comfortable but not especially exciting option. Literal recreations of past movies can be enjoyable but often leave one wondering what the point was (see, for example, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Good German’).

Now that the great early Bond films such as From Russia with Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service are instantly available, mere imitation seems increasingly futile. With Casino Royale and ‘Skyfall’ EON has embarked on a new phase, mining Fleming for what hasn’t been done yet, paying respect to the past without feeling bound to recreate it, and never mistaking the letter for the spirit.

One hopes that Fleming would have both recognised and approved. GRADE: A.

(C) 2013, Phil Gerrard

More HMSS reviews of Skyfall Part III

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

Third in a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant

By Ed Werner

Be careful in what you wish for.

Back in the dark ages of Bond in the seventies, HMSS co-founder Paul Baack and I hoped for and wondered what a truly character driven Bond film would be like. We really wanted the producers to get into Bond’s history, background, feelings and what made him tick. It only took 23 films for that to happen.

Now that it’s been done, I hope they don’t do it again anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong, I loved delving into more of his personal life, but I think maybe there was just a little too much emotional trauma going on here for a Bond movie. I felt spent after watching it, something in this series that has never happened to me before.

I think many people go to a Bond film for the escapism, to get lost for two hours and come away entertained. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Skyfall, I tried to stay off the grid and under the radar for this one. I wanted to go into it with no preconceived notions — but I wasn’t ready for this.

This film is a grand experiment on the part of producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and I applaud the risks they took in bringing this very personal side of the character to us. However, this is also a Bond film that’s very different from all that has come before and will be debated by Bond aficionados for many years to come. Is this film the official end of the “reboot” and now will 007 go back to saving the world from Armageddon on a regular basis? One can only wait and see.

Some random thoughts:

The film itself is beautifully photographed, I haven’t seen this kind of consistently beautiful camera work in a Bond film since You Only Live Twice. The Shanghai scenes were breathtaking, from the interior shots in the building under construction where we see Bond take out a sniper, to the casino, the camera angles and the color palette are incredible. In the later part of the film, Scotland has rarely looked more grand and foreboding. The interiors elsewhere in the film were all beautifully polished wood as opposed to the Ken Adam type brushed stainless steel that has gotten a little long in the tooth. Just take a look at M’s office near the end of the movie and compare it to the metal and glass that had been the norm since Brosnan took over the helm back in ’95.

The acting was mostly first-rate this time around. Judi Dench shows once again why she is a treasure in British cinema. This time around, M’s and Bond’s relationship is much deeper than has ever been explored before and a lesser actor would have made the climax much less memorable.

The new young Q works well with this Bond, although Desmond Llewelyn’s shoes are almost impossible to fill. Still, when you think how important technology is in almost all facets of life these days, business as well as intelligence, and who is the most well versed in this field, it makes sense that Q is the age he is.

The introduction of Eve, and who she actually is, totally broadsided me. I never saw that coming. At first, Naomie Harris reminded me of maybe a more capable Rosie Carver from Live and Let Die. However, after her first few moments of screen time, I realized that this actress and character were a force to be reckoned and much more important than Rosie. At last, we have finally been shown the genesis of one of Bond’s most memorable relationships!

Javier Bardem, who plays the baddun, Silva, reminds one of the best villains of the earlier Bond films. No superhuman strength, no webs growing between the fingers, not wimpy. Just very evil, a little off his rocker and hell-bent for revenge — but not against Bond. He never goes off on a raging rant, just keeps his cool and intelligently reeks havoc. He has no desire to go all Blofeld on us with visions of world domination and the character works marvelously because of it as well as Bardem’s sublime acting.

Daniel Craig has given us a new critical standard for the character of Bond, going to places none of the other Bond actors has had the opportunity to explore. He may not exactly look, speak, dress or move like the James Bond some of us have in the back of our minds. But he gives a very credible read to the character and is probably the most important choice of actor to play the part since the 1960s.

The only character that I thought was mis-cast and poorly written, was that of Severine, the “sacrificial lamb” of the movie. Although the more I think about it, there is one much more important character that could be put into that category. But you will need see the movie to make that determination yourself. Berenice Marlohe who plays Severine, doesn’t really lend herself to sympathy because you don’t really care for or about her.

The action sequences were well thought out, well photographed and easy to follow. You could actually keep track of what was happening and who was doing what to whom. Totally unlike the action fiasco in Quantum of Solace with its hyper editing and shaky cam. You’d have thought that the powers that be would have learned from the CGI debacle in the second half of Die Another Day that the flavor of the month in cinematography doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to the world of Bond. Thankfully, the producers have gone on record saying that a 3-D Bond is definitely not in our future.

The story itself is something I think Fleming could have dreamed up had he lived longer and written a few more Bond novels. It’s really a timeless story that could have felt just at home in the ’60s as it does some 50 years later. The four-year hiatus definitely benefited the story. It’s well thought out. The pacing is right on. Let’s hope that EON can continue to pull off this kind of film..

This may not be the absolute best Bond film released to date, but it is one of the most important.

(C) 2013 Ed Werner

More HMSS reviews of Skyfall (Part II)

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image

Second of a series of Skyfall reviews written for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Xander Johnson

James Bond has done battle with adversaries with varying goals and delusions of grandeur. He has also conducted these battles in many exotic and unfamiliar environments. Despite fans following Bond’s every move for 23 films during his 50-year odyssey into cinema history, Bond has never been shown outside of a two-dimensional light. He’s a soldier for the Empire. That is all that they ever needed to know.

It’s this little detail that sets Sam Mendes’ Skyfall apart from the rest of the Bond franchise.

Skyfall brings the audience up close and intimate with Bond (Daniel Craig) in a way that has never been seen before. M (Judi Dench) makes a poor judgment during a field mission in which Bond and fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) must retrieve a file that contains all of the names of active field agents working for MI6. The result is Bond being taken down by a bullet, plummeting off of a moving train. Bond is declared dead, his assets seized and sold. He enjoys his “death” in a tropical landscape, and as he sits with a young woman, dressed down from his usual Tom Ford suits, Bond reveals a vulnerability that has never been seen before.

Back in Britain, M is the target of a review stemming from her poor judgment. She then becomes the target of a hacker who warns her about the deaths of many to come, and closes with the message, “Think on your sins.” Unfortunately, this hacker makes good on the promise. The targets are the agents whose names were on the file that Bond was sent to retrieve. These deaths, as well as MI6 being compromised, spread fear and panic throughout the British government, and it is all on M’s shoulders.

During his “death” Bond sees a news report detailing the current crisis in Britain. He shows his loyalty by wasting no time in returning without second thoughts. He meets with M in her home and he is told that he must retake the tests to be qualified for active field duty since he has been written off as deceased.

As he progresses through his mission, Bond travels to Shanghai, where he battles his target in a fight scene takes place that it is reminiscent of 007’s fight with Red Grant in From Russia With Love. Bond later finds himself face to face with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant and psychotic former agent who harbors a clear grudge against M. As Silva’s path of destruction and terror continues, he accomplishes something no other Bond villain has before: he takes the fight to Bond’s doorstep in a mental and personal way. The motif of the fight being brought to Bond comes full circle during the film’s climax, which takes place in the only place that this ordeal could ever possibly end: Bond’s childhood home.

After a breathtaking opening credit sequence as well as the dark and somber tones of Adele’s title song, it is apparent that Bond is no longer in his prime of life. Age renders him weary and rusty, and his experiences have broken him down into a seasoned but morose figure. Even his physical appearance is a product of his aging: bags under his eyes, with the visage of a tormented war veteran.

When he returns to MI6, Bond finds himself out of his element and surrounded by young upstarts, a role reversal from previous Bond films where Bond is shown as the cocksure young man. This relationship is best conveyed with Bond’s interactions with his new Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), who was previously the old coot fending off the young whippersnapper Bond. With Craig and Whishaw, it’s the other way around, with Bond being the aged and seasoned death dealer, and Q as the up-and-comer whose youth makes him perhaps a little too sure of himself. Q even makes the argument that he could do more damage with his laptop before his first cup of tea than Bond could do in a year on the field.

Bond’s age takes center stage once again when he retakes his field aptitude tests. He struggles with a simple physical exercise and performs so poorly on his marksmanship test that calling it failure would be an act of charity. But Bond’s psychological examination truly reveals his state of mind. A psychologist begins a word association exercise that causes Bond to draw connections to either his job or lack of personal life, as when he writes off a word like murder as “employment.” But the word Skyfall so disturbs Bond that he ends the evaluation abruptly.

Despite failing the tests, M declares Bond fit for duty. But he finds himself against a formidable enemy, and once again, role reversals come into play; Silva is well-dressed, clean-cut, and still a very capable death dealer, while Bond is showing no signs of improvement from his earlier handicaps, a fact which Silva relates to Bond as he gives him his true results of his field aptitude test. Only an intervention from Q’s tracking device (which Bond humorously calls a radio) saves him from Silva.

After a direct attack on MI6, Bond’s abilities show improvement through sheer perseverance and determination, as he thwarts Silva’s attempts to assassinate M. Knowing full well that M is in danger, Bond takes her to the only place he knows she will be safe, and where they will have a home field advantage against Silva: Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall.

It’s there where Bond makes a full recovery and he again becomes the agent he was back in his prime, and shows yet another role reversal. Bond almost single-handedly dispatches all of Silva’s entourage through sheer cunning and resourcefulness. Silva falls apart from his injuries sustained throughout the course of the final battle. The battle with Silva ends with Bond killing him by throwing a knife into his back, but Bond is still unable to save M from her demise from an injury she sustained very early in the fight.

M is given a proper burial, and is replaced by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who continues to use Bond as an active field agent and immediately gives him his next assignment.

Skyfall proves itself to be not just another action-packed, fun-loving Bond film. Instead, it’s the story of Bond’s fall from grace and rise from the ashes. He starts at his lowest point and must work his way up to being the secret agent the audience knows and loves. The audience may ask questions such as “is Bond a character that really needs a backstory?”, but when a story such as Skyfall is delivered, it’s a treat to see the who, what, where, why and how behind the iconic Bond, James Bond.

(C) 2013 Xander Johnson

More (belated) HMSS reviews of Skyfall part I

Skyfall's poster image

Skyfall’s poster image


First in a series of reviews intended for a never-published issue of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant.

By Peredur Glyn Davies

Skyfall is the worst Bond film in a long time.

The standard pattern of the Bond film plots, characters and narrative arcs that have sustained Eon’s 007 franchise for 50 years has been largely eschewed by director Sam Mendes and scriptwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, in favour of a film that goes places and does things that anyone familiar with classic Bond films will find unusual and even alien.

Just look at it. The gunbarrel sequence is in the wrong place. Bond is actively refused an exploding gadget by Q –and this Q is barely out of short trousers. The main Bond girl is a septuagenarian. The final act, which should involve Bond infiltrating the villain’s lair, is the exact opposite of that.

The climactic sequence takes place, not in a tropical locale, but in a wintery Scotland (even the funeral sequence in The World is not Enough was more glitzy). James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Skyfall is, rather than the superhuman quipmeister audiences are accustomed to, a frail, dejected shell of his former cinematic self, a man who can hardly do pull-ups and misses a stationary paper target five yards away. For goodness’ sake, he can’t even be bothered to shave.

What kind of a Bond film is that?

I could go on — and will. Scarcely recognisable, here, are the stock characters we are all familiar with: the expository boss, the comic relief gadget-master, the doomed beauty with a cute name, the burly henchman with no dialogue, the main villain who wants to blow up the world (and it doesn’t really matter why he does).

All right, Mendes has made some effort to include something close to them, but he too often goes wide of the mark and, instead of the two-dimensional characters that we are used to in a Bond film, characters who fulfil a role and help propel the film to its classic denouement with Bond and Girl 3 aboard a stranded boat in the middle of the sea (it is usually a stranded boat in the middle of the sea), Mendes and the writers give us a bevy of characters who actually develop and change over the course of the film. Our opinion of them changes and matures during the course of our time with them, and they end up as characters we actually care about.

What kind of a Bond film is that?

Take Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). He is surely meant to be the Admiral Godfrey character — the stuffy bureaucrat who stands in Bond’s way and who will get his red-faced comeuppance when Bond proves he can save the day just fine without any help from Whitehall, thank you very much. But Mallory, in relatively little screen time, subverts our expectations, makes us realise that he is not just some suit but a savvy war veteran with a compassionate heart and, I’d warrant, damnably clear grey eyes. When he takes his seat behind the mahogany desk at the end, it actually makes sense—we understand why he is there.

Or look at Severine (Berenice Marlohe). The sacrificial lamb character — Jill from Goldfinger, Aki from You Only Live Twice, Plenty from Diamonds Are Forever, Solange from Casino Royale — who is supposed to turn up, shag Bond, and pay the piper so that we the audience know how very naughty the villain is, that he would engineer the death of even his beautiful concubine if she stood between him and his villainous scheme.

But Severine, in her brief scenes, reflects an inner torment and depth of character that makes us understand why she behaves the way she does. Of course, Severine meets the end that her type always do, and perhaps it was not warranted here, given Bond’s promise to her to save her—but remember that our man Bond is a cold bastard and that what he does is get the job done, regardless of the price.

And then there’s good old Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whom we first meet, not behind her desk á la Maxwell, Bliss or (Samantha) Bond, but out in the field being efficient and lethal, wielding guns and driving cars as if women can somehow be Bond’s equal in this universe.

They even call her Eve to pull the wool most cruelly over the audience’s eyes. When she finally takes her expected place in our little jigsaw in the final scene, I suppose we do now know why she’s there, why she prefers to work behind the scenes rather than in front of them, and why she and Bond have the flirtatious relationship that we know they do. By the final scene, all our players are in their appropriate positions, the green light above the oak door flickers on and we know we are back in familiar 007 territory. But it takes a hell of a time to get there.

And what kind of a Bond film is that?

As noted, M’s Judi Dench screen time is greatly increased in Skyfall over previous iterations (even more so than in The World is not Enough), so that her role becomes more than just the exposition that viewers expect. She certainly holds the leading female role over Eve or Severine. So instead of Bond and his lady sharing body warmth in a remote chalet in front of a roaring fire, we find Bond and M skulking in a dusty Scottish manor with the threat of doom hanging over their heads. There is little romance in this film.

What’s all that about, Mendes? Bond is shown to respect and perhaps even (after a fashion) love his boss, and we are shown how this urge to protect her leads him to risk everything in an almost hopeless gambit of luring his enemy to him.

Ah yes, the enemy. Silva (Javier Bardem) is certainly camp enough for a classic Bond villain, but again he almost ruins the Bondness of the film by making us sympathise with his point of view.

Silva is indeed Bond from a parallel universe, a Bond that might have been, an agent gone wrong through the fault of others. His deformity — he has been hideously scarred by hydrogen cyanide which he administered himself — makes him appropriately vile for the rogue’s gallery, but rather than monopolising on this deformity, Mendes and the writers don’t use it as the sole character prop for the villain, which is what one might often expect.

Instead, we are allowed to focus on what makes this man tick, and are given the chance to consider why he would do the things he does. Mr. Silva is truly a criminal genius. He almost makes succeeds in making Bond look foolish: he is ahead of him almost throughout the film, revealing that Bond too can fail. Do we want a James Bond who can fail? Bond in Skyfall’s latter half is frantic, desperately trying to stop a dozen threats happening at once, and the coolness and calmness that we expect of the world’s greatest secret agent is hardly there. He even needs help from Mallory and Moneypenny in shooting baddies during an attempt on M’s life!

A fleshed-out villain? A genuine relationship between 007 and M? A Bond whom we think might actually not succeed this time?

What kind of a Bond film is this? It is a long time since we have seen a James Bond film that subverts the expectations of what one presumes a James Bond film should be. Really, only in a film like From Russia with Love do we see a movie where Mr. Bond can be his own character and where we cannot predict where the next scene or sequence will take us. Of course, that film was made before the template was truly set out. That 1963 film was made before the expectations of what makes a Bond film were seared onto an international consciousness, before the scriptwriters felt shackled by convention.

Hundreds of wannabe 007s have splayed over cinema screens since Bob Simmons (doubling for Sean Connery’s Bond) first turned and fired into a bleeding gunbarrel in 1962. Some of the wannabes even outbonded Bond, and perhaps, in doing so, the template that Eon constructed has become stale, the expectations of audiences have been being met rather than shaken and stirred, the endless repetitions satisfactory only in a clinical, functional way.

Perhaps it really was time to take Bond out of Bond, and make, not a Bond film, but a film with James Bond in it. Start at the core, trim the excess.

Ian Fleming gave the world a character and the world played around with it. Strip away the expensive suits, the ludicrous cocktails, the funny gadgets and the wisecracks, and you can then start afresh. You can start from the beginning with James Bond and remake his world.

“Into the past,” Bond says to M, and, as they leave behind them the trappings of the 21st Century world and head north for the misty fells of Bond’s homeland. So too the filmmakers can leave behind the gilt-edged excesses of 50 years and wipe the slate clean. Build a new template by challenging the old one. Maybe if you did that you would end up with a film like Skyfall.

So, yes, I would call Skyfall the worst of all the Bond films.

But, on the other hand, would I call it the best film in the canon?

Yes, I would. With pleasure. GRADE: A+

(C) 2013, Peredur Glyn Davies