Skyfall

Just for a change, I thought I’d take a look at the new Bond film. Variety, yeah? That’s why I’m known as the Steven Soderbergh of the film blogosphere.

Skyfall (2012)

Whilst I think the hate for Quantum of Solace has been way overblown, I think everyone agrees it was a bit of a misfire and certainly not a worthy sequel to Casino Royale. As I’m sure you’re very much aware after the complete media bombardment of all things 007, it’s the 50th anniversary of Bond and the last thing they need is a right turkey stinking up multiplexes when they’re trying to fence fragrances. Thankfully, Skyfall is a return to form. It’s bloody brilliant and I will attempt to justify my position on it using my “big boy” words.

“There’s some men coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first.”

When a hard drive containing all the names of undercover NATO agents is stolen, M (Judi Dench) and MI6 comes under fire for their negligence, mostly led by the newly appointed chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). All clues lead back to Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) a devious master hacker who has a personal score to settle with M. M brings in Bond (Daniel Craig), who’s not exactly in the best shape following a very near-death experience. Bond must stop Silva from releasing the names before more agents are compromised. Along the way, he gets help from the glamourous but fragile Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), rookie field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the new Q (Ben Whishaw). The plot is solid. This is exactly what Quantum of Solace was lacking, a simple story with a clear goal. Skyfall is probably the most personal Bond story since Licence to Kill, or even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. With the Craig films they actually seem to be more about creating a three-dimensional hero rather than a blank slate for audience projection purposes. Thank Christ too. For the first time in a Bond film, Skyfall is as much about M as it is Bond which is a bold move that totally pays off. Skyfall actually takes it time in building characters, even the incidental and secondary characters have enough room to breathe and evolve, as exemplified by Fiennes’ Mallory.

Daniel Craig is really comfortable as Bond now. As I said before, one of the only positives about QoS was the fact that Craig hit his stride as 007 amongst all those plot things that didn’t make sense. That’s not to say he phones it in here, after his brush with death, Bond is a broken, past-it agent. He spends a good part of the film unfit and bestubbled. Skyfall contains some proper demons, both internal and external for Bond to battle and Craig does an amazing job. Fuck the critics, he is the best Bond. Judi Dench gets some more to deal with than she has before and reminds us why she’s the national treasure she is. She gives her best performance yet as M and reinforces the stroke of genius it was to cast her all those years ago in GoldenEye. In a lesser film, she’d be the best thing in it, but Skyfall has the scene-stealing Silva played with glee by Javier Bardem. People who have seen the Coens’ No Country For Old Men will know how villainous Bardem can be. He’s utterly charismatic. He reminded me a lot of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. Much like the Joker, he’s amusing but undeniably scary at the same time. I don’t want to give too much away about him, but suffice to say he’s one of the best Bond baddies ever. It’s an incredible performance. Bérénice Marlohe gives a great turn as Sévérine and leaves a lasting impression with the limited screentime she has. 28 Days Later‘s Naomie Harris also does well as Eve, who hopefully does become the recurring character the film sets her up as. Also, hooray for Ben Whishaw as the new Q and the bearded lovely that is Albert Finney.

Skyfall has some amazing sequences. The rollicking pre-credits sequence which evolves from a car chase to a bike chase to a digger bit to a fight on top of a speeding train is awesome and classic Bond. The title sequence and song are also fantastic. Three cheers for Daniel Kleinman and Adele. There’s some seriously entertaining stuff set in subterranean London, a great and tense encounter in Shanghai, it’s just all good. It’s all building to the incredible third act. It’s a grim, stripped-down almost gothic finale that works unbelievably well. It’s quite similar to Straw Dogs but with way more things going bang. I saw the film at the Cardiff IMAX which added a whole new level. Christ, I felt some of those explosions in my sternum. The film is amazingly shot as well with Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins getting the very best out of the exotic locations. Shanghai in particular has never looked so stunning.

Much has been made of the product placement, but I have to say I didn’t really notice it. There was outcry at the notion of Bond drinking a Heineken, but it’s in a very low-key way. It hasn’t replaced the iconic vodka martini. The sparse tuts I heard in the screening when Bond took a swig of the bottled horse piss were soon girlish squees when the Aston Martin DB5 turned up. Double standards, innit. Perhaps in another 50 years’ time audiences will be cheering when 007 downloads a Heineken X5 to his throatdrive. Also, I don’t really have a problem with product placement, as long as the camera doesn’t linger on something for too long or there are lines of dialogue drawing attention to a specific product. Plus, whatever pays the bills. All that sponsorship paid for about a third of the total budget of $150-200 million.

There were only a few little things that bugged me. There are some needless CGI Komodo Dragons at one point which are at real odds with the realistic tone of the film. Also, I don’t think Craig is cut out for the one-liners. There are a few here that just feel crowbarred in. I understand the producers want to get back to classic Bond and a bit of humour is part of that. The film is genuinely funny at times but none of the laughs came from the forced quips. Dalton also had the same problem and was hampered with them in The Living Daylights. Please drop these in future, people. Also, why did the film end and not start with the gunbarrel again? Bond 24 better not do this too.

“She sent you after me, knowing you’re not ready, knowing you would likely die. Mommy was very bad.” 

There are some surprises in Skyfall that I just don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say the stage is now set for future Bond adventures. As Bond himself says in the film, it’s a “brave new world” and I cannot wait to see where they go from here.

Quantum of Solace

This is it. After 3 weeks or so, I’m done with the 22. I’ll concern myself with Skyfall when the time comes (9 days and counting!) but for now, I’m going to lie down in a quiet darkened room and think about how many precious minutes of my life I’ve wasted on this self-flagellation.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

After the sudden shift into awesome that was Casino Royale, I had no idea what they were going to do next. Was Royale just a one-off to get audiences used to Craig and the follow-up would take us back to a world of campy one-liners and invisible jetpacks? Thankfully, this turned out to not be the case. Quantum of Solace holds the distinction of being the only direct sequel in Bond history. Until now, it had been a series of self-contained adventures, yet here is QoS picking up the action about an hour after  Bond shot Mr. White in the leg in Casino Royale. It’s an interesting idea at least. Whilst I dodged spoilers in my previous review, I want to talk specifics in this one, which will probably spoil the events of Casino Royale too. Just a heads-up.

“I think you’re so blinded by inconsolable rage that you don’t care who you hurt. When you can’t tell your friends from your enemies, it’s time to go.”

Still understandably pissed off by the death of Vesper, James Bond (Daniel Craig) has vengeance in mind against the shady group behind all of that, a massive organisation MI6 know nothing about called “Quantum”. He soon suspects environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) of being in league with them, whilst he controls Bolivia’s water supply. Bond also meets Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who also has plans of a vengeful nature. I’m not quite sure what went wrong here, but the plot is weak as hell. QoS was written around the time of the 2007-8 Writers’ Strike and it’s evident here. It all strikes me as unfocused. Some long dialogue scenes lead nowhere and there’s little point in some scenes at all. This is really noticeable when I came across what should be emotional gut punches and I found myself to be uninvolved. I’m not a psychopath, at these moments I did have a “oh, that’s sad” kinda thought process, but it didn’t register on an emotional level at all. Often I was as cold and compassionless as a German holiday rep.

 Craig is the one thing that’s holding it all together. Much like Dalton, he’s hit his Bond stride after two films. He’s consistently good. Olga Kurylenko isn’t really a Bond girl as such, she just happens to tag along with Bond to get to Greene. She’s quite similar to For Your Eyes Only‘s Melina Havelock, except a better actress than Carole Bouquet. Mathieu Amalric is nice and reptilian as Greene, but the lack of an actual character lets the man down. Gemma Arterton makes a brief but effective appearance as Agent Fields (she refuses to give her first name, but the punchline is in the credits) and Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini) from Casino Royale is back, apparently having proven to be innocent between the two films. Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter is about for a bit and it’s a shame he doesn’t feature for long. Also Judi Dench is awesome.

The pre-credits car chase sequence is great in theory, but the editing is way too frenetic and choppy to really tell what’s going on. The frustrating thing is I know there are some awesome stunts happening, I just can’t appreciate them because of the spasmodic way it has been shot. The last thing you want to do is exhaust your audience before the film’s even started. I had to really fight to tell what was going on. It settles down and has a nice pay off. I sort of like Jack White and Alicia Keys’ “Another Way to Die”, but it’s really ill-fitting as a Bond theme. It just seems off. This isn’t helped in any way by MK12’s underwhelming title sequence. Director Marc Forster brought in his own team to handle the graphics and they’re one of the worst things about the film. The titles coupled with the song remind me of a film school project rather than a legitimate Bond film opening. This is what GoldenEye‘s titles could have been after Maurice Binder died if Daniel Kleinman hadn’t stepped up. So glad the guy’s back for Skyfall. MK12 and Forster are also responsible for the ridiculous styled location titles. They’re really distracting and childish.

With no real plot to speak of, the responsibility of actually entertaining the audience falls to the action. With the exception of the above poorly-shot car sequence, it’s really good. There’s a fantastic rooftop chase that ends in a really unique and cool Rube Goldberg type sequence with Bond and a suspect battling in and around some scaffolding. There’s a decent plane set-piece which works well and the finale is just as stylish and explosive as one would expect from a Bond film. Neat little character moments, whilst fleeting, can still be found. Bond is still like a wrecking ball, tending to kill people before he has a chance to question them and racking up an impressive bodycount. There’s a nice little bit where M inquires about a suspect and Bond quickly replies “Slate was a dead end.”. After being relayed the information, M incredulously says “Damn it. He killed him!”. Camille has a nice character arc which I’m sure would have been a lot better if it wasn’t lost in all the fuckingmegahuge explosions. The Vesper story arc is also satisfactorily concluded, with the final scene being all kinds of kick-ass. By the end, Bond has learned a lesson he won’t forget in a hurry. The image of the Algerian love knot in the snow is a great one. I also like the fact Bond does some actual spying in this one, with him gatecrashing a Quantum meeting at a performance of Tosca. It’s a really cool scene. I also love the fact we get a proper Craig gunbarrel, albeit at the end.

“It’d be a pretty cold bastard who didn’t want revenge for the death of someone he loved.”

Quantum of Solace isn’t terrible, but it isn’t very good either. It’s very average which is a shame after all the promises Casino Royale made. And no, I’m still not sure what “Quantum of Solace” actually means. I assume it’s something to do with how Bond feels at the end of all this, but I’m just grasping at straws. Insane theories to the usual address please. Despite this film’s failings, I still appreciate the direction they’re taking Bond in and I hope Skyfall brings us back on track.

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to Adam and Joe’s proposed Quantum of Solace theme songs, both of which are great. See here and here.

Casino Royale

Gritty reboot time. Thank God too, because Die Another Day was absolute torture.

Casino Royale (2006)

The Bond series has had its fair share of reboots. Technically, each time a new 007 actor is brought in, it’s a reboot- at least from a tonal point of view. The franchise has been shaped and reshaped since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service way back in ’69. This is certainly the most significant one though. We’ve only known Bond as a full-fledged secret agent. Taking him back to his first assignment and showing him making mistakes and learning on the job was a gamble. Especially when the words “reboot” and “prequel” will get your mouth washed out with soap in any form of polite company. There was a huge furore over the casting of Daniel Craig, most of which seemed to be the fact he came across as a bit quiet at the press conference, he had the fucking gall to have blonde hair and GET THIS- he wasn’t even going to dye it! Clearly he was ill-suited for the role. I’d both love and hate to see what happened if they tried to cast someone of a different ethnicity as Bond. There’d be rioting in the streets. As mine is the only opinion on anything you should ever trust, let me dogmatically tell you that Casino Royale is the fucking nuts. It’s one of the best Bonds period. Plus, I genuinely think Daniel Craig is the best 007. Stick that in your whingeholes.

“Arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand-in-hand.”

Casino Royale takes the Bond series right back down to the wire. We join a newly promoted James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he is sent to confront a shady banker known as Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson). After Bond scuppers his plans betting on the stock market, Le Chiffre has a last-ditch attempt at regaining his lost money by setting up a high-stakes poker game. Bond is entered into the tournament, bankrolled by MI6 to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Accompanying Bond is the treasury’s representative Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), there to make sure that the British government doesn’t directly finance terrorism. The Bond team went right back to Fleming’s source novel for this and changed things here and there to make it more cinematic. It totally works too. The plotting is tight, efficient and pacy. There are some decent twists and turns and the tone is struck just right. This is realistic with a touch of the fantastical, very similar to Timothy Dalton’s run. They knew they’d gone too far with Die Another Day and so a massive effort was made to take the series back to its taut spy thriller roots.

I think Daniel Craig is awesome. I was always baffled as a kid at the huge disconnect between the cinematic Bonds and the literary one. There was certainly no mugging and eyebrow raising on the pages. Craig manages to find a balance between the projected and printed and I can’t give him enough credit for that. Eva Green is not only a fantastic actress and drop-dead gorgeous, but she’s one of the best Bond women ever. Vesper is so much more than just a pretty face so often seen in the Bond flicks. She reminded me a lot of Diana Riggs’ Tracy in OHMSS (which I’m sure is intentional) She’s smart and quite prickly at first, but soon evolves into a complex and completely endearing character. I’m in love with Vesper. I don’t care who knows it either. As for villains, Le Chiffre is a great one. He’s played with a contained malevolence by Mikkelson and he can be quite chilling at times. Whilst he has some sort of physical abnormality (he weeps blood from an injured eye) it’s not pantomime stuff. Getting Martin Campbell back to direct was a good move. He convincingly brought Bond into the ’90s with the mighty GoldenEye and he pulls the same trick again with this film. Also, I love Jeffrey Wright as Felix. Only he and David Hedison have made the character work for them.

In the same way Die Another Day failed right out of the gate, Casino Royale succeeded. We start with a monochrome flashback sequence, showing Bond’s required two kills to become a 00 agent. His first kill, a brutal bathroom thumpfest is disquieting. This ain’t your grandmother’s Bond, that’s for damn sure. Weaving the gunbarrel into the narrative, representing the popping of Bond’s murder cherry is a fantastic touch. I love the titles and Chris Cornell’s title track. This is the anti-camp Bond I’d been wishing for and here it was, unfolding before me like a big ol’ dream map. I’m trying extremely hard not to gush (I may have already failed) but this is the sort of approach I wanted them to take. After 44 years and 20 films basically retelling the same story over and over again, it was time for a change. There were two major influences over Casino Royale. One was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the other was Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films. Both are evident here. The pared-down, character driven anti-camp stuff screams Nolan whereas the impressive and dynamic stunt work is all Bourne. I heard some people criticising the film for being too much like Bourne, but I think the film is a nice mix between the realistic and frenetic Bourne stuff and the blockbuster action stuff. The stairway fight where Bond fights off machete wielding madmen is a good example of this.

What else can I say? The Bond action stuff has always been up there and Casino Royale is no exception. The free-running construction site sequence is incredible. It says a lot about the quality of the film when I loved the quieter tension-filled card games as much as the balls-out action stuff. Highlight for me is the wince-inducing torture scene where Le Chiffre does some very nasty things with a heftily swung knotted rope. The third act is a heartbreaker, again reminiscent of OHMSS. Having said that, the very end left me with a massive smile on my face.

“Any thug can kill. I need you to take your ego out of the equation.”

Whilst the shift was too much for some, I personally love this direction for Bond. I like the fact that we’re seeing him become the world’s most celebrated assassin gradually, film by film. I’ll be very surprised if Skyfall doesn’t take Craig’s Bond a few more steps towards superspydom. In a series that is known for its cartoonish villains, wacky gadgets and double FUCKING taking FUCKING pigeons as much as its beautiful locations, compelling stories and fantastic action, it was nice to not have to qualify my Bond love for once. Casino Royale is a damn good film in its own right. It just happens to feature James Bond.  I don’t know about you, but I’m on Team Craig all the way.