You know what I was planning to do? Do a Retro Review series on the entire James Bond 007 series to date. That would be 23 movies in total (and yes, I'd include the "unofficial" Never Say Never Again), an arduous task even before my current reduced reviewing schedule. (Let us not speak of my lengthy hiatus, shall we?) My initial plan was to write them and time the last one to just before the release of Skyfall, in conjunction with Bond's 50th anniversary - which, well, too late for that now - but I may still do it. Because I'm a Bond fan, man; I have 'em all on DVD, I've seen 'em all, and man, there ain't much to compare to the joy of seeing how the world's longest-running film franchise has evolved over half a century. But first, Skyfall - the latest instalment in the world's longest-running film franchise, much delayed after its parent studio MGM ran into financial troubles. And hailed by early reviews as the best one yet.
Well, no, it isn't. But I can see why they're calling it that. And it is very good - perhaps even very very good.
James Bond (Daniel Craig), aided by fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris), is in pursuit of a terrorist (Ola Rapace) who has stolen a list of names of undercover NATO agents around the world - and fails. Wounded and left for dead, he returns to active duty to help his superior M (Dame Judi Dench) fight the shadowy figure who has declared war on MI6 - although M has troubles of her own, pressured to resign by government official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) due to her current failures. With a little help from the new Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond gets on the case and meets the seductive Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), mistress of the very man he's seeking - Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), whose vendetta against MI6 is intensely personal, and whose machinations are skillful, intricate, and nigh unbeatable.
The thing about being the world's longest-running film franchise is that it has evolved in many, many ways over its run - ways that may be surprising to someone who hasn't seen them all. There are Bond films in which Bond does not use any gadgets; there are films in which Bond sleeps with only one woman throughout the film; there are films in which Bond does not drive an expensive sports car with tricked-out weaponry. But the greatest variation has been in tone. Some Bond films are largely serious spy thrillers, even though most are the over-the-top, wildly fantastical action movies with larger-than-life villains plotting world-conquering schemes that the franchise is known for. The biggest tonal shift has been in 2006's Casino Royale, which rebooted the series with a new actor in Daniel Craig, an origin story, and an emphasis on gritty reality as well as a much more human and fallible James Bond. Skyfall, however, is a conscious effort to bring back the classic elements of Bond - as well as pulling back slightly from the grittiness and seriousness.
It still walks a fine line between the two tonalities though. The plot is by no means fluff; Bond engages in meaningless sex and self-loathing alcoholism during his time presumed dead, which we certainly didn't see in You Only Live Twice when the Sean Connery Bond similarly faked his death. And the physical toll his wounds take on him suggest that he's gotten too old, and that the entire era of the two-fisted Double-0 agent has been eclipsed by the new age of cyber-security and techno-terrorism. (Seems a little early to get into that though; this is only Craig's third outing as Bond.) But the storyline's real meat deals with M and what she did to earn the enmity of the villain Silva. It elevates M to a full-fledged supporting character for the first time, and gives us an uncharacteristically small-scale climax at a remote Scottish manor in which Bond's goal is merely to protect her, rather than an explosive action scene at the villain's headquarters of world domination. Nor does this subplot overshadow our hero; M's history with Silva raises questions regarding Bond's own contentious relationship with his superior - and the Scottish manor illuminates a part of Bond we've never seen before in 50 years of films.
But then there are those returning classic elements. Some are given a welcome new spin; the new, younger and nerdier Q is terrific, who gets to be Bond's partner in scenes beyond just the requisite gadget-supplying one, and that also showcase Ben Whishaw's enjoyable chemistry with Craig. However, there's a scene involving komodo dragons - yes, komodo dragons - that feels more suited to a Roger Moore-era film than part of the current gritty reinvented Bond. (In fact, it's a deliberate reference to a bit in Live and Let Die.) And then there's the return of the Aston Martin DB5. Which I initially thought was a callback to the DB5 that Bond won in a poker game in Casino Royale - only, it isn't that DB5. It's Goldfinger's DB5, with the ejector seat and hidden machine guns. I may be alone amongst long-time Bond fans in being less than thrilled by its appearance, because where the hell did that thing come from? It plays merry havoc with the notion that the series from Casino Royale onwards is a brand new, internally consistent continuity. Is this the same DB5 that was used against Auric Goldfinger in 1964? Was that the same James Bond as this one??
(Yes yes, I know there's a fan theory that states "James Bond" is a codename given to several other MI6 agents over the decades. I'll have no truck with that theory. I can't imagine any of the other James Bonds have names other than James Bloody Bond. But one thing I did like about Skyfall is how it both nods to and disproves it. Good.)
Sam Mendes - he of arthouse fare such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road - seemed an odd choice to direct a Bond movie at first, but he does a fantastic job here. Aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, this may be the most gorgeously-filmed Bond film ever; a fight scene in a Shanghai high-rise tower shot entirely in silhouette, and the climactic sequence set on a Scottish moor at night lit only by a burning building, are two of the most drop-dead beautiful scenes in a film full of them. Mendes himself succeeds at putting a personal stamp on this franchise entry, with deliberately slow and methodical shots and editing - all the better to show off Deakins' cinematography, probably. Mendes has also acknowledged the influence of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy on this film, and it's noticeable - most evidently in one mid-point plot twist, a villain who's simultaneously eccentric, terrifying and mesmerising, and who's always two steps ahead of the good guys. If you're a Nolan hater, you might find this annoying. I'm not and I don't.
If it weren't for the komodo dragon scene and the DB5 - and really, I'd've been fine with a DB5 that didn't sport the ejector seat and machine guns - Skyfall would be a 4-½-starrer. See, I'm a little concerned. I like Classic Bond, and I even like Cheesy, Campy, Fantastical Bond when it's done right. (The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the best, and certainly Moore's best.) But I really, really like Gritty Reinvented Bond. If there's one thing I learned from having watched all 24 Bond movies, it's that the cheesy, silly, gratuitously male-fantasy-pandering elements are never far behind the wings. I thought they'd put that all behind with Casino Royale. I thought Gritty Reinvented Bond is here to stay. But now it looks like they're back to Classic Bond, which takes it a step closer to Cheesy Bond. Can you imagine Craig in something as over-the-top goofy as Die Another Day? It'd be an embarrassment on the level of, well, Die Another Day. As I said, Skyfall is very good, perhaps very very good; I'm just worried what it heralds for where James Bond 007 will go next. But, if the overwhelming acclaim for this instalment is any indication, I may be the only one. After all, I'm the one who liked Quantum of Solace and don't understand why no one else did.
NEXT REVIEW: Istanbul Aku Datang
Expectations: oh, Bernard Chauly ye? Okay jugak