November 20, 2012

The New Normal: How Skyfall Uses The Past To Re-Invent The Franchise

I saw the new James Bond flick "Skyfall" about a week ago and I'm still basking in how awesome it was. Longtime readers will know that I have been hyping up the flick for over a year, with most of my attention on the babes that they were were supposed to be cast. Of course, while I was wrong about who ended up being the bombshells, I was correct to have extreme confidence in the flick. For me, it was one of the most exciting movies of the year and easily the best big budget practical action film I've seen in 2012. Yet beyond the film's epic action spectacle, visual nirvana, and amazing villain, I was most thrilled to see the franchise finally come into it's own for the 21st century.

Way back in 2006, I reviewed "Casino Royale" for the Syracuse University paper.  I announced that the film was a successful re-invention of the character, yet lamented that Bond had become almost all ass-kicking and had lost most of his suave spy swagger. Yet the Bond of that film was the one that was needed for the times. Facing down spy challengers like Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, Bond had no choice but to evolve as a character. From Bourne he gained a brutal fighting style that saw him smashing through walls and free running through construction sites like some British Olympian. From Bauer, he gained the concept of heroism through sacrifice. In the 21st century, you can't be a true servant of your country if you don't lose the ones that matter to you.  Both of these thematic imprints were all over the dismal "Quantum of Solace." From a filmmaking style, the action took the trademark "Bourne" shaky cam and used to it hide everything cool about James Bond action - epic stunts, exotic locations, and nice gadgets/cars/guns. The story involved Bond hunting down his true love's killers and getting mixed up in some water/oil politics was bogus. In the two years since "Casino Royale," Bond had once again become outdated. Things can change quickly for spies.

In the new film, one of the wisest decisions director Sam Mendes makes is to abandon any connection to the previous two. Gone is the broken-hearted loner of the past films who is plagued with a quest for revenge. The Bond is "Skyfall" is confident, deadly, and an effective team player. This last detail is important as the new film introduces us to many characters who will be with 007 moving forward for some time. These include classic characters such as "Q," re-imagined here as a hacker genius, and Moneypenny, who gets a nice little 21st politics gender update. Re-introducing these characters is just one of many ways the franchise draws on its past to define it's future. 

Speaking of that, the genius of Skyfall is how effectively the past of the franchise is used to shape it's new direction. The villain, Silva, creepily played by Javier Bardem has many traits of the villains of the yonder-year. With the ability to hack governments and cause chaos he's a international-threat, just done up hacker style. He even has his own secret Island base where he interrogates Bond in one of the films most memorable scenes. The film uses these familiar tropes as the building blocks to give us something new in the villain, a deeply personal motivation. Gone are the days of dastardly plans for world takeovers, no, this villain just wants to kill your employer, which in the case of James Bond, who we learn is an orphan, is equal to killing his family. It's a more personal motivation for the villain which makes the stakes even higher. I'm not gonna get into the vague gender politics of the gay elements of Silva, and while they lead to a great scene, they don't really contribute to the plot. I find it weird to say that Silva is more evil/more creepy cause he vaguely threatens him sexually.

As the film progresses, we continue to get familiar Bond essentials to bring us back into the fold and make us forget the previous films. Here's an updated version of the PPK handgun. Oh look at that, there is a pit filled with dangerous creatures that Bond must avoid. There's the Martini, prepared without the tagline,  but present nonetheless.  Here comes the Aston Martin, weapons intact. All of these are welcome additions and but the real star of the show here is cinematographer Roger Deakins and Mendes direction. This is easily the best looking Bond film ever made, and it ranks up there as one of the best looking movies ever made. Every shot is beautifully constructed with a tremendous visual palette. The editing is smooth and fluid and knows how to show off the action well. But if you didn't hear me before, visually this film is knockout, in fact I hope it wins the Oscar.

Ultimately the film is a rousing spectacle of entertainment that is just very well made. The franchise successfully stops trying to emulate the other spies of the era, and sticks to it's roots, but isn't afraid to grow new branches. The babes are stunning, the action is kick-ass, and Daniel Craig has never been better. Longtime readers will you know your boy TPG puts the theatrical experience above anything else and with the mind-blowing visuals and bombast sound, "Skyfall" is a perfect example of just how fun going to the movies can be.

*Best all around action film of the year is still "The Raid."

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