But more than that, director Sam Mendes brings a distinctively dynamic visual style that is accentuated tremendously by the large-scale IMAX screen, particularly on the full giant-size commercial IMAX movie theater in a multiplex in Seoul, South Korea, where I saw the movie with a nearly sold-out audience of young adults at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, Oct. 31. (It opens at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 8 at IMAX theaters in the U.S., a day earlier than the Nov. 9 debut in all other U.S. theaters.) Update 11/5/12: This distinction in favor of IMAX was confirmed when I saw the movie again tonight at a traditional-size screen at the Pacific Theater at The Grove in Beverly Hills.
A high-contrast hand-to-hand fight scene at night on a vacant floor in a tall, dark building in Shanghai silhouetted against the backdrop of the glossy, bright-colored lights of a giant digital billboard across the street is one of the most riveting and excitingly-staged and photographed cinematic combats in decades, made all the more impact-ful by the enormity of the projected palette in front of you.
During the first half-hour of the 2 ½-hour movie it was like every scene was nearly the size and scope and had the impact of the selected scenes in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” that expanded to fill the IMAX screen, such as the aerial shot over the dessert and flying to the top of the world’s tallest Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
In “Skyfall” you’re following 007 on an opening chase in which he helps his lovely young partner drive a mini truck (Naomie Harris is captivating), then goes solo on a motorcycle over rooftops in Turkey, and eventually dukes it out atop a fast-moving train while ducking under tunnels, and driving a bulldozer across the flat cars of the moving train at one point.
The story and characters are a marked improvement over the last sullen and convoluted entry four years ago, “Quantum of Solace,” and Mendes scores fan-boy points for finally re-injecting this new version of the series under Bond actor Daniel Craig with at least some of the traditional elements that have been missing.
- There are a couple music queues and strands of the 007 theme music in the action scenes early on.
- The vintage Bond Aston-Martin DB 5 makes a significant appearance and even displays the old retractable machine guns in the front grill from the “Goldfinger” days of nearly half a century ago.
- Bond is shown cavalierly taking at least two women for a casual sex ride, and flirting throughout with another, who turns out be a familiar character that has also been missing from the recent episodes.
- He even utters the iconic “Bond, James Bond” line, and at a casino to boot.
- He’s handed what is clearly a vodka martini that is shaken for him, not stirred, though he never utters that line.
- Adele’s haunting theme song is ideally suited for the opening credit sequence that is true to the style of the series if unusually visually dark in tone and symbolism.
- Bond’s famous small Walther PPK handgun gets a tricked-out update.
- Craig delivers more of the personality, super-cool mannerisms, and even quips that we expect from James Bond — with a bullet in his shoulder and after jumping off the scoop of a bulldozer into the passenger car of a moving train, he simply adjusts the cuffs of the shirt under his jacket and walks forward in pursuit of his prey.
Some of the newly-introduced humor, such as a Roger Moore-esque silly facial expression in mid-fight amidst komodo dragons, doesn’t quite feel right yet as it comes out of the blue and out of character for an agent who is, and has been otherwise so deadly (literally) humorless.
The familiar gun barrel scene is once again inexplicably and disappointingly placed at the very end of the movie instead of at the beginning, but at least it’s there. And the new trend of featuring Craig throughout the opening credits is not working nearly as well as the silhouettes of naked women.
This three-picture story arc focusing so much attention on his boss M (the great Dame Judi Dench) — the obvious and absurd mommy issues Bond has with her that result in each of them speaking and acting superficially harshly to each other as if they are primary school students on the playground, pretending not to like each other when everyone knows that they have mutual strong feelings – long ago grew quite wearisome but it continues to an even greater degree here. The only good thing is that you’re provided comfort that this element with M will not be continued in the next outing.
And if this trilogy of movies with Daniel Craig was supposed to represent the character of James Bond prior to his days when he became the suave and sophisticated 007 character we have grown up with, then the writers can’t have it both ways by having M and Bond tell each other they have each “been doing this long enough” and “maybe too long,” just one of several exchanges and references to James Bond getting long in the tooth. That’s the kind of dialogue we would expect if the character were still being played by Roger Moore, who was 57 in his last outing as 007 in “A View to a Kill” in 1985. Craig was 38 when he first donned the British spy suit in “Casino Royale” in 2006, several years younger than both Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton when they took on the gig in their early 40s, and just a few years older than Sean Connery was in the first “Dr. No” in 1962 (One-timer George Lazenby, who had no prior acting experience when he was cast to replace Connery in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” was the youngest of all at age 30 when the movie was released in 1969.)
And there is a rather major credibility issue near the beginning when Bond is initially shot in the shoulder by his enemy during that pre-title chase and then shot again by friendly fire off the top of a moving train and falls high off a bridge, plunges deep into the water below and is carried, seemingly unconscious, over a steep waterfall where he plunges even deeper underwater — still unconscious. Next thing we know he is recovering nicely on a beach, seemingly without any medical assistance. Huh?
He later removes bullet fragments from his chest with his own knife and without anesthesia, of course, remarkably only withdrawing those fragments from the enemy’s gun. No mention is made about the wound caused by the shot that knocked him off the train.
Javier Bardem is engaging as the typically power-hungry psychotic – he has even bigger issues with M’s maternal bullying and playing favorites with former fellow agent 007 – and the sexual ambiguity and leanings toward homosexuality is perhaps a first for a Bond villain, unless you count the two gay hit men in the 1971 “Diamonds are Forever.”
Bérénice Marlohe is devastatingly tantalizing as a vulnerable villainess temptress, and Ralph Fiennes is solid as a new MI6 administrator who promises to become even more prominent in future installments.
Ben Whishaw is a fun young choice as the new comic-relief geek gadget-meister “Q” but the brilliant Albert Finney is wasted in a somewhat throwaway role.
Although this is a return to the bloated 2 ½-hour movies of this spy series in the past, and therefore bogs down a bit in the middle and near the end, “Skyfall” has 007 back on the right track, and IMAX has James Bond back where he belongs, larger than life.
– By Scott Hettrick