By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 12, 2012 at 12:17PM
Over the weekend, it sounds like more than a few of you checked out "Skyfall" -- $80 million+ worth of you, in fact. And around the rest of the world, it's even more, with the film having taken over $500 million internationally since it started rolling out two weeks ago. And for the most part, it's been acclaimed as one of the best (if not the very best) entries in the long-running spy franchise to date.
But it hasn't been a unanimous success. There's plenty of naysayers out there, and, as ever, The Playlist team have been split, some loving the film, and some finding it hugely uneven. Now that the film's out and you've seen it, we decided we'd get into the details of what various team members thought worked and what didn't about "Skyfall." In the red corner, Oliver Lyttelton, who wrote our original review, lays out what he thinks makes the film a triumph (as well as a couple of cons), while in the blue are Rodrigo Perez and Kevin Jagernauth, discussing several elements of the film that just didn't work for them. Got your own views on the film? Let us know them in the comments section below. Obviously, spoilers ahead.
From his debut with "American Beauty," featuring Oscar-winning cinematography from the late Conrad Hall, Sam Mendes' films have always looked glorious even when they haven't worked as a whole. And that's doesn't change here. Even 007-weary cinephiles were a little excited when they heard that Mendes' "Jarhead" and "Revolutionary Road" DoP, the great Roger Deakins, was going to be shooting "Skyfall." And the regular Coen Brothers cinematographer did not disappoint. His last film "In Time" might have suggested he was still finding his feet with digital, but he certainly seems to have gotten the hang of things now. From the great, immediately iconic opening shot, it's the best-looking Bond film in history. There are particular highlights: the stunning "Blade Runner"-ish vision of Shanghai (which blows away almost every "Blade Runner"-esque looking film out of the water), particularly the neon-lit confrontation with Ola Rapace's assassin, and the fire-tinged sky glimpsed through the icy lake during the underwater fight. We spent much of the film wishing that we could print out the frames and hang them on our walls, and we're sure we're not alone.
If there's something we learned in writing about the best and worst of the franchise all last week, it's that often, the superior entries in the series are the ones that have an emotional backbone, such as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "Casino Royale." And that's the smart move the writers and Mendes have made here. It's in many ways the smallest and most intimate Bond in some time; there's no real threat to the world, just one well-funded bonkers man's vendetta against his former employer. But because that former employer is M, Bond's mentor and maternal figure, it gives the proceedings a real heft. By placing Judi Dench front-and-center, and by making Bond himself out of shape, out of practice, and unsure of his place in a shifting MI6, it gives Daniel Craig much better material than he had to work with in the last film. So while the action is toned down from the first two Craig pictures, the film's far more engaging because the stakes are real and you care about the characters and their survival.
One thing that the Bond movies of late have been missing are truly classic villains. There have been some decent ones (Sean Bean in "Goldeneye," Mads Mikkelsen in "Casino Royale"), but none that really stand alongside the iconic likes of Goldfinger or Blofeld. But there's now very much a new addition to the classic rogue's gallery, thanks to Javier Bardem's Silva. He doesn't turn up until an hour into the film, but makes an entrance that's an instant classic; that long, unbroken shot of his monologue as he walks towards the captive Bond. And Bardem's performance is thrilling, funny, camp, unpredictable and yet genuinely terrifying. Perhaps more successful than the rest of the film in general, he feels like a return to the franchise's roots, right down to that gruesome and show-stealing surprise disfigurement, and yet with a contemporary, Julian Assange-ish twist. Sure, his scheme might be almost impossible in its conception, and his death a little disappointing (a knife in the back? really?), but he's still a Bond bad guy for the ages.
And it's not just the leads -- Craig, Dench and Bardem -- who get the good material. John Logan's script includes a deep roster of compelling supporting characters that's almost unheard of from the franchise, and with theater veteran Mendes at the helm, the film was able to attract a cast of absolute pros who look to be central to the franchise going forward. Perhaps the pick of the pack is Ben Whishaw as the new Q. Desmond Llewellyn's boots were big ones to fill (the actor appeared in virtually every Bond film from "From Russia With Love" to "The World Is Not Enough"), but the "Bright Star" actor lends a new and definitive twist to the character as a youthful, arrogant, geek-chic quartermaster who brings texture to what could have been a rote hacker-type role we've seen a million times before. Also given more depth than you initially expect is Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, who seems like a stern, repressed bureaucrat, and not especially trustworthy, but turns out to be both a combat veteran, and unexpectedly heroic. M is in good hands going forward, and hopefully future installments will continue to give him good material. We have our issues with the Bond girls (see below), but both Eve and Severine have more depth than you might expect, and the actresses are both terrific (particularly Bérénice Marlohe, who's a real find). Even Rory Kinnear's Bill Tanner, introduced in "Quantum of Solace," gets plenty to do, and we hope he sticks around as well. While Bond's support team generally haven't been crucial to his character, that changes here, and Mendes has assembled a cast of supporting players who we genuinely look forward to seeing reunited next time around.
While the critical reevaluation of "American Beauty" continues its downward trajectory over the years, we've always liked Sam Mendes as a filmmaker (and further back as a theater director), but even so, he always seemed like a bold and risky choice to direct here. There wasn't much action or tentpole experience on his CV, and the film couldn't be further from his last film, indie comedy "Away We Go." But, while the film is imperfect, it turns out that he was an inspired choice. He melds the grittiness of the earlier Craig films with a sense of fun that suggests that Mendes is a real Bond fan (incidentally, he's the first British director in the series since Michael Apted in 1999), and walks the tonal line very carefully. The action doesn't always thrill, necessarily, but it's always beautifully framed, inventive and impressive. The performances (as you might imagine from someone who directed Judi Dench in the West End when he was only 24) are uniformly strong, and the director couldn't have assembled a better behind-the-scenes team (including Christopher Nolan's effects supervisor Chris Corbould). If Mendes was ever off the A-list, he's back on it in a big way now.
If there's anything that reassured us that "Skyfall" was going to be a return to form, it was the opening credits, as Bond drifted off into the inky blackness, and Adele's theme tune kicked in (you can hear it here). If there's one thing in the series that's been severely lacking over the last few decades, it's a decent theme tune. We're not sure there's been a truly memorable one since "The Living Daylights," and it's even longer since one felt truly worthy of the Shirley Bassey classics of old. In fact, things have only gotten worse, with the sludgy dirges of the Chris Cornell and Jack White/Alicia Keys tunes of the Craig era so far (it makes us yearn for some of these Bond themes that never were). Chanteuse of the moment Adele was always the obvious choice to revive things (at least after the passing of Amy Winehouse), and with regular co-writer Paul Epworth, she delivered a cracker, reminiscent of the best '60s-era tracks, but thrillingly modern. Combined with the excellent animated credits, it's an extremely confident way to start the film.