The new 007 adventure reaches for the sky but falls short. The down-slide, though disappointing, is not enough to prevent SKYFALL from being a good James Bond film. It is, however, enough to flatten the film’s higher aspiration – which is to be something more than just a good Bond film. SKYFALL wants to rework the 007 formula into something resembling a serious drama – a combination of blockbuster action with the gravitas of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. The synthesis works for approximately the first half, lifting SKYFALL to a level seldom seen in the franchise, but then the drama begins to dissipate under the demands of the de rigueur action set pieces, dropping SKYFALL back down to familiar, though still enjoyable, levels.
The tone is set immediately. While attempting to retrieve a stolen hard drive (whose contents are the MacGuffin that will drive the plot), Bond disobeys an order from M: he stops to render first aid to a wounded comrade instead of pursing the stolen disc. The sense of life-and-death consequences – of treating a peripheral character like a person and not just an expendable red shirt – lends an air of credibility that holds SKYFALL aloft for quite a while. Yes, we are going to see over-the-top action and incredible heroics, but all of this stuff will be portrayed as if it really matters. Until it doesn’t.
I could pinpoint the exact moment when it starts to go wrong, but I don’t want to spoil the film. Let’s just say that SKYFALL does an excellent job of setting up what seems like a central relationship, and then Bond fails the character miserably. Which would not be so bad – fallibility is part of what makes Daniel Craig’s 007 so compelling. What hurts is that the failure is never allowed to register. Instead, it is drowned out by the triumphant arrival of the cavalry to the rescue, backed by the familiar “James Bond Theme – too late, unfortunately, to help the person who just paid the price for helping Bond.
Similar things have happened in past Bond movies, but in the Sean Connery Days, 007 would have been righteously angry and looking for revenge; M would have demanded he maintain his professional attachment if he wanted to remain on the mission; and Bond would have agreed verbally – while letting his expression show us that he still took matters very seriously, and there would be a reckoning. None of that happens in SKYFALL. Bond’s little slip-up is simply forgotten. And with it goes any chance of the film registering as heavy-hitter it aims to be.
What remains is still quite enjoyable, and there are even a few remaining moments that register with some emotional resonance, but you simply cannot maintain a sense of crucial, high-stakes dramaturgy when an entire subway train is destroyed for the sheer spectacle, without an eyelash ever batted about the loss of life (of which, conveniently, there appears to be none – though no one ever says for sure, because who cares – it’s an entire subway train nearly crashing on top of 007’s head!) At that point, we’re back in movie fantasy land, which is a fun place to be, but not a place where soul-searching about the rightness of one’s actions amounts to much.
The script by Neil Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan makes an attempt to dig deeper into the characters than ever before, but the effort is inconsistent. The strategy of producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson appears to be to get a draft from Purvis and Wade (veterans of the franchise since THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH), presumably with all the traditional elements in place (guns, gadgets, girls), and then they drag in another writer to add some dramatic heft. This worked excellently well in CASINO ROYALE (2006), perhaps because there was an Ian Fleming novel to provide the basic plot outline, but not so much in QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008). In SKYFALL, we get a mixed bag – definitely better than QUANTUM but not up to the level of CASINO.
Part of the problem is that Wade and Purvis seem to have run out of ideas. The screenplay for SKYFALL recycles bits and pieces from the Pierce Brosnan films. As in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, there is an attack on MI6 headquarters, and M is more personally involved in what follows. As in GOLDENEYE, Bond is pitted against a former MI6 agent, with a huge chip on his shoulder for past indiscretions committed by the British state – or at least by its agents.
One idea that is worth recycling is the theme of relevence (which, rather fortuitously, is something I addressed in Sense of Wonder: James Bond at 50, which you can read here). Whereas the Brosnan Bond films merely suggested that world conflict was changing in a way that made the service of a lone assassin preferable to the marching of armies, SKYFALL spells it out specifically, in a third-act scene wherein M (Judi Dench) defends not only her herself but also the organization she heads.
It’s a compelling moment – one of the best in the film – but it is slightly undercut by the fact that the plot is built around a catastrophic failure on the part of MI6 – a fact that is never fully reckoned in the script. Perhaps there is a delicious irony intended: just as Bond often wants to stick with a case, even after his professional detachment has been undercut by personal failure, so does M. The difference is that M should know better.
Perhaps she does, but the film does not quite bring the point home. Near the end, she wonders aloud whether she “f-cked up,” but Bond tells her no. They may just be words of comfort, but the film seems to want us to take them literally, in spite of on-screen evidence to the contrary.
CAST & CHARACTERS
Daniel Craig remains an excellent James Bond – probably the only serious threat to Connery’s reputation as the all-time best. In SKYFALL, Craig looks a bit world-weary and beaten down; the job is getting to 007, and it shows, but he refuses to give up, pressing on as if that is the only thing he knows how to do. More than any previous actor, he continues to capture Bond’s driven nature, the determination lurking beneath the polished facade that allows him to move smoothly through casinos and other exotic locations. And behind those cold blue eyes, you see the occasional hint of compassion, without it ever seeming like a weakness. The little grace note lends a touch of greatness to Craig’s Bond and to the film (until it is swept aside by subway trains and helicopters)
Javiar Bardem, as SKYFALL’s villain is a bit of a near-miss. A former MI6 agent gone rogue, out for revenge against M, Silva is set up as Bond’s doppleganger – a dark mirror image of our hero – but the reflection goes almost unnoticed. (Both Silva and Bond have been, in some sense, betrayed by M, but the connection never amounts to anything.) In an effort at complexity, the character is given several attributes, but they do not add up to a satisfying whole. The script seems uncertain whether to portray Silva as Hannibal Lecter or as Norman Bates; Bardem seems uncertain whether to play the role as Raul Julia or as Christopher Walken. The result is weird enough to be interesting, but the actor is never able to convey Silva’s obsession with M in a convincing enough way to justify his actions as anything other than a plot contrivance (it’s one of those “he doesn’t want to kill her quick; he wants to make her suffer” scenarios).
Judi Dench is excellent as always as the cold-blood M, who must weigh human considerations of loyalty at a lower value than the practical necessity of a successful mission. To a large extent she achieves the miraculous, making the character relatable (if not outright sympathetic) in her concern for doing a good job – even though, for most of the film, that job consists of cleaning up a considerable mess for which her department is responsible. If M were not a major player in the Bond franchise, her character here would be a minor villain in this piece – someone who needed to pay for her mistakes or at least get out of the way and let someone else fix them. Instead, we’re supposed to want to see M see it through, and thanks to Dench, we do.
Berenice Marlohe as Severine is the best Bond girl since…well, Eva Green wasn’t long enough ago to convey just how good Marlohe is, but the camera loves her, and director Sam Mendes lets the lens linger as she sizes up 007, deciding whether or not to trust him when he makes his pitch for her to switch sides. Naomie Harris as Eve cannot quite compete in this regard, but then she is not quite the traditional Bond Girl: she doesn’t sleep with him, for one thing – but then the film follows up on this with a clever little surprise that pays off quite nicely.
Ben Whishaw is a hoot as as the new head of Q Division. At first he seems too young for the role – a sop to the nerd-geeks in the audience – but there is some hint of Desmond Llwelyn in his face, and a little bit of the attitude in his voice, though on a somewhat friendlier level.
Ralph Fiennes is fine as Gareth Mallory, a seeming bureaucrat who in a pinch turns out to be a comrade in arms. Rory Kinear offers solid support as M’s right-hand man, Tanner. And Albert Finney lends a touch of class in a role that seems to have been designed for Sean Connery: his Kincade, a gamekeeper who shows up on the old Bond estate, manages to almost resurrect SKYFALL’s lost credibility; for a moment, we again sense fear in the face of danger, without the comfort of knowing that it will all turn out okay just because the formula demands it.
Though shot in standard format, SKYFALL has been released in IMAX engagements (“enhanced for IMAX” is how the ads read). The big-screen format is perfectly suited for capturing spectacular action and lavish locations; in particular, the Hong Kong sequence – with its neon lights, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, and electronic billboard imagery eerily reflected into the camera lens – is as eye-filling as anything displayed in any previous Bond film. And IMAX, even more than 3-D is the best enhancer of any scene that involves staring downward from a great height.
Nevertheless, for all its visual splendor, SKYFALL never quite equals the vertiginous spectacle of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, which truly used the IMAX screen to its fullest potential.
In the inevitable interrogation scene between Silva and Bond (with the later tied immobile in a chair), Bardem’s character lets his hand linger over 007, tracing a bullet wound in Bond’s chest. The idea seems to be that Bond can withstand torture (as in CASINO ROYALE), but homoerotic advances may really get under his skin. It’s an interesting moment but also a trifle stereotypical: we’re back to the evil gay villain. Strangely, judging from interviews, the filmmakers seem to think they were doing something new here or at least bringing out something that had been hidden in the closet. Guess they overlooked Charles Gray’s fruity interpretation of Blofeld in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER – not to mention the pair of overtly gay hitmen on the supervillain’s payroll.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
CASINO ROYALE functioned as a sort of “Bond Begins Again” story, reintroducing the character as a younger, inexperienced agent, who grew before our eyes into something resembling the familiar figure we had seen in past films. More or less ignoring the events of QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the new SKYFALL takes Bond’s evolution a step further, ending with a final scene that puts a few more missing pieces of the old puzzle into place.
It is an amusing conceit for a quiet little denouement after the action has ended; however, it raises troubling questions about 007’s future. The suggestion seems to be that, with Bond’s maturation complete, subsequent films can abandon the drama and get back to the old familiar formula. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
GREAT STUFF THAT MAKES THE MOVIE WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION
Enough of what’s wrong with SKYFALL. For all the flaws that bring it back to earth, the film is loaded with great moments that deserve mentioning:
- The Opening Sequence: This begins as a conventional chase but ramps up into an incredible set-piece, with Bond manipulating a power shovel on the flatbed of a train racing down the tracks. Absolutely spectacular – a stunning opener that ranks among the best the series has ever seen.
- The Theme Song: Sung by Adele, the SKYFALL theme harkens back to the glory days of Shirley Bassey and GOLDFINGER, but it doesn’t sound out of date or even particularly retro. It’s been awhile since a Bond title song managed the trick of sounding both appropriate for the character and appropriate for the times. The song is also backed by a nice opening title sequence.
- Komodo Dragons: In the great tradition of dangerous animals kept in open pits, SKYFALL offers us a casino with Komodo Dragons on display. Needless to say, a fight scene winds up with Bond and his adversary falling in, providing an unexpected lunch break for the big lizards. Now if only they had laser beams attached to their heads…
- The Sexy Shaving Scene: Eve lends a hand with Bond’s straight razor, creating an incredibly erotic tease that goes deliberately unfulfilled. You’ll have to wait until the end to see why Eve cannot be allowed to sleep with 007.
- Severine’s Long, Long, Long Gaze into Bond’s Eyes: It’s a scene we’ve seen before, as Bond convinces one of the bad guy’s girls that he can help her. She wants to believe him, too, but she’s not sure she does. Without doing anything obvious, actress Marlohe lets us see the doubt forming into a decision behind her eyes – a rather fateful decision, as it turns out.
- Giant Jelly-Fish: They’re not really giant; they’re just images projected large, looming in the background of the Hong Kong sequence, distracting Bond’s eye from the target. God, they’re beautiful.
- The Return of the Aston Martin: beating a phony retreat near the end (actually laying a trap for Silva), Bond switches to a supposedly less ostentatious car – which we in the audience recognize as the old Aston Martin from GOLDFINGER. Bond even fingers the ejector seat button when M’s griping gets a little too annoying.
GADGETS AND GIZMOS
Continuing the trend begun in CASINO ROYALE, SKYFALL downplays the science-fiction element that has been with the series since its inception, mostly in the form of the improbable gadgets Q Branch develops for Bond’s use. Here, Q offers only a radio transmitter and a gun with a handle that recognizes Bond’s grip. “Not exactly Christmas,” Bond quips, to which Q replies that exploding pens are out of style these days.
Perhaps it’s not so much that SKYFALL downplays the fantastical elements; it may be that reality has caught up with 007. The film is filled with computer hacking, tracking devices, and encryption techniques that even a decade or so ago might have seemed incredible – or at least a little bit ahead of the curve. Now, they are almost commonplace.
SKYFALL may not be another CASINO ROYALE, but it ranks higher than almost anything else the franchise has had to offer for over a decade. Even if not all of its ideas and intentions are fully realized, it says something good about the film that we can even talk about it having ideas. Whatever its failings, SKYFALL retains the essential strengths of Craig’s James Bond. I suspect that a second viewing, once disappointment has been set aside, will reveal the simple entertainment value in a fuller light. And as I say, the repeat-viewing appeal of Komodo Dragons is not to be under-estimated.
SKYFALL (Sony Pictures, November 9, 2012). Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan, based on the character created by Ian Fleming. Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace, Helen McCrory, Nicholas Woodeson, Bill Buckhurts.