Skyfall

The James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary with not the most celebratory of Bond movies. Director Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan fall back on the heavy-duty psycho-drama and origin-story psychoanalysis — elements better and more suitably employed in Casino Royale (2006) — to fuel the latest Bond go-around, Skyfall. What ends up happening, though, is that Mendes and company get so lost in the murk of the drama, in the leaden themes of betrayal, guilt, and vindication and in the theatrics involved with all the above that they completely miss the point that Bond is supposed to be fun.

The plot concerns the theft of top-secret computer files that contained the names of all MI6 agents working undercover in terrorist organizations around the world. By exposing their names, the culprit not only puts the agents’ lives in danger, but also the credibility of MI6, the super-secret spy organization headed up by M (Judi Dench). Bond’s pursuit of the criminal mastermind ends at the headquarters of an embittered former MI6 agent, Silva (Javier Bardem), who was once betrayed by M and who now harbors a smoldering desire for revenge against her and her organization. Bond’s capture of Silva is only the beginning in the latter’s ploy to find satisfaction, leading to an explosion-filled showdown at Bond’s titular childhood estate where he and M are holed up.

Daniel Craig is among the more captivating Bonds ever to be cast. He’s up there with Connery in his no-nonsense and amoral pursuit of mission objectives. But the dire mistake that the current crop of Bond producers, writers, and directors make is to overplay Craig’s penchant for brooding self-absorption. At one point in the story, when Bond is given up for dead, he spends his time getting drunk and chugging pain pills, and we see in him a vulnerability we rarely glimpse. Later, in a face-to-face with Silva, as the latter is running down a checklist of Bond’s flaws (including his substance abuse and childhood trauma), and, again, in a third-act revelation about his parents’ deaths when he was child, we get occasions for digging into Bond’s past and for understanding his state of mind. But all this, especially because Casino Royale went over this ground already, is just redundant character-building. It’s as if Mendes couldn’t be bothered with crafting an exciting, fast-paced spy thriller — or didn’t know how to make one — and so retreated into the territory in which he felt comfortable.

One evidence of this can be found in the chase sequence at the movie’s outset. Everything’s rolling along fine until the writers find themselves stuck on a train, with Bond ducking a hail of gunfire from his opponent. Rather than keep things elemental and physical (as Casino Royale did in its smart, riveting, vertiginous opening), the writers get the idea of putting a shovel tractor on the bed of the train. Its presence on the train is baffling, but it’s convenient and provides a clever device for a “sensational” moment that Bond gets to impress his audience with as he goes to work manipulating the tractor. For me, it’s a clunky, graceless moment in a film filled with unremarkable action set pieces — all of which are loud, expensive, and arbitrary. The two worst include a subterranean chase that involves a train careering through a blown-apart hole, and straight into Bond’s path: It all looks neat but does nothing but make noise. The other set piece, the movie’s capper, involves the siege that Silva lays to Bond’s estate — a setting that bafflingly recalls the moors in dreary Victorian gothic novels. Crass with explosions, firepower, and machine-gun bullets traded back and forth, this finale is a disappointing dog; again, it’s as if Mendes and company are more interested in the thematic and symbolic underpinnings of the action than the pace, wit, and originality of the action itself.

Who pays the price for Skyfall? Bond fans do, of course. But so does Daniel Craig. He’s not going to be around forever — not in this shape, anyway — so it’s this reviewer’s hope that, next time around, they give Craig an opportunity to be Fleming’s Bond, the Bond of Connery, instead of this neo-Victorian creation, a broken-down Heathcliff whose past bereavements must be continually paraded out every time he confronts a new mission. Craig gets almost no opportunity, apart from a few scenes, to be Bond — self-reliant, hyper-competent, and resourceful in spite of the odds. M is also wasted. In fact, this is the first time I grew truly annoyed by Judi Dench, not exactly the actress but her character: principled, yes, and headstrong, but here she commandeers an entire Bond film through her sheer ineptitudes, past and present. Lastly, what a waste of a potentially superb Bond villain. Bardem has two terrific scenes: His first, opposite Craig, sends chills as he fops and capers, trying to tease and belittle Bond with a just-right homoerotic edge; here, I thought, is a Bond villain who creeps people out but also seduces us. The other, opposite M, in which Silva is in his transparent holding cell, is a showstopper. Bardem makes Silva’s damaged humanity, deranged mind, and thirst for vengeance fully palpable and relatable. But, ultimately, the actor’s brilliant portrayal is squandered in a series of standard-issue chases, fights, and a couple of cliché-ridden moments that recall the dullest of action-movie conventions: The villain getting cold feet before he can finish the job. Yes, that happens.

Apart from select moments of character interplay, Skyfall is more or less a bust as a Bond movie. In fact, this isn’t a Bond movie, except in name. This is an approximation, a posturing of a Bond movie. The movie you get when the director and the writers — really, anyone in any prime creative or executive role on the project — have zero grasp of what has made Bond such a magnetic draw for 50 years. Gone is the man of action, replaced by a vexed and agitated neurotic. Gone is the pure sense of fun, adventure, the unexpected. Bond movies only come around every few years, and we can hope Craig’s Bond finds again the script and director he deserves. As for Skyfall, it’s a wasted opportunity.

If you’ve read this far: One final carp. Except for Adele’s excellent title song, the score in Skyfall by Thomas Newman is a dreadful bore. The lack of memorable Bond music since John Barry is a cause for concern as is the near-absence of Bond’s signature theme in these latest offerings. Why have the franchise executives turned their backs on the classic Bond template, its classic sense of style and attitude? The fact that the opening gun-barrel sequence is now relegated to the pre end-credit roll is also troubling and shows a baffling disregard for form; for decades, Bond movies opened with the gun-barrel sequence at the beginning — it’s Bond’s signature, a graphic choice that sets the brand apart from a crowded field of pretenders and competitors. This desperate desire to re-shuffle the template, to ditch elements that helped define the brand, is a worrisome trend. Perhaps what Bond needs is less of a re-boot and more of a celebration of what made the brand great to begin with.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney

34 comments

  1. My first Bond movie was “The Spy Who Loved Me”. As a somewhat late entrant to the genre, I have never much liked the Connery films, not because I don’t like Connery (I’m not sure that’s possible), but because I don’t like the way these movies treat the women that are in them. That said, I propose that Daniel Craig is the best thing to happen to this franchise in thirty+ years. His Bond is human, and yet willing to aspire to a super-human ideal (at least in terms of objectives realized; certainly his morality is, at best, human). “Skyfall” is visually stunning, emotionally engaging, and, at least to those of us who are not movie critics, a thoroughly engrossing and satisfying film. I left the theater wanting to turn around and see it again; knowing the ending, I wanted to go back and catch all the nuances I missed the first time through. I think that ordinary people, i.e., those who never attended film school, who do not feel the need to pick apart everything rather that just sit back and enjoy it, ordinary people will really enjoy this movie. It is, IMHO, better than “Casino Royale”, the first Bond movie I ever felt merited adding to my DVD collection. I can’t wait for “Skyfall” to come out on DVD, it will be going into the cabinet as well. Oh, and BTW, the music is great, incorporating the iconic Bond theme, as well as venturing out onto it’s own territory; I even picked up hints of Pink Floyd. So for those professional reviewers who wish to take this opportunity to be arch and omniscient: blow it out your ***, this movie rocks!

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for reading and chiming in. “The Spy Who Loved Me” was my first Bond movie too. I still love that movie. Roger Moore WAS James Bond for me until I heard that Sean Connery was the original Bond. That’s when I started checking out the early movies and, before long, I was hooked on “Goldfinger,” “Dr. No,” and “Thunderball.” I agree with you that Daniel Craig is the best thing to happen to the franchise since possibly Connery. I’m glad you liked “Skyfall” — on this, you’re with the majority of viewers and critics. I just didn’t feel like “Skyfall” was a fully realized Bond movie; it hardly left the path already gone over by “Casino Royale.” How many more movies about Bond are we going to get before we get an actual Bond movie?

      Thanks again for reading!

      Jay

  2. Just back from the theater and disapointed. I just found it all too dark. Bond is supposed to be somewhat bright and somewhat fun.On the way back home I was wandering almost word by word: is it that “Mendes couldn’t be bothered with an exciting, fast-paced spy thriller — or didn’t know how to make one — that he retreated into the territory in which he felt comfortable.”
    Not sure what reccomended him for this work. Or is it like Bond: he did not pass the tests but he got the job anyway :)
    And like you I loved Adele’s song but what happened to the original theme song ?
    All in all it does feel like a wasted opportunity.

  3. Exactly! There was no ‘Bond signature’!
    I love Bond movies for its hyper action, unimaginable plots, bond girls and the nifty gadgets he had!
    If you remove all these, how does it differ from any other crap action movie?

  4. “This is an approximation, a posturing of a Bond movie.” Bingo. You nailed it with that one line. This was what I worried about from the moment I heard Sam Mendes was directing–visually stunning, but that beauty hides a clumsy attempt at a story. It’s like they created a pastiche of what they thought Bond/espionage stories were like, without really understanding them. [*spoilers ahead*] The “death/rebirth” theme borrowed from Jason (re)Bourne, the NOC list from Mission Impossible, the rogue agent from Goldeneye, and so many other action cliches–the rooftop chase, the fight on the top of the train, the “questioning the bad guy as he slips from your grasp.” and the “last stand” in the house. And the winks and nods to previous Bond films and novels seemed so awkwardly out of place that they only served to make me realize how much I wanted this one to be like the others–the Aston Martin, the gadgets (or lack thereof), the beautiful but doomed Bond girl (who here just seemed more wasted than tragic). I didn’t even care much for the bad guy. Bardem is a good actor, but I though here he was just channeling a cross between the Joker and Hannibal Lecter. (Lecter was all I could think of during the cage/escape scenes.) He also didn’t seem “grand” enough. There was talk about how much of a super-villain he was–destabilizing this and destroying that–but I never believed it. Hacking computers and filling the screen with cartoon skulls seemed more appropriate for some guy living in his parents’ basement than a Bond baddie. And in the end, his goal was to…what? Kill one person? Couldn’t he have just done that by blowing MI6 up when she was actually inside? Why the Rube Goldbergesque machinations if you’re just going to break into a briefing room and try to shoot her?

    The one scene that stood out for me in the film was the short scene between Bond and Q in the museum. I felt like I learned more about those two men in that one scene than throughout the entire rest of the film.

    As far as I’m concerned, this is the most insightful, accurate review of this film that I’ve read so far.

    1. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad we agree on the movie (though it’s okay too if we didn’t!) ;)

      That scene you mention between Bond and Q at the museum is also one of the movie’s few highlights. I loved that scene as well as the first scene between Bond and Silva on the island, and the scene in which M visits Silva in the detention cell. Otherwise, the movie was bunk.

  5. I would have to agree with the above reviewers. I believe this is the only genuine review of a Bond film on the Internet (or perhaps this and a few other ‘truthful’ reviews that analyzed the film correctly). However, I am torn by one thing. If I had to write/direct/produce a bond film – I would find it an extremely difficult and possibly impossible task. Just about every story-line has been done before. Whether its Mission Impossible, Bourne, Die Hard or a number of other flicks (including Austin Powers), the story has been done. What we need is someone to write a novel with Bond as the main character. It`s only through good writing that a great and `deep` bond film can be created. So I issue a challenge – if anyone has a great plot, post it on the web and see if anyone will pick it up to produce a great bond movie. Failing that – I`m afraid that we will need to adjust our expectations and simply leave the cinema with the feeling you have after the fifth pint of beer – it wasn`t necessary, but you sure felt thirsty for another one, enjoyed it, and don`t really remember it (or even care to remember it) the next day.

    1. You raise a great point about Bond’s competitors and pretenders these days. In the last 15 years, the spy thriller genre has gotten too crowded for Bond to remain fresh movie after movie. What separates Bond movies from the pack is Bond himself — if future screenwriters and directors can keep their faith in their characters and resort less to unnecessary psychologizing and heavy-going drama, we may find the series on its feet again. I think “Casino Royale” was great and a refreshing change of pace. But that’s as far as it should’ve gone before the series shifted gears into full-on Bond mode again. Instead we got “Quantum of Solace” and now “Skyfall.” The other thing I fear is that Daniel Craig’s interpretation might’ve gone off the deep end of self-absorption already. How different is Craig’s take on Bond from, say, Tom Cruise’s in M:I series or Matt Damon’s (or Jeremy Renner’s) in the Bourne series or, hell, the Chris Nolan approach to the whole Dark Knight series? This is not the way to go.

  6. You’re review is spot on. I enjoyed the movie very much as a movie, but it was not a Bond movie. It was most definitely a posturing of a Bond movie. All the pieces were there but they were all mixed up – as if a terrible editor went to work on everything without a clue. I’ve had enough with digging into Bond’s emotions – just make a decent spy thriller already!

    And what a terrible waste of Severine. Maybe they did not want Berenice (with no real film experience) showing up the rest of the ‘A’ cast so they cut her part short, but for my money, in her short time on screen, she nailed it. A real classic Bond girl evoking Thunderball and Dr. No.

    I just think they should get Martin Campbell back. He’s the only director of the recent past who’s shown he knows how to make a Bond movie, blending plot, romance, drama, scenery, dialogue and pacing. All the other guys have no clue. Well – maybe Roger Spottiswoode did a decent enough actionesque Bond movie (it had all the largesses of the most over the top Connery and Moore vehicles) with Tomorrow Never Dies – but for pure classic Bond get Martin Campbell.

    1. BondJames, I think you perfectly summed up my feelings about “Skyfall” with: “I’ve had enough with digging into Bond’s emotions – just make a decent spy thriller already!” I agree too that Martin Campbell seems among the few competent contemporary directors who can ably helm a Bond vehicle. I’m not crazy about GoldenEye but it was workmanlike enough but I love “Casino Royale” — one of my top three favorite Bond films.

  7. The one place where I really disagree with this review is when the score is discussed. Though no one can top John Barry I think David Arnold did a good job (and made liberal use of Bond’s theme) in his Brosnan outings. His music for Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace was good too….it didn’t use the Bond theme much but that was on purpose. Those movies were Bond becoming Bond and Arnold did use the theme at specific moments (we finally hear the theme in the last scene of Casino at the same time we first hear Bond make his iconic introduction).

    I didn’t find Newman’s music particularly memorable but Arnold really did a good job keeping the Barry style alive. And when Arnold actually got the theme tunes he wanted he did a good job of incorporating the melodies from those songs into his scores. Sometimes, however, he was given crap like in Quantum…you won’t hear any of Another Way to Die in his score.

    You will however hear the melody from Shirley Bassey’s No Good About Goodbye in the score, which should be the actual title song from that movie.

    Okay, that’s all I have to say. Give Arnold some props.

  8. Thanks for the spot on review Jay. just saw the film and can’t contain my disappointment. 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes? Doesn’t speak well for the state of film criticism. The movie had a few good moments at the beginning, but then it just dragged. I don’t blame the actors; it’s the bland writing and direction. The Bond girl was interesting, so why dispose of her? And why tamper with a successful formula? Bond films are supposed to be classy…and fun. All you need is Bond, the handsome hero, gorgeous girls, exotic locations, and a world-threatening crisis brought about by an interesting villain. Is that so much to ask? Apparently, yes.

  9. this is an almost perfect review of this film….after seeing so many positive reviews i went into this movie thinking it would top CASINO ROYALE……what a total waste of my time and money….i too am worried about the future of this franchise…..rent DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER….or DR NO…youll have a much better time…

  10. Jay, your review is a refreshing departure from the universal canonizing of Skyfall as one of the best Bond films ever. It isn’t. And it gives me no pleasure to say so. When I read in the flagship newspapers that the action sequences are “thrilling” and “astonishing” I wonder if perhaps I saw an unfinished rough cut of the film. Unlike Martin Campbell, Sam Mendes is not an action director. He has an undeniable sense of aesthetics and knows how to turn his actors’ eyes into moons of melancholy, but a scene in which men are engaged in hand to hand combat atop a speeding train while narrowly escaping decapitation by bridge should be far more exciting. Instead, the images just seem to unfold systematically. Casino Royale dared to supply James with a radical new device–introspection. And in that film, the gamble paid dividends; his new-found humanity made him unpredictable and dangerous. But now, to show Bond staring plaintively across the foggy Scottish landscape of his troubled childhood seems to have the undesirable effect of reducing a charismatic super agent to a mopey bore. If Bond is portrayed as a man you would rather not have a martini with, you’re doing something wrong. To be sure, there are some breathtakingly gorgeous sequences in Skyfall: during the finale, in which Craig chases his prey through a field at night, his silhouette darting through the rich crimson glow of a distant smoldering house, it is like watching an acrylic painting come to life. If only the rest of the film did, too.

  11. I agree with everything save for the sequence of the “train careering through a blown-apart hole”. I enjoyed this moment very much, seeing it as a nod to all the “overly complicated and easily escapable plans” to kill Bond and very well parodied in the first Austin Powers movie.

  12. I’m wondering if the story would have veered in another direction at the first hint of stealing away M and heading to Skyfall, if the movie would have been salvaged. I thought it was great until there, but once the 2 main characters were sequestered, setting a trap for the villain at Skyfall, it all seemed so “horror movie” familiar. It already had touches of Silence of the Lambs and X-Men with the glass, solitary prison for Bardem’s character, but I was reminded of so many movies (literally dozens) where the trap at Skyfall seemed so familiar. From Saferoom to The Shining to Home Alone. Movies have beaten the stuffing out of that dead horse and I was highly saddened by its predictability. Take another turn when M is in deep trouble with hearings to maybe a chase through an African game reserve, an American swamp, Moscow, New Orleans, a major sporting event, anything but “we’re trapped in a house and every escape has been cut off.” I’ve seen that. Bond does a good job showing us the world by chasing an elusive, maniacal villain with endless finances. However, the second half of the movie was obviously done in a closed, convenient studio set instead of exotic locale.

  13. Good review. I’m glad I was not the only one who feels this way. I saw the movie three days ago and I am still saying to myself, “what was that?” My wife and I both left the theater disappointed. The part that did it for me, was when Q, Tanner, and Mallory are leaving a trail to get SIlva to Skyfall. I fully expected the British SAS to be there with a final battle between Bond and SIlva as Silva tries to escape. We even joked how funny it would have been to have Prince William and Prince Harry, in their military roles, participate in the trap! Prince harry leading his men to defeat Silva’s men and Prince William moving in with his helicopter to rescue M. Instead MI6 leaves them alone for hours. I guess that’s how you work the story to get the ending Mendes’ wanted.
    Just not a good movie. Casino Royale is still the best of the Craig films.

  14. Totally agree, went into movie with high expectations because of all the good reviews, but couldn’t believe how they sucked all the fun out of the franchise. No gadgets? No grand plot to take over the world?

  15. After seeing this moving this weekend I went to Rottentomatoes, because I was sure that most critics were going to rip this movie a new one. I was shocked to find that critics and fans alike rated it in the 90% range. I know that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I feel like I saw a different movie from everyone else. The villian’s plot alone baffles me as to how any critic could take this Bond film seriously.

    Spoiler:

    The villian knew that if he blew up MI6 that they would relocate underground. So he devised a plan to get caught, so he could break out, and sneak in to the court house to kill M, who he somehow knew would be having a hearing there. The new Q even said this had been planned for years. First off, how could he have know she’d be at the courthouse. Second, why? Why go to all that trouble? If he can do all that then why not simply break in to her house and kill her?

    Also the entire scene at the Skyfall property reminded me too much of Home Alone: the James Bond Edition. I still don’t know why the groundskeeper was there. He obviously wasn’t taking care of the house or living there cause there were cobwebbs and dust everywhere. So if he wasn’t doing his job, why did he just happen to be there at that moment?

    I could go on and on. This was a very disappointing movie full of holes and weak plot points.

    1. If it wasn’t for his voice, I would not thought that was Albert Finney. He was perfect for the role, which is really a “game keeper” not a “grounds keeper.” He’s the person who taught Bond how to shoot and hunt.

  16. Call me crazy, but I thought this movie WAS fun. That said, I don’t find anything wrong with a movie exploring a different aspect of a character that’s had over 20 damn movies of the same old thing. I mean this is the 50th anniversary, give us something new or pack it in. In this case, I thought they did right by mingling old and new.

    But if you want to see a movie completely undone by its grim tone and lack of joy, check out Amazing Spider-Man, an example of this type of movie gone horribly, horribly wrong.

  17. A late response, but I hope I’ll be excused by the fact that I saw this movie only yesterday and was also very disappointed. I found it even more disturbing to see that the Tomatometer for this film was at 92. I wouldn’t have expected anything below 80 but this I found rather exagerated. There is SO much that can be said about this film and you’ve already summed up a lot of my feelings towards this movie. There are, nevertheless, a few additional things that struck me: first thing was that the movie was VERY long and that nothing within the story seemed to justify these lengths. I found myself tempted to look at my watch while people were leaving the theatre in rather large groups about 1/2 hour before the end of the movie. Then there was the theme that sounds like an attempt at creating the most generic James Bond theme ever. Where has the creative fun gone, that consisted of fusing contemporary pop music with the Bond theme? Then there were the mind boggling plot holes or inconsistancies. I know it’s a Bond movie and it’s all about nonsensical spy fiction but there are rules of logic even within the parallel worlds created in films. Here. we are presented with an evil genius who executes his plans by thinking several moves in advance and who is one of the world’s most acomplished computer experts, but who fails to discover a terribly clunky device the size of a lighter, which itsel is laughable given that Bond was always all about using the most high-end equipment. Then, finally, there is the gratuitous destruction of one of the most beloved symbols of Bond history: the Aston Martin. What was that for? Why does he use the old jewel of a car at all? Why is the Aston Martin waiting in a hidden garage near by the MI6 headquarters at all? This all makes no sense and it just made me sad. Finally, there is this whole thing about Bond getting old, the service getting old, M getting old. Enough already. I’m also getting old and I certainly don’t want to go to the movies to see the newest creation from a franchise which I grew up with just to be confronted with the fact that my world is coming to an end. Like someone said already: Bond was always about chases, nice ladies, exotic places and about saving the world from a crazed baddie with a lot of charme and dry British humour and I want this back so badly!

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