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.
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