I am repeatedly let down by films that I expect to be great this year. The only films I have enjoyed unreservedly have had very low ambitions. Perhaps expecting greatness from action-thrillers is a doomed practice, but there have been too many–I’m looking at you Christopher Nolan–that have set us up to not only believe but demand. The audience here at the 12:07 showing of the new Bond film Skyfall (2012) exemplifies this belief. The applause at the end suggests many can’t tell the difference.
On assignment in Turkey, James Bond (Daniel Craig) and another MI6 officer, Eve (Naomie Harris), are tracking down a baddie that has a list of all NATO agents undercover in terrorist groups. Bond chases said baddie onto the roof of a train where, when things are tense and the baddie might actually escape, Eve is forced to take the shot and hits Bond instead of the baddie (who safely train-surfs away). Things look grim with the list out in the world and the worlds greatest super sexy super spy living it up in a tropical paradise. However, when M (Judi Dench) becomes the target, Bond returns, forgive me, shaken and stirred. M is under political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and the House of Commons for all the recent intelligence failures orchestrated by an unknown supervillain (Javier Bardem).
I saw a tweet from Ebert saying that this was the best Bond film in years. If he’s counting from 2008 and Quantum of Solace (2008), then I’d say he was right. Otherwise, the best in the series is clearly Casino Royale (2006) which was entirely its own film. Skyfall, on the other hand is purposefully linking itself at nearly every turn to the cheesy past. I had hoped we were going forward into a gritty future less interested in gadgets and more interested in brutal intelligence gathering. Instead it’s a license to kill all of my hopes for the series. It’s about island hideaways, cat-stroking villains, and changes in the main cast that cause me some disquiet.
As I’m going to take a healthy dump on this movie at considerable length, I’ll pick out some of the positives. Bardem is absolutely phenomenal as the villain. He’s everything you could ever want as the fusion of new Bond and old Bond. (I just don’t want the fusion.) The place around which the title centered is beautiful and beautifully created. It’s so wonderful, I want to say it twice so that by giving it greater length, I give it greater emphasis. Ben Whishaw is becoming a personal favorite of mine and I was very pleased to see him in the credits (he plays the quartermaster Q). It’s also always a good moment in the movie when Naomie Harris is on screen. Finally, some of the witty remarks were actually quite funny. Okay, that’s it.
I’m surprised by some of the choices director Sam Mendes made in this movie. A two and a half hour runtime for a start. The movie makes one real turn in the plot and that’s about it. The opening sequence had the feeling of obligation about it. “Well, guys, it’s expected of us.” The song is lovely, but the sequence’s visuals show the limited scope of the film. Bond is shot, fire, skulls, weapons, women. I guess you can’t really show a tear that never comes. That’s the next choice I cannot understand.
Mendes has a reputation for deep emotional work and this should be the most emotional Bond movie ever. But what? Didn’t we do broken James last time? Now we have to do really broken James. Daniel Craig was 38 when he started and now he’s 44. Suddenly he’s an old man? In the next film can we expect the line “I’m getting too old for this bollocks”? And yet and yet and yet, I do not recall Mendes making a single close-up on anything resembling a clean emotional shot. Maybe this is Craig’s fault. The confused fox look he gives may be supposed to reflect all these emotions, but it doesn’t.
Also, the villain’s sexy sidekick, played by Bérénice Marlohe, was perhaps the worst and most cliched performance of fear I have ever seen. She shook so much I thought she might have Parkinson’s. The fact that there are two such disappointments on screen is proof that it is Mendes who is to blame. You cannot rely on the ambiguity of Bond’s mental state to be enough for the audience to accept what they saw. All I see in a 2.5 hour film is rush rush rush. Mendes, I suspect, was chosen in order to fight that impulse. He didn’t.
So, you’ve got a movie of this length and only one plot shift that has been used often enough recently that I couldn’t believe such astute characters didn’t see the possibility of its happening. I felt the same way when I saw The Ides of March (2011)–“What? This is it?” This is a failure of the script–and there are many. You’ve got a pair of guys that have written the last five Bond films–including the last two miserable Pierce Brosnan ones–in Neal Purvis and Robert Wade but you also have a real talent with John Logan who I have mentioned here before. I’m curious what he was brought on to do. Pathetic wittery, Purvis and Wade have under control and they certainly give it full, inorganic swing in Skyfall, but Logan must have been there punch something up. You’ll have to ask him.
In any case, the dialogue is ludicrously weak and literal. Here’s an example. Bond comes back and is in M’s house. “Where have you been” blah blah blah and then, “Why are you here?” Pause, looks into Craig’s confused fox face, and instead of leaving it there follows it up with, “Because you saw we were under attack and you know we need you.” As if she turned to the audience, looked us square in the eye, and said, “Get it?” That happened two or three more times. There was another weird thing where Bond basically lets two people die right in front of him before he decides to intervene. That I’ve not completely understood because they were played in ways that suggested nothing was to be taken from it. That’s back on Mendes (or me, obviously).
The most beautiful part of the movie, which I pointed out in the positive section, is belied by the perfunctory way in which it is used. Establish the beauty, destroy the beauty, end film with vomit-worthy return to Dr. No (1962). All of this required either closeness or detachment and instead Mendes goes with the medium. Nothing. Ruined. If he took this job seriously, then it’s a reflection on Mendes’s craft, if he didn’t take it seriously, he is out of touch with the direction Hollywood is going.
Perhaps another viewing would alter my views on some of this (particularly, the sense of being rushed), but I cannot remember enough moments in the film that might have saved it. It just didn’t have the development we saw in Casino Royale (2006) which may just stand as the Die Hard (1988) of the Bond series–there was one great one, but the only thing they share with their sequels is a name and a few allusions.