Is there a more storied franchise in cinema than the James Bond series? Obviously, there are better series. Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, the original Star Wars trilogy. But, I’m unsure if there is a single character in the pop culture lexicon that has infiltrated the popular imagination as much as James Bond. And considering the fact that he has now been portrayed by five men (unless you count the satirical Casino Royale, not the new one), it makes that fact all the more impressive. As the definition of everything that is masculine, suave, and debonair, James Bond, the man, is a paragon of action heroics that has continually stood the test of time for 50 years now.
One of the most apparent goals of the James Bond franchise as carried by the broad shoulders of Daniel Craig has been a deconstruction of the entire James Bond mythos. It was a goal that Casino Royale met with ease, and that’s probably why that film remains my favorite of the whole franchise. Quantum of Solace was a great action film but a rather stale affair after the more cerebral Casino Royale, and while you saw the dark path that James had gone down, it didn’t do enough to add to his character. With the addition of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) as director, Skyfall had the potential to be the best Bond yet (and quite a few critics seemed to think it was), but the film’s ambitions ultimately outweighed it’s actual accomplishments, and while Skyfall was a riveting, dark experience (with perhaps the best Bond villain I’ve experienced yet), I was left with a nagging sense of disappointment and incompleteness through much of the picture.
It’s difficult to discuss this movie without spoiling it’s truly excellent opening set piece which comes to set the mood for the rest of the film. Here goes. After 007 and his new partner Eve (Naomie Harris) fail to stop a terrorist from getting away with vital espionage information, not only is all of MI6 put in danger but that of every undercover NATO agent in the world. It isn’t long before they discover they’re up against a threat (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) from M’s (Judi Dench) past who has as legitimate a reason to hate MI6 as the British government now does to hunt him down. And when Bond’s and M’s failings draw the attention of the British government (including a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes), the film takes a sharp focus on James’s fallibility and how he always a well-placed bullet away from death.
I had to be intentionally vague about the plot of the film because while I had a myriad of issues with its plotting/pacing (I’ll get there), there were some remarkably well-timed twists and turns that I wouldn’t want to spoil for any future viewers. So, before I get into some of the problems I had with the film, let’s go with the good. Which certainly has to begin and end with the film’s top-notch casting. Daniel Craig remains, in my humble opinion, the best Bond to ever grace the screen. He brings a sense of humanity and nuance to the role that is missing from the other, more mythic Bonds. And this film sees Craig channeling a far more haggard and broken Bond than ever before. He loses nearly everything, and through this loss, Craig (and the script) form a weirdly insightful commentary on the rebirth and resurrection that is at the heart of the franchise.
While Craig was great as usual, the real show-stoppers in Skyfall were Judi Dench’s M and Javier Bardem’s Silva. I might even go as far to say that while Bond was still the star of the show, M actually carried much of the philosophical weight of the film as well ultimately symbolizing its themes. Judi Dench should have gotten an Oscar nomination for her part in this film as I can definitely say that the only Bond side-player I’ve ever been as invested in was Casino Royale‘s Vesper Lynn. And Javier Bardem gives his best turn since Vicky Cristina Barcelona as the ambiguously gay Raoul Silva. With bleached-blond hair and flamboyant but controlled mannerisms, Bardem turned Silva into a memorable character not just from his excellent backstory and devious actions, but also through the very effective way that Bardem found both the sympathetic side in this once good man but also the darkest, most terrifying sides of his villainy.
The film was also one of the most visually striking entries in the series to date. Director of photography Roger Deakins does a phenomenal job of not just setting the visual tone of the film (which is bleak and despairing). He also provides maybe the most artistically conceived hand-to-hand combat sequence in the modern era of the franchise. Bond has tracked a villain down to a Shanghai building that’s under construction. And 007 and the bad guy fight as they’re photographed against a black silhouette while a holographic and shifting billboard outside the building provides a gorgeous backlight. And the film is just chock full of little moments and touches like that including some great shots in Scotland at the film’s end that I wouldn’t spoil even under torture. For fans of great cinematography, Skyfall is an exceptional delight.
The high quality of so many other areas of the film is what makes it’s disappointments harder to bear. My biggest complaint is the hardest to explain but it bears exploring. To be perfectly honest, Skyfall just feels flaccid. In some regards, that was surely the film’s intent. They want to explore a more human, fallible side of James Bond. And there are moments where the film does it without robbing the movie of the propulsion that defines the series. But, over the film’s two and a half hour run (the movie is far, far too long), Sam Mendes and the screenwriters take a sledgehammer to the audience about how broken and vulnerable both M and Bond have become in the modern world, and it seems like they’re just dropping anvils on the audience with no eye/ear for subtlety. The Dark Knight Rises/The Dark Knight took a similar deconstruction of the Bruce Wayne/Batman mythos without robbing those series of what made them great in the first place.
And the film’s over-bearing length adds to the film’s other major problem. Something about this film just feels redundant. While the whole idea of Bond being an analogue man in a digital world is handled in clever ways (the introduction of the new Q was very well executed), it’s ground that other films have trod in the past, and I’m not sure if Skyfall brought much new to the table in that regard. The interplay between Bond and Q in this film could just have easily been the back and forth between Justin Long and Bruce Willis in Live Free and Die Hard. Similarly, while we see a broken down James in this film, I honestly felt like most of the development and interesting growth went to M. I didn’t feel like Bond grew very much, and in a post Casino Royale world, I have become attracted to the modern Bond franchise by the possibility of intelligent action and interesting character development.
I’ll draw this to a close because I don’t think many people want to read a 1300 word review of why I thought this movie was really good but just shy of great. But that’s an accurate description of this ambitious though flawed entry into the franchise. Javier Bardem continues to show that he can be one of the greatest supporting men of this generation (I haven’t really seen him in many leading roles), and Judi Dench is one of the true gems of the British acting world. I honestly feel bad for anyone making a Daniel Craig James Bond film though. The bar was set so high by Casino Royale that they have to capture lightning in a bottle twice to find that magic again. I think it’s possible, and Skyfall came close. It just didn’t get all the way there.
Final Score: B+