I’ll say it upfront, I’m a massive James Bond fan and I watch the films in the series with the zeal of a “fanboy.” I’m a James Bond traditionalist and it’s because of this that I’ve had an awfully hard time wrestling with the recent entries in the series which have starred Daniel Craig in the iconic role. When Casino Royale opened up without the series’ trademark gun barrel cold open I nearly had a heart attack, however, the film that followed was quite strong and I ultimately had to put my reservations aside and admit that the film was overall a success. I figured that with the series now rebooted the films that followed would get back to basics and we’d never see such heresy again… then for some ungodly reason the next film, Quantum of Solace, didn’t have the gun barrel cold open either. Had that second film been anywhere near as good as Casino Royale I probably would have held my nose and approved yet again, but it wasn’t. Quantum of Solace sucked both as a bond film and as a regular action movie and the fact that the filmmakers stepped all over the franchise traditions that I hold dear in order to make that monstrosity only made the film’s failure sting all the worse. Still, I held out hope that the producers behind the series would view the series reboot as complete and the next film would finally return the gun barrel cold open to the beginning of the film where it belongs.
After a four year wait the third bond film starring Daniel Craig has finally arrived, and the god damn thing still doesn’t open with gun barrel cold open… WHY MUST YOU PEOPLE KEEP RIPPING MY SOUL APART! I know all this sounds crazy, and no, this isn’t really just about a fifteen second piece that I believe belongs at the beginning of these movies. This is about a mindset that seems to have infected Eon Productions and led to the creation of three straight films made by people who seems to think it was their duty to “fix” the bond series when I for one think the series was never in need of fixing. It’s like they’re so obsessed with reboots that they don’t know when to just roll with what they have. It all seems like some kind of massive over-reaction to the shortcomings of the 2003 bond film Di Another Day, which as admittedly terrible, but the series has seen worse and hasn’t needed to go to these lengths to come back before. All that said, I’m not going to judge Skyfall harshly out of some misguided sense of purism. I did like Casino Royale quite a bit in spite of its transgressions from the traditions of the series and I was more than willing to give Skyfall the same credit if it turned out to be a solid film unto itself.
The film’s opening scene feels almost like an encapsulation of the first Mission: Impossible movie, firstly because it involves a fight on top of a moving train and secondly because it involves a list of undercover agents’ identities being stolen by international terrorists. This theft would come back to haunt MI6 when it falls in the hands of a mysterious terrorist (Javier Bardem) who begins launching a series of cyber attacks which seem to be directed directly at M (Judi Dench). M plays a much larger role in this film than in most Bond films and here she’s under fire both from the mysterious hacker/terrorist and from people within the British government including a bureaucrat named Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) who suggests that both M and Bond are old fashioned and outdated. In spite of some personal setbacks, Bond is sent to track down the man behind the attacks and bring him to justice.
The man brought aboard to direct this installment in the franchise was Sam Mendes, a director I’ve largely supported, especially in his early years. Still, the choice worried me. Bond movies are usually made by filmmakers who are solid but anonymous. It’s the one series where I’d prefer not to see Oscar nominated filmmakers, at least if Marc Forster’s disastrous stint directing Quantum of Solace was any indication. Fortunately, Mendes handles himself behind the camera much better than Forster did. Forster’s misguided attempt to co-opt the Bourne series’ “shaky-cam” is gone. Mendes style is largely simple and elegant. Roger Deakins has been brought on board as cinematographer and he does a lot to elevate the film by giving it a really sharp and glossy veneer. This is not to mean that Mendes’ direction is a sterling example of control and discipline, as the film does go off in some strange directions at time like a bizarre scene involving CGI kimono dragon and a misguided Albert Finney cameo late in the film. It also doesn’t mean that I think Skyfall works terrifically as an action movie unto itself. In that regard it’s actually kind of flawed. The film reminded me of the troubles facing the 1999 Bond film The World is Not Enough in that it opens with an incredible action scene which the film is then unable to top later on. In fact the opening actions scene is the only setpiece that truly feels “Bondian,” the rest feel more like what you’d expect from a typical if well made big budget Hollywood action movie.
Where the movie really started to go off the rails for me was when it introduced Javier Bardem as the villainous Raoul Silva. Silva is an ex-MI6 agent looking for revenge, a background that bears a striking similarity to Alec Trevelyan, the antagonist from the 1995 Bond film Goldeneye. While Trevelyan exacted his revenge through the typical evil villain means, Silva’s revenge is a bit more personal. In fact his methods bear a striking similarity to the methods of The Joker in The Dark Knight. I might go so far as to call it a ripoff. On top of that, I really hated a lot of the decisions that Bardem and the writers made in the characterization of Silva, specifically their decision to make strong hints in regards to his sexuality. That the filmmakers choose to make a gay man into a Bond villain is not objectionable in and of itself, but they opted to turn Silva into a twisted character driven by bizarre mother-issues and sexual urges. Between that and some not-so-subtle symbolism that’s employed in the character’s death scene, the whole thing struck me as rather homophobic and unsavory.
I also wasn’t amused by a running meta-gag about a sort of civil war between “the old ways” and “the new ways,” which is clearly intended to be a statement about old-fashioned action films and modern action films. This is odd firstly because it requires characters to continuously insinuate that Daniel Craig’s bond is “old.” Weren’t they just calling this Bond a young new agent just two movies ago? It’s like this movie wants to be both reboot and the culmination of a character’s years of accomplishments all at the same time and it just doesn’t compute. What’s more, modern audiences have yet to dismiss a single Bond film for being “old fashioned.” Every single Bond movie since Goldeneye has made more money than the last, even the much maligned Die Another Day was a huge box office success, and yet this movie operates as if the series has been up against the ropes of the last two decades.
So I guess now I’ve circled back around to my over-arching objection to the direction that this franchise has been heading in. All the producers really need to do at this point is relax and stop trying to turn every installment of the franchise into some sort of grand statement about itself and also to stop panicking every time one film doesn’t quite work work. That’s all I ask… and that the next movie opens with the gun barrel sequence… that’s all. It that too much to ask? Anyway, I’ll again reiterate that my problems with Skyfall do go deeper than my Bond movie fanboyism. It’s certainly an improvement over the dreadful Quantum of Solace but I probably prefer Casino Royale on almost every level. It had better action scenes, a more original plot, more psychological depth, and it generally felt more reverent towards the series even as it was actively subverting it.
*** out of Four