Skyfall: A movie about when Bond films used to be cooler
Skyfall, the 23rd film in the venerable 007 franchise and third for current Bond incarnation Daniel Craig, opened this weekend to greater financial success than any in the series thus far. It’s a rare foray into the action genre for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), and a more reflective story than is typical for a Bond film, interested primarily in the rift between the good old days of firsthand espionage and the growing role that technology plays in that field. So far we’ve seen Daniel Craig in both one of the best Bond films of all time with Casino Royale, and one of the worst with its direct sequel Quantum of Solace. This one wisely starts fresh with an unrelated story, but how does it stack up against those two entries and the rest of the 007 lineage?
The film kicks off with a chase, as one might expect. It’s not as thrilling as the then-innovative parkour sequences of Casino Royale, but it is nonetheless exceedingly well put-together. Motorcycles, cars, construction equipment, and good old fashioned running culminate in a tense struggle atop a speeding train, as Bond attempts to recover a thumb drive containing information on several MI6 operatives from the hands of an enemy agent. Running parallel to the primary chase is Bond’s partner in this operation, Eve, played by Naomie Harris (28 Days Later). From a nearby vantage point, she has the traintop battle in the sights of her high-powered rifle, but can’t get a clear shot at the bad guy. She’s about to lose her chance as the train approaches a tunnel, and M (Judi Dench) orders her via radio to take the shot. She misses, hitting Bond and sending him plummeting to the water below, and the bad guy gets away with the thumb drive. It’s a great sequence and a promising start, but unfortunately it’s kind of where the movie peaks.
Of course, since the franchise is named after him and only fifteen minutes or so have elapsed, Bond is not dead. But he takes the opportunity for a vacation, allowing everyone to think he’s dead, during which time M is informed of her impending involuntary retirement and an unknown terrorist successfully detonates a bomb at MI6 headquarters. This sets the stage for an inquiry in which the old methods of MI6 are called into question. Can traditional human operatives, no matter how effective or resilient, compete with today’s faceless cyber-villains? Complicating matters, a recently back from the dead Bond is failing physical and psychological testing left and right, and is deemed unfit for service. For whatever reason though, nobody tells him that, and he’s sent straight back into active duty.
As I watched events unfold, the often winking and self-referential debate over espionage methods started to take an unintentional turn, at least in my eyes. The big villain this time around, you see, is a hacker. He’s a computer expert who controls the rise and fall of nations from a laptop. To counter this, the franchise has a new Q portrayed by Ben Whishaw (Layer Cake, Cloud Atlas), himself a young and computer savvy gentleman who scoffs at 007’s desire for old-timey movie spy gear like exploding pens. Here’s the thing about exploding pens though, they’re a thousand more times more entertaining than watching even the world’s finest hacker at work. From Hackers to Swordfish to the incredibly mediocre fourth Die Hard installment, hacking has proven time and again to be the worlds most unfilmable crime. This script trots out all the Hollywood hacker cliches you can think of, including but not limited to ridiculous animated interfaces and the hero casually guessing a password on the first try. A password, I should point out, that wouldn’t even pass muster if you were signing up for a Hotmail account. Skyfall is roughly two and a half hours long, opening sequence aside, the audience has already been subjected to a 90 minute hacker movie before it decides to be a Bond film again. It’s a concept that never worked before, and it doesn’t work now.
Ironically, since his crimes are among the least interesting in 007 history, the villain in Skyfall is perhaps one of the series’ best. In 2007’s No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the enigmatic and ruthless Anton Chigurh, cemented him as one of the most effective onscreen villains of modern film. He carries that mantle easily into his portrayal of Raoul Silva, with a textbook example of a performance exceeding the script. He doesn’t show up until surprisingly late, however, and makes only periodic appearances after that. Despite a lack of screentime and a preference for criminal pursuits involving a keyboard, he’s one of the absolute best parts of the movie and it’s honestly worth watching just for him. Also falling into the show-stealing performance category is Judi Dench, who gives what is absolutely her peak performance as M out of her three times in the role. I’d go so far as to say that she beats out Daniel Craig as the dramatic anchor of the film, and by the end I was far more concerned with what was happening with M than with Bond himself.
So do I think Skyfall is worth the ticket price? Honestly that’s something I’ve been thinking about all weekend, and it’s why the review is hitting Sunday night instead of Friday. It’s got some really well crafted moments and a couple of stellar performances, coupled with some underused characters and a whole lot of story beats that never really pay off. I’d say if you’re a big fan of the series go ahead and check it out for those bits that rise above the rest, but be prepared to put in some work getting to them. There are some interesting backstory notes for Bond himself that fans will probably appreciate (we’re really just now getting to this?), but they deserved more time and feel like an afterward to everything else that happens. Something else that deserves special mention is the “Official James Bond Intro Sequence”, which is one of the best yet. The track “Skyfall”, performed by Adele, is pretty great and has some excellent visuals to go along with it. Oh, and if you were as concerned about James Bond’s sudden preference for a skunky midgrade beer as I was, rest easy. I counted a mere two Heinekens throughout. It’s much more a film about the Sony VAIO.