Movie review: Skyfall

Skyfall, the 23rd and newest James Bond film, tries to accomplish many different things during its 143-minute run time. It attempts to refit the Daniel Craig-era Bond films to allow for the return of some of the series’ better-known components (Q branch, for example), while at the same time taking Craig’s Bond on a more personal journey than the character is usually allowed. It aspires to create a showy and memorable Bond villain who has secret and intimate ties with MI6 and Judi Dench’s M. It wants to be a thematically deeper Bond film, complete with an underlining battle pitting old-school super-spy resourcefulness against modern-day tech superiority. And I think because it tries to do all of these things, it ends up not doing any of them particularly well.

Yeah, it was a surprise to me too, especially considering how great a huge majority of the film’s reviews have been, which makes me odd man out this go-round. But so be it. I’ll take the bullet. Skyfall just isn’t a particularly good Bond movie. It’s certainly nowhere nowhere near the quality of Casino Royale, Craig’s first Bond outing and, so far, the best film the series has produced.

This installment finds the British SIS under attack from all sides by shadowy unknown forces. First, a hard drive that contains the true identities of undercover NATO agents is stolen, and before long, someone sinister is hacking his way into M’s personal computer before blowing MI6 HQ to smithereens. The attacks seem personal, which Bond confirms when he tracks all the shenanigans to one Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an ex-agent with a disturbing facial deformity and an axe to grind. Up through Bardem’s big entrance, the movie moves along efficiently enough, even if some of the plot contrivances, like a casino chip stashed in a gun case, reek of the screenwriters desperately needing a way to push the story forward. And Silva’s introduction is great — uncomfortable in all the right ways, as Bond appears unsure whether Silva plans to kill him, recruit him or attempt to bed him. But once Bond escapes, Bardem’s character is reduced to employing one preposterously conceived plan after another as he tries to turn the intelligence regime that M has built to ash. Before long, Skyfall starts collapsing under a spotty patchwork of ideas that never gel into anything coherent. Major spoilers from this point on …

For example, let’s look at the old-world spies vs. new-world tech idea. It’s designed to be a primary theme of the film, but the hacker angle with Silva is pretty much dropped halfway through, when he turns into a typical Bond villain complete with helicopters and his own team of mercs and everything. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes’ character, who starts the movie as a government bureaucrat threatening Dench’s reign as M thanks in part to her reliance on the old ways, is revealed to be an ex-field agent who’s clearly in Bond’s corner by the movie’s end. So the theme fizzles out. Honestly, if they wanted to hammer this idea home, shouldn’t the villain have been an ex-member of Q branch fighting against a government that he/she doesn’t think goes far enough in the realm of technical espionage? Wouldn’t that have made for the more compelling battle?

Then there’s the matter of “Skyfall” itself. Bond freaks out when the word gets name-dropped by an MI6 psychologist early on. Then it’s forgotten about for a while until, all of a sudden, the movie decides that it wants to spend its final third delving into Bond’s past. It turns out “Skyfall” is the name of the Bond family home, where young James lived before his parents died. His reaction to the word being spoken aloud points to him carrying a lot of past baggage, but once he turns up at the estate, on the run from Silva and with M in tow, he doesn’t appear as if he’s doing any soul-searching or struggling with his past at all. If anything, he seems amused by a meet up with Kincaid (Albert Finney), the estate’s gamekeeper who’s still hanging around. At one point, Silva stumbles over Bond’s parents’ gravestones and smiles over the recognition of where he’s at. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to spend a minute with Bond at the graves? I know the man’s not a fountain of emotion, but if director Sam Mendes and co-writer John Logan (who did the final draft) wanted to go to this place with this character … well, then they should have went there fully.

Instead, it’s as if Mendes thinks merely the idea of setting an action sequence at the Bond family home is daring enough for the audience to find it exciting, but it’s really not, especially when said sequence is flat and a little silly. Bond, M and Kincaid (the latter of whom the viewer has no attachment to because we’ve never heard of him before) literally Home Alone their way out of a jam, setting traps and using muskets to battle a small army and an attack helicopter. You could argue it’s an extension of the blunt instrument vs. precision tech theme — brawny Bond has lured Silva away from his computerized comfort zone to fight in the wild — but, by that point, Silva’s already morphed into a full-on psycho. (And, honestly, we never see super-hacker Silva in the flesh anyway, only the end result of his attacks. Boris from GoldenEye would bury this dude, I tell ya.)

And I’ve still got more to complain about! All of the actions scenes are surprisingly rote for a Bond movie. The motorcycle/train chase at the beginning veers from mildly effective though similar to stuff you’ve seen before to offering the absurd sight of Bond trying to gain an advantage on the man he’s pursuing by taking control of a backhoe that’s parked on the train. (I don’t have a problem with it being outlandish. All Bond openers are outlandish. I have a problem with it being more dumb than clever.) Additionally, this installment’s Bond girls are among the series’ weakest. Craig and Naomie Harris, who plays a fellow agent whose destiny may not lie out in the field, have very little chemistry throughout the film. A bad thing here. Potentially a disaster when it’s revealed that Harris is playing the new Moneypenny and will almost certainly be back. I actually like Berenice Marlohe in the movie, along with her little storyline as an indentured sex servant who sees a way out in Bond, but she’s offed almost as quickly as she’s introduced. Wasteful.

Despite all of this, the film’s not a total disaster. Craig is still great in the part, even though I’m starting to worry they’ll never be able to give him material that’s as good as what he had in his first go-round with the character. (Interestingly, the same thing happened to Pierce Brosnan, whose wonderful GoldenEye was followed by three Bond snores.) Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as breath-taking as always. Even though I didn’t much go for the final fight at the Bond estate, watching Bond and Silva pull themselves across Scottish marshes while a fire blazes behind them, casting a glow on the surrounding countryside, is indeed quite a sight. Thomas Newman’s score is lively and pays the proper amount of lip service to the classic Bond themes.

But the whole movie, even the parts that work, ultimately serves no purpose other than to get this series back to the status quo, where it lived before the powers that be established a soft reboot with Casino Royale. It’s almost like Logan and the other writers started from the last scene — the one where all the characters are slotted into their new but familiar roles — and worked backward from there. After the drudgery of Quantum of Solace, I thought the mandate was that it’s time to make Bond fun again, not that it’s time to spend a whole other movie getting Bond to the point where it can be fun again. Instead, Skyfall is largely focused on breaking down a character who has just been rebuilt from the ground up over the last two films, going so far as to show Bond’s physical skills are already in a state of decline. That decision doesn’t make much sense, and the end result isn’t nearly good enough to convince the viewer that it was the right approach for this movie.