Fifty years in, it’s safe to say that the James Bond franchise has been a fun but very mixed bag. Indeed, you only have to look at the past two films to see how drastically these movies can vary in quality; Casino Royale – stylish, dramatic and loaded with action – reinvigorated the character and brought him racing into the twenty-first century, only for him to flounder just two years later in the nigh unwatchable Quantum of Solace. Skyfall is the twenty-third in the series, the third to star Daniel Craig, and absolutely delivers on many of the signature Bond elements – great action, witty rejoinders and a classic, scenery-chewing villain – that audiences have come to expect. Sadly, it also suffers from unconvincing plotting, and a third act so bad it brings the roof of the whole endeavour caving in.
Whereas Quantum of Solace served as a sequel to Casino Royale, Bond 23 is a standalone adventure, one that starts with a bang on the streets and rooftops of Istanbul with 007 in hot pursuit of a suspect who’s stolen a hard-drive that’s vital to Britain’s security. Unfortunately the thief eludes capture, which is especially bad news for Bond’s boss ‘M’ (Judi Dench), whose government superior (Ralph Fiennes; Harry Potter) wants to force her into early retirement – particularly when the thief’s employer, a mysterious cyber-terrorist with connections to M’s past, launches an attack on MI6 headquarters. But M isn’t going down without a fight, and so sends Bond to track down their new enemy before he can strike at them again.
Skyfall was directed by Sam Mendes, which seemed when announced like something of a strange choice; although he’s rightfully earned his fair share of praise for films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, winning Oscars for melancholy suburban dramas does not an action director make. Nevertheless, the action scenes in Skyfall are far stronger than those in Quantum, where split-second editing made it impossible to tell what was going on. Mendes also brings with him acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who ensures that, from the opening chase to a one-take fight-scene in an illuminated Shanghai skyscraper, the action is not only thrilling, but visually striking as well. Big sets and exotic locales such as these capture the old-fashioned extravagance that has long been a staple of the Bond series. Meanwhile, Craig’s blunt physicality helps maintain the harder, grittier, more realistic edge that has characterised his tenure as the world’s most iconic secret agent.
Indeed, while he’s far from the suavest of Bonds, Craig is the only actor, including Sean Connery, who’s ever had the chance to make the man into an actual human being. Here, even more so than in his previous outings, there’s physical and emotionally vulnerability to Craig’s Bond – a weariness behind his eyes that hints at the toll a license to kill might have on a person. His signature quips tinged ever so slightly with bitterness, even the bedding of a beautiful woman or the savouring of a vodka martini (or, when product placement calls for it, a Heineken) holds little pleasure for this weathered 007, a man resigned to his lonely, violent lifestyle that for the first time seems more tragic than it does glamorous.
Across from Bond is the villainous Raoul Silva, revealed before long to be a vindictive former MI6 agent played by a blonde-haired Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona). Gleefully malicious, pathologically self-centred, flamboyantly bisexual and completely insane, Bardem, the perfect combination of campy and menacing, recalls some of the franchises’ best villains, and is destined to remembered amongst them. His creepy introductory monologue, and later his staging of a tense, twisted, almost Felliniesque game of William Tell on his deserted private island, are the two best scenes in the film by far, while his interplay with Craig – loaded with forthright homoeroticism (a surprising but very effective diversion) – threatens to turn five decades of Bond machismo on its head.
Unfortunately, it’s only shortly after these scenes that Skyfall begins to unravel. As good a performance as Bardem gives, his character’s plan is totally preposterous, and relies heavily on unlikely coincidences and ludicrous scenes of “computer hacking” (the depiction of which is rarely convincing in spy films, but seems especially laughable here – and that’s despite the fine work of Ben Wishaw (Cloud Atlas) as a younger version of ‘Q’, the intelligence services’ technical whiz-kid.) Of course in Bond films prior, this mightn’t have been such a problem. But the new 007 wants to be dark, gritty and grounded in reality, something which makes these outlandish moments a great deal more difficult to swallow.
The turn for the worse gets a hell of a lot sharper in the script’s clunker of a finale, one that drags us back to Bond’s ancestral home – Scotland – and suddenly hits us with a blast of unwanted back-story about the superspy’s troubled childhood. The slipshod, tacked-on nature of this section is a serious disservice to a character who, for fifty years, has largely remained an enigma. The final action scene is also hugely underwhelming, regressing significantly in terms urgency and spectacle while furthering the strategically nonsensical behaviour of hero and villain alike. In what was up until that point a fairly lean and thrilling Bond caper, the final thirty minutes – which stretch Skyfall out to a labourious one hundred and forty three total – could hardly be more disappointing.
The film’s other big problem is its handling of M. Dench has played the role since GoldenEye in the mid-nineties, and has been one of the franchises’ strongest assets even since. Not only is she great actress, but the decision to make Bond’s boss a woman – a combination of monarch and matriarch – hints slyly at an oedipal complex at the root of his habitual womanizing (not to mention, his devotion to Queen and country). The fact remains, however, that M has always been an ancillary character, and that Skyfall attempts to build on foundations that were never actually laid in the first place. No matter how much they harp on about it, the film never quite sells M as a figure of surrogate motherhood. Instead, she becomes just another helpless woman for 007 to save.