Fifty years later, James Bond just keeps coming back for more. While the franchise has had its ups and its downs, the latest entry, Skyfall ranks among the best Bonds of all time. Maybe it’s a result of bringing in Rango and Hugo writer John Logan to back up the Brosnan- and Craig-era team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Maybe it has to do with bringing in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes. Whatever it was, it’s clearly working.
The film kicks off in high gear with an extended chase-and-fight scene through Istanbul, which we recognize because yet again the Hagia Sofia is visible from every point. In fact, the sequence resembles nothing so much as one of those ones from Family Guy between Peter and the Chicken. It’s fantastic action with the promise of more to come. And it ends dramatically, with the new Bond girl, Eve (Naomie Harris), accidentally catching Bond (Daniel Craig) with a high powered rifle, knocking him from a speeding train, down the side of a high bridge to his presumable demise. But we don’t see the body, and this is the main character of course.
The point is still made: M (Judi Dench) is reckless with her agents. At least, that’s how Raul Silva (Javier Bardem) sees it, and now that he has a list of NATO operatives embedded in terrorist organizations he’s going to make her pay, starting with an explosion at MI6 headquarters. Such a dramatic attack brings Bond back from the shadows to track down Silva with the help of the other new Bond girl, Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe).
Now, before I continue I want to make it clear that this is a truly great Bond film. Mendes’ direction is impeccable, despite his lack of experience in the action world. In fact, almost every working action director out there could learn something from his gorgeous compositions, and the way his camera stays steady through even the heaviest action. The silhouette fight is a work of genius, and the climax is deliciously over-the-top but never gaudy.
That all said, there’s one glaring fly in the ointment: the film’s poor execution of its attempts at deeper meaning. And yes, it’s commendable that a Bond script even tries for deeper meaning in the first place, but that doesn’t change the fact that what it tries, it fails.
The central question is the supposed clash of cultures between old-style wetwork — it’s a stretch to call what we see in Bond films “espionage” — and newer, computer-age spycraft. Are agents like Bond and agencies like MI6 even relevant anymore? And, fifty years on, are Bond-style action films even relevant anymore? The film goes out of its way to set up this straw man just to knock it down over and over again. More than once, a character notes that “sometimes the old ways are the best”, and Bond is imbued with a baby boomer’s sense of slowly fading vigor. But does anybody seriously assert that there’s no role for field agents anymore? The cerebral approach to spy movies isn’t about to displace the visceral one anytime soon; just look what happened after the first Bourne film.
The script signals its back-to-basics fundamentalism when Q (Ben Whishaw) hands Bond a box containing a tracking radio and a gun whose only fancy feature is that it will not fire at a strategic point in the story. “What did you expect,” he asks, “an exploding pen?” Which, yeah, I can totally get behind, except that the computer technology we then see deployed — half by Q himself — is far more ridiculous than any of Desmond Llewelyn’s gadgets ever were. The techno-babble is among the worst I’ve ever heard, and it’s a pretty significant driver of the plot at a certain point.
It’s not that there aren’t technological advances that are rendering certain tasks obsolete that field agents used to handle. Stuxnet immediately springs to mind as a real-life example of the sort of thing that a talented screenwriter could build a movie around, but it would have a hard time being a Bond movie. Unmanned aerial vehicles — “drones” — are another dramatic hook ripe for exploitation. Any of these would be better than the weak sauce we get here.
That misfiring cylinder aside, though, Skyfall hums along like a finely-tuned Aston Martin. The action is spectacular and every frame looks wonderful. Javier Bardem, while always good, gives us one of the best Bond villains ever. If it would just get over its self-imposed mid-life crisis, it would be everything a Bond movie could and should be.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.