There is much to enjoy in Sam Mendes’ fiftieth anniversary Bond film, but it’s some way off being the pinnacle of the series suggested in some quarters. There’s a feeling at times that it’s trying too hard to be a spot-the-reference anniversary movie in the same way Die Another Day was, only with the benefit of a better director and one foot in the realism of previous Craig outings.
The attempts to do the more trad-Bond thing, notably with the reintroduction of iconic characters, a larger than life crippled villain (commendably unseen until at least the midpoint of the film) and liberal doses of humour, have mixed results. Pretty much every jokey line Craig delivers falls flat, and it would have been better not to try to remould him as a catch-all for the various personas of Bond throughout the years. There is a tangible déjà vu in having a beaten up, ageing character who has gone off the map (see Brosnan in his last two outings; as an aside is age the excuse for why Craig runs so oddly, as if has a couple of bags of walnuts straining to escape from his pants? Or, perhaps that is actually the reason) and I felt I’d seen it all before with the M plotline (she makes hard choices you know, but don’t we all just love her for it).
The attempts to overtly stress the relevance of the field agent in the current age have been going on since Goldeneye, and this is reinforced by establishing the main tool of the villain as cyber-terrorism, an altogether passé plot device (Live Free and Die Hard, for example). Even the graphics used by Silva when he hacks MI6 computers were the sort of thing you’d expect 10 or more ago years. And so it continues; Q is a computer whizz played by Ben Wishaw doing his best Matt Smith impression. Wishaw has a distinctive screen presence, and there’s a strong rapport between him and Craig, but the dialogue between them is laboured, trying hard to be witty and falling flat. By straining to be up-to-date, the writers only show how behind-the-times and middle-aged they are.
As with Wishaw, many of the problems with the script are masked, or at least diluted, by strong casting choices on Mendes’ part. Naomi Harris is so winning that you question why she doesn’t remain a field agent, and then realise that it’s because this is about moving the pieces into a certain position rather than following through with the characters. Ralph Fiennes’ Mallory steals every scene he’s in, and makes you think he’d have been a great choice as Bond 15 years ago. Rory Kinnear is also note-perfect as Tanner.
As for Javier Bardem, he’s a lot of fun and has a couple of solid speeches, although (a symptom of the bloated running time) the writers run out of interesting things to do with him once his plan is revealed (the nature of which is unfortunately very reminiscent of this year’s Avengers).
Judi Dench has been given progressively bigger chunks of storyline since she took on M duties, disproportionate to the importance of her character and reflective purely of having Oscar-winning Actress Judi Dench dribbling prestige all over a blockbuster franchise. She has such prestige she can say, “Fuck” in a Bond film and not cause a fuss! There’s little place for her character to go other than being the (self-) righteous ballbuster, so the series has fallen into a pattern (since The World Is Not Enough) of putting her in peril and then requiring Bond to rescue her, a pensionable damsel in distress (Quantum of Solace went to the lengths of having her show up on location just to harangue him with the usual circular badinage; you’ve got Dench, so maximum screen time means maximum quality Bond). Skyfall goes one step further, such that the entire plot revolves around M; she is now more important than world domination to Bond’s uber-villains. She’s officially become what Bond is all about, such that our stiff upper-lipped (or stubbled-lip in Craig’s case, the sloppy bugger) spy becomes all moist-eyed in her presence. Remember the halcyon days of Bernard Lee?
Compared to Quantum of Solace the action is fantastic, but it doesn’t get anywhere near to Casino Royale for edge of the seat thrills and viscerality (in general, the film can’t compete with Craig’s first). Mendes is clearly more comfortable with one-on-one action beats than vehicles and machines crunching into one another. Generally the spatial geography in these sequences is coherent, which is not only a blessing but essential after the last outing’s incoherent shakycam. I particularly enjoyed the William Tell-esque scene with antique pistols, Silva’s assassination attempt on M and the delightfully arty Hong Kong fight shot in silhouette. In contrast, a sequence where Bond pursues Silva reaches its climax with 007 experiencing an onslaught of special effects. In order for this to happen he has to decide not to take a clear shot, listen to Silva tell him how he’s not yet beaten, and then not move while said special effect careers towards him. Perhaps the excuse is he’s getting old.
While I don’t wish to labour the point, the vulnerable action man was done before with (in particular) The World is Not Enough, and it was no more compelling a character beat first time around. In that instance, it whiffed of star power attempting to surgically implant depth on a one-note persona that previously held such notions in contempt (his marriage excepted). Here, it translates as just another example of a film series lacking in self-confidence looking nervously over its shoulder. See how that Dark Knight introduces realism into the superhero genre with Bruce Wayne’s progressively more deleterious scars and ailments? Bond can have some of that! Mostly it’s just window dressing. Occasionally it gets in the way of the story. No one wants to see a Bond who can’t shoot straight. The broader concern is that, 17 years on from Goldeneye, there’s still unease about how best to present this icon. Which results in artificial elements being grafted on. The series had prior form for this (Live and Let Die, Moonraker) but it was invariably in the surrounding tissue of the story, rather than assaulting Bond himself.
A slight digression, but I wondered whether the prominent Heineken product placement was serving its intended purpose. Bond only drinks it when he’s slumming it and has given up the “good” fight. Possibly it’s not on a Blue Velvet level of negative associations, but neither does it translate as a ringing endorsement (certainly not $45 million-worth of ringing endorsement).
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is sumptuous throughout, although the Hong Kong sequence is definitely the stand-out. Likewise, Thomas Newman’s score is by turns inventive and traditional in all the right places. It’s both lush and muscular, and I’m quite willing to admit I didn’t have high expectations given the lack of action movies (or even thrillers) in his back catalogue.
The climax in the Highlands is a set piece too far, particularly with the MacGyver preparations Bond makes for his showdown, and the cornball character that poor Albert Finney is subjected to (I’m sure he was well-paid, however). It’s a tribute to Mendes work that the seams aren’t too gaping until you reflect on them, but there are a number of occasions where the relentless self-referencing of the history of the franchise runs the risk of the film Jumping the (CGI Komodo) Dragon.
Post-Quantum of Solace’s disappointment, I was in favour of the reintroduction of more trad-Bond elements but now, with all the pieces lined up for the next outing, I’m unconvinced it was the right move for Craig. He doesn’t have the lightness of touch to work in the more playful arena of “bells and whistles” Bond, and on the occasions when Skyfall attempts it, there’s a sense that the film is pulling in opposite directions. A scene of bitchy banter between Bond and M over how uncomfortable his Aston Martin is strains so hard to be humorous that you can’t wait to get back to some shooting. Roger Moore wouldn’t have needed to utter a line to make it work, and it’s an example of the makers of the series needing to recognise that Bond has different limitations in different incarnations.