The big question with Skyfall was whether this James Bond movie was going to do better than 2008's limp, dour, and inexplicably titled Quantum of Solace. The big answer is: not enough to matter.
Skyfall is an interestingly cynical affair. It includes hat tips to both the traditional Bond franchise and the new, excessively politically correct version embodied by Judi Dench's M (a carryover from the Brosnan era). Yes, there's a new Q, and he's an implausibly young Cillian Murphy look-a-like. Yes, there's a new Miss Moneypenny, and she's--get this--a sassy and sensual black woman. Yes, the villain is a sinister, brilliant white man, and of course he's gay.
Skyfall wants to have it both ways, giving fan service to devotees of the old movies and books while announcing proudly that this is the century of marriage equality and race-neutral casting (after all, there's nothing more quintessentially British than black people). Reviewers seem pleased, but what's the point? If you want to get with the 21st century and all its dreary liberal cliches, why not ditch that old cocktail swishing fossil Bond and create a new franchise centered around a gay arch-feminist like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? We all know that scrawny, screwed up lesbians are the cutting edge of mystery and suspense (which makes it sound more interesting than it actually is).
Sam Mendes (of American Beauty fame), tries to make the jumbled, ADD plot seem memorable by lingering on iconic shots of characters--M standing ruefully behind a row of caskets, Bond gliding along a lantern-strewn Shanghai river, a silhouetted fight scene against an animated neon display, stuff like that. But these impressive shots only serve to increase your awareness of the movie's emptiness. Bond seems to do everything he's supposed to do, but without any real motivation or interest. He struts through a casino, has a guarded conversation with a femme fatale, flirts with the woman assigned as support, gets captured by the villain, fights on top of a train, etc. etc. etc. The movie at times feels like a pastiche of every Bond movie before it. The only thing left out are the cheesy, double entendre names.
If it settled for ripping off the old Bond movies it could still amount to a guilty pleasure, but Skyfall wants to rip off every other stale movie cliche as well. A brief, incomplete listing:
- Q is a bespectacled, gawky computer nerd who invented hacking or something.
- MI6 traces a security intrusion to a computer inside the building!
- An encrypted hard drive unleashes a virus complete with taunting messages (Ghost Site 2.0).
- The bad guy planned to get caught!
- Bond meets someone at a museum without knowing what his contact looks like.
- An officious politician lectures a sympathetic character.
- A mansion belonging to Bond's parents is preserved under dropcloth for decades even though no one lives in it.
- Bond barricades himself with booby traps for his last stand against the bad guys.
- Bad guys shoot at a reflection in a mirror, then get attacked from behind.
- A confrontation on a frozen lake ends when Bonds deliberately breaks the ice they're standing on with gunfire.
The pity is that Skyfall isn't without a few good moments, confirming that this didn't have to be such a stale movie. When the malevolent Javier Bardem begs Judi Dench to shoot herself and him, there's a moment of pathos that the movie hasn't lived up to. The madman's deserted city-island is another hint at the existential crisis of a betrayed spy, but the meat of that story seems left back in the cutting room.
The good moments are usually the actor and director working uphill against an unmotivated screenplay. Some of it is just confusing. Bond pulls the old DB5 out of storage, and it's complete with ejection seat and machine gun headlights--but how could Craig's Bond have ever driven such a contraption? After he miraculously survives a fall in the opening sequence, Bond slums in the third world for no evident reason until word of an attack on MI6 compels him back to work. Bond's new black female sidekick comes on to him completely out of the blue, as if she realized it was time for someone to get seduced.
Is the series going backward or forward? Dench's M is ushered out in a rushed death scene so that Fiennes can take over, leather tufted door and all, with Moneypenny at an anachronistic secretarial post outside. It gives Skyfall a strange send-off. One half expects Sean Connery to step through it in the next movie.
Craig's angrier Bond clashes with the nostalgia, and his forced humor shows the actor's inability to wear well through a franchise. I'm not sure there's really a point to this franchise, other than what you can gather from the very frequent shots of the VAIO logo. I suppose this really is the James Bond for our age.