Bond is back and is up against a formidable nemesis in Javier Bardem. But what stops Skyfall living up to all its promise?
Bond is a genre unto itself. It’s hard to watch a new 007 adventure and compare it to anything other than previous Bond movies. This places the filmmakers in a peculiar bind: play it safe and you're accused of being lazy and self-referential; strike out and attempt something new, and more often than not we're lumbered with strained, awkward, flavour-of-the-month oddments like Licence to Kill or Moonraker.
Skyfall’s attempts to bind the franchise’s cinematic legacy to a new type of James Bond – introspective, forward-looking (albeit begrudgingly), more politically and technologically astute – are admirable. Daniel Craig’s 'blunt instrument' reading of Bond in the previous two films could only hold the interest for so long. Now, instead of gadgets, he’s got man-feelings. Instead of ludicrous puns and shadowy villains he’s got a little perspective and – in Javier Bardem’s scheming, preening Silva – a nemesis worthy of his immediate consideration. All these modifications are relevant, necessary and welcome.
While all of this sounds good in theory, only the remnants of those fine intentions have made it up onto the screen, with style, excitement, bombast, elegance and the sense of fun that has hallmarked the series all being reduced to martyrs of Bond’s new cause. The filmmakers have obviously got a direct line on who the modern James Bond is, but are not so clear as to what a new Bond movie should consist of. The result is a piecemeal admixture of wincing plot-contrivances, dull locations, undernourished motivations and a soporific, cripplingly over-extended finale.
It starts so well. From its opening frames, Roger Deakins' discriminating photography conjures an intriguing catalogue of textures and colours, while a lunatic motorbike chase across the top of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is as thrilling and accomplished as action cinema gets. Follow this up with a soaring theme song set to one of Daniel Kleinman's sublime title sequences, and the planets would appear to have perfectly aligned. But they don’t remain that way for long.
MI6 gets blown to smithereens and Bond is soon in China on the hunt for the terrorist organisation behind the attack. It’s here cracks start to form. Director Sam Mendes does well to ground the human elements of the film, but an early sequence in which Bond has to sneak up on and apprehend a sniper atop a Shanghai skyscraper is as about as exciting as a game of musical statues. Lost in a maze of reflections and shadows, Craig seems to be at a total loss as to what he should be doing or why this extended waltz is at all necessary, especially when all it leads to is a standard punch-up.
Skyfall – and if the title itself grates, it makes no sense whatsoever within the context of the film – is littered with such moments. When Bond and Bardem’s Silva meet for the first time, for instance, they share a fine exchange, not to mention an unexpected sexual frisson. This, again, slowly deteriorates into a dull roundelay of lisped provocation and empty, wholly expected, gunplay. Mendes doesn’t seem at all able to modulate the action or pile on the spectacle. Maybe that’s why there’s so little in the film.
Despite the odd retro bulldog flourish, stylistically the film is more Bourne than Bond, with Craig doing a lot more running and punching than shagging and gyro-coptering. Other areas of the film suggest that the writers and producers have been keeping a close watch on Christopher Nolan’s Batman successes. That set-to at the top of the neon-edged skyscraper, a torched manor house, a derailed tube-train, a baddie whose scheme hinges on him being captured and imprisoned by the hero before unleashing personal hell – not to mention the portentous Hans Zimmer-style booms and honks that carpet-bomb the soundtrack – will all be mightily familiar to any Bat-fans or Warner Bros. lawyers in the audience.
Yet, you'd be hard to deny that the good elements of Mendes film are very good indeed. Despite being covered in a distracting peach-fuzz beard throughout the opening sections, Craig impresses once again, and seems to be enjoying his own grim private joke at the idea of Bond having lost half a yard as he enters middle age. Both Ralph Fiennes as a snooty Intelligence nabob and Ben Whishaw as the pimply new Q are welcome additions who will most probably be around for a while.
And with his bad hair, '70s suits and simmering revenge-fuelled mania, it's Bardem who is the top trump here. He claims every inch of the screen as his own, and Mendes wisely allots him as much time as he needs for his impudent tics and sly, unspoken allusions to breathe. But even he is not immune to the film’s choppy, inorganic flow or its stranded, effortful action sequences. The finale – which initially has a touch of the Peckinpahs about it – reduces him to the level of a trench-coated thug engaged in random, mechanical destruction before finally forcing him down some properly silly Oedipal back alleys, never to return.
Bond has had more than a few false dawns over the past decade or so, and many people held out the hope that this was going to be the film that delivered on more than just promises. The new outlook, fresh cast and leaner chassis suggest that the franchise can really kick on from here, but it's hard not to feel that Skyfall itself is something of a missed opportunity.
A hummable theme tune, excellent cast, interesting director and an intimate, real-world spin have engendered an awful lot of good will.
Like herding cats, Skyfall starts out as a jolly good fun but soon becomes disorderly, only intermittently terrific and a little maddening.
The good parts spring more readily to mind than bad, suggesting that Bond is at least back on the right track.