WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Wounded whilst attempting to recover a hard drive full of agents’ details, James Bond finds his own recovery tough work, especially knowing that his boss ordered the wounding shot. As Bond gingerly goes back into the field to discover who’s behind the theft, M discovers she is the particular target of their wily but unhinged adversary.
Mortal peril is an occupational hazard for Secret Agent 007 James Bond (Daniel Craig), but he can reasonably expect the peril to come from his enemies. When Bond ends up atop a Turkish train fighting Patrice (Ola Rapace), a mercenary who has stolen a hard drive containing details of embedded NATO agents, a monitoring M (Judi Dench) orders rookie agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to shoot the bad guy, only for Bond to become the victim of friendly fire. Bond survives, but the ordeal leaves him both shaking and stirred to bitterness at his treatment. M, meanwhile, has troubles besides the theft of the disk: MI6’s headquarters become the target of hacking and bombing, forcing the organisation underground; moreover, whoever’s organising the attacks has a specific vendetta against her. With gruff security chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) demanding answers, M sends a patched-up Bond back into action in Shanghai, where his surveillance of Patrice results in contact with the slinky Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe). She takes him to the plot’s mastermind, Silva (Javier Bardem), an enemy quite unlike anything Bond’s previously encountered; and though 007 takes Silva back to London, he seems an unsettlingly willing prisoner.
If you were to judge a Bond movie – or any action thriller, for that matter – solely on its set-pieces, Skyfall would make a strong case for being top of the pile. The extended opening sequence is a quite brilliant amalgamation of great stunts from previous movies plus a few brand new tricks, culminating in a shocking but innovative plot development; the action that forms the centre of the film is a high-octane, high-stakes chase through London, a rare venue for Bond stunts and a relevant one in terms of concerns about domestic terrorism; and the atmospheric, lo-tech climax manages to be both intimate (no world-ending countdown here) and epic at once – you can’t beat a good helicopter vs house confrontation. Unsurprisingly, these scenes, like the rest of the movie (look at Shanghai!), look glorious in Mendes’ thoroughly competent hands.
Sticking with the good, Skyfall does a great job with its characters. Craig continues to impress as a detached, ice-cool Bond, though here he convincingly portrays a man who’s both psychologically and physically damaged. Dench is excellent in a much-expanded role (of which more later), while the new faces are generally solid: although Harris is pretty but bland, Fiennes is a solid presence, Albert Finney is good value late in the film and Ben Whishaw – playing ‘Q’ as a waspish, geeky cousin to Richard Ayoade’s Moss in the I.T. Crowd – provides most of the film’s laughs. The fact that Bond goes into the field with only a radio transmitter and a gun is a lovely nod to the old days, and one of many nice touches for the spy’s 50th anniversary (I won’t spoil them all here).
Then there’s our baddie. As Silva, Javier Bardem is hilariously kinky, a smirking, self-satisfied psycho combination of Bruno Tonioli and Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s funny, but also dangerous and – in one scene, at least – grotesque, while powered by a burning desire for personal revenge. Given the dismal, unthreatening villains served up by Craig’s first two outings as Bond, Silva is a welcome and charismatic return to lunatic megalomaniacs.
On the other hand, Skyfall has two big problems, plus a good few niggles besides. The first biggie is the fact that Bond – a ‘dinosaur’ in GoldenEye, Judi Dench’s first film as M – is more of an anachronism than ever. As a result, Craig’s incarnation has always had to be explained or excused: he’s not an arrogant womaniser, he’s just been conditioned that way; and he’s an orphan, don’t you know. The film’s almost sheepish about the things that made Bond famous, too: while the one-liners are as bad as ever, Craig sucks out the little life they have (a good actor, you wouldn’t book him for stand-up or a kids’ party); more notably, his amorous couplings are incredibly perfunctory. I don’t remember Séverine’s name being mentioned, and whoever helps Bond, er, recuperate in, er, wherever he washes up, she doesn’t get a line, never mind an identity.
Of course – and this is the second problem – if Daniel Craig’s tenure has told us anything, it’s that Bond’s girl is really Dench’s M. Her increased involvement was an interesting novelty in The World is Not Enough, but in Quantum of Solace it became overbearing. Skyfall is arguably an M film in which two of her ‘children’ vie for attention: a welcome innovation for some, no doubt; but between M’s adventures and Silva’s machinations, poor James is pushed to the margins of his own movie. Dame Judi doesn’t put a foot wrong; I just wonder if her contribution to the Bond franchise might have been better recognised with a nice present or tribute dinner, rather than the lead role.
For, it has to be said, the plot is built around M and the set-pieces to the detriment of the film’s narrative coherence: how does Bond get out of the water, and where does he end up? How does Silva escape from his Hannibal Lecter-like jail? Why actually take M to the middle of nowhere, then leave her, Bond and Kincade without any backup? Then, there are the lesser irritations: the script is stupidly peppered with ineffectual ‘Christs’ and ‘bloodys’, plus the odd stronger expletive (within 12A-friendly limits) and the gobbledygook spoken by Q as they faff around with Silva’s hacking work (I’m yet to be convinced that anything to do with computers can be exciting on the big screen). Thomas Newman’s score is loud and overblown, the product placement is (as ever) horrendous and a few strange moments don’t come off; I’m guessing jumping on komodo dragons is an homage to Live and Let Die, but it looks daft.
Skyfall reverentially commemorates fifty years of James Bond whilst appearing uncertain about what the franchise means. Are these Ian Fleming’s characters, or are they merely labels to be given to whichever actors feel right at the time (and can sign up for a few films?). More than anything, Skyfall feels like a reboot; a necessary one in terms of cast, perhaps, but not a great vote of confidence given that Casino Royale only happened two films ago. It may well be that this film clears the decks for the next Bond to be a non-stop, all-action thrill ride, in which case it does a decent enough job. Taken on its own merits, Skyfall has plenty to applaud, though the lack of focus on the main man means it’s only a partially successful addition to the venerable franchise.