A spoiler-free review of the film can be found here. And be warned: there are LOTS of spoilers in this essay.
A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan
Premiered 23 October, 2012
This doesn't sound important, but it is: apparently, Sam Mendes really, really wanted to open the film with the traditional gun barrel sequence, which he felt was sorely missing in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (he's right in the second case, situationally wrong in the first). But the very first shot of the movie involved James Bond (Daniel Craig) running at the camera and pointing a gun at the audience, and no amount of wishing would make it feel any less awkward to cut together, in effect, two consecutive images of Bond shooting at the audience. So it got shunted to the beginning of the end credits. But, the reason that it's important, is it proves that Mendes's heart was in the right place; and that is where it will be for the remainder of the film. Even when things don't quite work out.
Anyway, Bond is in Turkey, on a mission of intense importance: an assassin, Patrice (Ola Rapace) has acquired a hard drive containing extremely delicate information, including the identity of every undercover NATO agent currently working in counter-terrorism. And he's just shot MI6 Agent Ronson (Bill Buckhurst), to make a nearly clean getaway. But he first must escape Bond, hooked up via earpiece to a frantic M (Judi Dench) back in London, and green field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) just a short distance away (we do not, it should be mentioned, learn Eve's name for an irritatingly long time). With M barking orders, Bond and Eve manage to tag-team Patrice on one of the truly great chase scenes the franchise has ever offered, starting off on motorocycles screaming along rooftops much too narrow to permit them to travel, before Bond manages to catch Patrice on top of a train (his means of getting onboard beggars description), where they engage in a fistfight of the sublimest choreography, frequently dodging the roofs of tunnels at the last possible second.
Eventually, when this has become too exciting to bear, M demands that Eve take a shot at the killer; but she is not such a good shot, and hits Bond, knocking him off the train, into a gorge, where he plunges into a river that looks to be hundreds of feet below, drifting to the bottom and looking very much dead. Which he's clearly not, but the trick that worked so well in You Only Live Twice works even better here, with the astounding action crammed all up in there having done a terrific job of hammering us into too much satisfied exhaustion to exercise much rational thinking at that moment.
Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes
Holy balls. Here is one thing that I did not expect, in 2012: a Bond theme that would come within spitting distance of making me question whether Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger" is still the best theme song in the franchise.
And no, once we've had the chance to recover ourselves, Adele's "Skyfall" isn't that, because if you'll look around, the world hasn't ended yet, at least not for another month and a half. But it's still a doozy, sung by the woman who is probably the best conceivable choice to sing a Bond theme in the present day, with a roiling intensity that no Bond singer since Bassey herself has match, though Tina Turner's "GoldenEye" comes within a whisker.
And it's the best kind of Bond theme, too, with music that strongly evokes Monty Norman's iconic 007 Theme without outright quoting it (the melodic structure is based on a much slowed-down version of the theme), and lyrics that sort of don't make any sense at all ""Let the sky fall / When it crumbles / We will stand tall" is practically sane for a song where "Skyfall is where we start" puts in appearance), but are sold and then some just because the singer believes in them so passionately. Let us call it the "Thunderball" gambit, except that by virtue of being female, Adele has a leg up on Tom Jones, in that women make better Bond singers than men.
It's a masterwork, not just a great theme song, but the best single of Adele's estimable career so far, and the only reason I dock it half a point is the fear that Ms. Bassey would hunt me down and strangle me if I do not pay her the proper obeisance of giving her this category's only perfect score across 23 pictures.
Rating: 4.5 Shirley Basseys
Ever since the debut, on 5 October, of Adele’s theme song, I have been wondering just what imagery would be up to the challenge of accompanying it. Flaming Valkyries battling Satan on a mountaintop during a meteor storm, I thought.
That was not so very far off the mark: the title sequence, designed by Daniel Kleinman, who happily returns to the fold after taking one movie off, to dismal results, is more than a little bit apocalyptic, in which it forms a nice match for the film to follow. It's a long, steady, CGI tracking shot forward, ever forward: through the weeds on the bottom of the river where Bond has been taken prisoner by the beautiful death-women, through churchyards, ruined cities, blood raining from the heavens, and all sorts of signifiers of bleakness, darkness, misery, and death. With naked women writhing around in between, because Kleinman knows what side his bread is buttered on.
It's impressively epic, a beautiful animated short on its own right that matches the music better than any Bond title sequence since... whew, The Spy Who Loved Me, maybe? But it's almost too grandly dark and pulverising, and by the time that we get to the actual, literal sky falling, it's hard not to think that Kleinman could have been a touch more abstract in his evocation of the film's theme of aging and things being destroyed and dying. Because honestly, it's all a little bit silly.
Rating: 3.5 Silhouetted Women
Alright, I've already mentioned spoilers, right? Well, I'm going to mention them again, because it's impossible to talk about Skyfall the way I want to without giving stuff up right to the final scene. No shame in ditching, the review will be here waiting.
For those who remain: you've either seen the film and know, or are unafraid to learn, that with the hard drive stolen, MI6 and M in particular have come under extreme scrutiny, with high ranking bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) performing the official investigation into whether or not M still has control of the agency. Things go from bad to worse when an untraceable hacker manages to set off a bomb right in the heart of the MI6 building - right in M's own office! - and this is the event that draws a very much not-dead Bond out of the middle-of-nowhere backwater where he'd been enjoying retirement. For he still has a good deal of respect for M, MI6, and Britain after all, though he would very much prefer to hide it; and staying dead for his own safety's sake, he follows Patrice to Shanghai, equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry by MI6's new quartermaster, Q (Ben Whishaw). He inadvertently kills the assassin, but is able to retrieve a chip from a casino in Macau.
To this point, the film has been, for my tastes, absurdly effective: building up its scenario quickly and cleanly, making it clear that there are real consequences at stake, and deepening the characters without causing the genre thrills to suffer as a result.
Sadly, the film takes one full step down in momentum after Bond arrives in Macau, and things get a little... pokey. Bringing Eve along for the fun, and maybe/maybe not having sex with her in the process, Bond encounters the gorgeous Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), Patrice's contact and the mistress of his boss; she agrees to help him infiltrate that man's island hidey hole. And there we find him to be the mysterious, demented Silva (Javier Bardem), who turns out to have very particular personal reasons for his terror against MI6: he was an agent under M when she was section chief in Hong Kong, and has never forgiven her for what he perceives as her betrayal back in those days. Bond manages to escape his clutches and capture him, bringing him back to London, but this was part of the plan all along, and in short order, Silva has escaped from his prison, further crippling MI6 and preparing to kidnap and kill M after having discredited her so badly.
To this point, the film has been solid, full of enjoyable spy movie mechanics, and an unfortunately diminishing conflict - wait, so he's not actually trying to imbalance NATO, he's just looking to embarrass MI6? - wait, he's not tying to embarrass MI6, he just has weird mommy issues with M? - but still good, enjoyable stuff.
Sadly, it takes another firm step downward, as Bond spirits M away to his childhood home, a hunting lodge called Skyfall in Scotland. He and colorful gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney) rig up the home with booby traps, and wait for Silva and his goons to show. The heroes are able to make short work of them, though M is fatally wounded in the process, and Bond is only just able to kill Silva off in time for his boss and one true friend to die in his arms. Back in London, he meets with Mallory, new head of MI6, to discuss where the spy agency should go from here.
I don't know; I admire the writers for trying to deepen the characters, but making M the de facto Bond Girl and making the main conflict of the last, fully, 30 minutes of the film between a crisp British woman and two of her surrogate sons, one faithful and one not... that really leaves the world of James Bond completely behind, don't you think? And unlike Quantum of Solace and Licence to Kill, and maybe Live and Let Die, the other films that go this far afield from the standard Bond template, Skyfall never feels like it's running in shame from being a James Bond movie; rather, it's trying to provide a more character-driven story to support modern tastes (and, presumably, Craig's more actorly ambitions), while also doing a bit of fanservice: hey all, look at M being an action character! And look, it's Bond's childhood home! Backstorygasm!
(For my money, Bond was supposed to be a working-class brat, wasn't he? Not the son of sufficient privilege that his dad owned a hunting lodge and quite a bit of land).
But as easy as it is to respect that impulse - it's the exact reason that weepy, sensitive On Her Majesty's Secret Service frequently shows up high on ranked lists of the franchise - the balance goes wobbly, and while Skyfall gets more emotional and resonant as it goes on, it also gets much slower and narrower in scope, and in general, continually lowering the stakes is a bad idea in action cinema. A mixed bag, but at least the good stuff is very good.
Rating: 3 Stolen Nukes
Javier Bardem! Such a terrific, inspired choice for a Bond villain! Well, so was Christopher Walken, and he proved to be one of the greatest demerits of A View to a Kill.
Not that Silva, or Bardem's performance, is anywhere near that level of burning ineptitude, of course. But he certainly ought to be a much more engaging bad guy than he is, particularly based on a truly awe-inspiring introductory shot that finds him sauntering towards the camera in an immensely long take (for an action movie, anyway) moving from a speck in the background to right up in Bond's face, as he delivers a crazy villain monologue. Which he then spoils with a pointless, obnoxious bit where he tries to hit on Bond, though whether this is meant to be gay panic, homoeroticism, or a mind game isn't that clear; it is a truly stupid bit of screenwriting that immediately makes the character seem more weird than threatening.
And boy, does he ever persist in being weird: with the blond hair, the simpering line deliveries, and the obsessive, sexually charged pursuit of M, Silva is definitely an unusual character, though I am not convinced that he's unusual in a good way; at times he feels rather too silly and over-the-top for the urgently serious tone of the rest of the movie. Also, he has disappointingly limited motivations for the big bad in any epic-sized action film, let alone a James Bond picture, meant to be the most epic of the epic. Still, when he's scary, he's damn scary.
Rating: 3 Evil Cats
Another big spoiler, but one that's easy to predict: the reason we never learn Eve's name until the very last scene is that her name is, in fact, Eve Moneypenny, and she's so tired out by all this spying that she elects to take a nice, simple job as the new M's secretary. I cannot overstate how damned obvious it is that her entire purpose in the movie is for that last scene: she's not much of a Bond Girl, sort of wandering in and back out of the plot at random, and maybe having sex with Bond but also maybe not, and serving no function in the back half of the movie whatsoever: I wasn't joking even slightly when I claimed that M is, structurally, the Bond Girl here.
But as a character - that's a different story. Harris gives an immensely likeable performance that embodies everything good and true about Moneypenny - this is part of the reason the twist is easy to predict - with spiky, sarcastic flirtation grounded in undeniable physical attraction to Bond, but also delighted to get the upper hand on him. I will say this: Skyfall only sort of knows what to do with her, but it's exciting to see a Moneypenny this lively get something active to do in the field, and I am more excited to see more of Harris's take on the character than I am for anything else in the next Bond film to come.
Rating: 3.5 White Bikinis
I guess it's sort of Patrice? He's got a name, anyway, and a clear narrative function, and he is the subject of the two best fistfights in the whole movie, so that counts for something. But I'll tell you what, I would never, ever be able to pick him out of a lineup - couldn't even tell you what color his hair was - and I don't think he says a single line, depriving him of any personality. Of course, plenty of Bond films have had great mute henchmen, but Oddjob and Jaws are of a wholly different order than this non-entity seen mostly in wide shots.
Rating: 1.5 Metal-Plated Teeth
THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Oh, Sévérine, so pretty. So unexpectedly cunning, and played by Marlohe with real bite and self-determination, a much more active agent of her own will than any "villain's mistress turned good" this side of Moonraker's Corinne Dufour. Her introduction is so potent, in fact, that I pretty much assumed that with Eve a non-starter as a Bond Girl, she was our actual #1 for the movie.
And then, in a spectacularly misconceived bit, she's killed in an usually vindictive way by Silva, just to set up a joke tht's not even funny. It's a nasty-minded, misogynistic end for the character even by the standards of Bond Girls Who Die, and it reveals her, with pointless, ugly flippancy, to be a completely empty, functional character. It's as much a "fuck her, we didn't even care about her" moment as Plenty O'Toole's offscreen death in Diamonds Are Forever, made worse by how terrifically likeable she was until that moment. A hard category to score in this case, so I shall take refuge in averaging it all out.
Rating: 3 Golden Corpses
A-fucking-mazing. It's not just that Skyfall has a candidate for the Best Action Setpiece in Bond History: but that it has several: the motorcyle chase and train fight (which, though they run into each other, are so different in their conception and execution that I'm almost tempted to say that they're two candidates right there), Bond's Shanghai fight with Patrice in a room full of glass walls all reflecting a projection of a jellyfish, the final showdown at Skyfall, light with the fiery tones of Hell itself. Even the film's lower-tier sequences - a frenzied battle in a Komodo dragon pit, a chase through the London Underground - would be the highlight of many a Bond film. And with Baird editing like a wizard, as Thomas Newman's terrific score (just anonymous enough to keep from being distracting, pounding enough to serve the genre well, and creative enough that it's never bland) gets the blood pumping, it's not just the concept and choreography, but everything about the filming that makes these sequences sing. I'm really not even a little reluctant to say this is the best Bond movie, as action cinema, ever.
To help these scenes out, the film has some absolutely tremendous visual effects: a couple isolated shots reek of CGI, but for the most part it invisibly serves to support the rest of the movie, not overwhelm it, and even at its very, very worst, we're a long way from Die Another Day and its CGI icebergs.
Rating: 5 Walther PPKs
There's not really gadgetry: a Walther PPK that can detect Bond's palm print (and, in grand one-use fashion, only foils one bad guy before being left to the Komodo dragons) and a radio beacon; Patrice has a snazzy glass-cutting device. But the point, actually, is that with Q back in the picture, we have at least the aura of gadgetry back, and for that matter, Ben Whishaw makes an extremely wonderful Q: a nice inversion of the old Desmond Llewelyn shtick, where Q was the crusty old "get out of my lab!" curt grandpa figure, Q is here a wry, intellectually smug Wunderkind who only barely attempts to hide his amusement and Old Man Bond, still trying to spy in a world full of better tools than *sniff* people.
But the gadgets themselves - and they are why we are here - barely register; the new gun scene recalls the gadget-free Dr. No, while meeting our new Q, who brings along some not very cool toys - he archly notes that they don't do exploding pens anymore - recalls From Russia with Love; I feel like the only legitimate thing to do is to give it the exact same score I did for that latter movie.
Rating: 1.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen
THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
As surely as You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me were the masterpieces of "gaudy, overly large, ridiculous Bond", Skyfall is the pinnacle of "realistic Bond": though the most impressive location of all is the actual headquarters of real-world British Intelligence, a hulking monster that seems about to fall into the Thames, so it doesn't count.
But who needs it! There's still the shiny, gloriously hi-tech interior of MI6, Silva's ruined island lair, the cozy but dead Skyfall, and best of all, the Shanghai casino, a great evocation of all the decades of exotic Asian clubs in movies stretching back to the '30s and '40s, only grounded in a more lifelike realism than those film's ebullient staginess. The last time a Bond set dabbled in Orientalism so effectively was in Octopussy, where it was still gawking enough to be offensive; here, it has just enough movie-ness to feel special, not pandering.
And not only does Dennis Gassner provide a nonstop array of wonderful locations, they are filmed for maximum eye-candy loveliness by Roger Deakins, doing work that fully lives up to his reputation as the world's reigning King of the Cinematographers. To see his filming of Gassner's Shanghai and Macau sets, the latter especially a symphony in dusky, sultry atmosphere, is to see the set and the camera work together in perfect harmony to create the best kind of visual splendor.
Rating: 4.5 Volcano Fortresses
ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
There is a beautiful moment, early on, where Bond takes the time to readjust his cuffs after executing a particularly daring maneuver; not since Pierce Brosnan took the time to adjust his tie underwater in The World Is Not Enough has there been a similar tiny little moment reminding us that, ah yes, this man cares about his appearance. But that pretty much ends it, as far as elegance and suavity go: that, I think, is the price one pays for a more human Bond, a distinct downtick in glamor (tellingly, no Bond film has been so disinterested in the playboy side of Bond than the Timothy Dalton pair of The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, which also wanted to show a rougher, more human Bond). That he is, theoretically, the owner of the awfully cute Skyfall, in the middle of some truly breathtaking scenery, should make us jealous of him; but if he so transparently doesn't care, there's no reason for us to, either.
Rating: 1.5 Vodka Martinis
APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
A good old-fashioned casino setting: Bond introduces himself to Sévérine, who is obviously fascinated to learn more about this man.
Forced or Badass? Neither, really, though since it is certainly not forced, that makes it de facto badass.
MI6 PSYCHOLOGIST, DR. HALL (Nicholas Woodeson): "We're going to start with a simple word association test. Simply say the first thing that comes into your head. For example, if I were to say 'day', you would say-"
I would point, for more general commentary, to my initial review.
It makes sense that, for his 50th Anniversary, Bond would get to do something special: that this would mean an increasingly autumnal story of the passage of time and the fight for e.g. old-fashioned spies to stay relevant in a world of e.g. global terrorism rather than Cold Warring makes, perhaps less sense. But there we have Skyfall: the first Bond film with a strong thematic spine, in which everything from Bond's false death to M's real one carries us along a movie about how we must live with the past without being of the past: Silva can't grasp this, and dies; M is slow to adapt, and dies; Bond, who callously repudiates his own history but also must rely on it to protect him (Skyfall is both haven and dead-end) is allowed to live and help build the future. That this is a metaphor for the Bond franchise itself I take to be glaringly obvious.
The film is so invested in stock-taking, that at times it suffers as action cinema, for reasons I've mentioned: but if it's going to insist on being a character study, it's good that it has Dench's best performance as M ever, and Craig's best as Bond: he, in particular, blends blithe quips with ice-cold brutality better than any Bond actor since at least Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only (his own best performance), if not all the way back to the Connery years.
To an odd extent, though, this is the Dench show: the culmination of the arc began with her harsh delivery of the line "His job!" in response to the question, "What is he doing?" in the beginning of Tomorrow Never Dies, the moment where she began to turn M from being a cantankerous but capable boss (territory that the ghost of Bernard Lee was never going to cede) to something more like a stern but proud parent, whose dying words are a grumpy pleasure that at least her Agent 007 is all she wanted him to be. If Skyfall goes a bit overboard in pulling out the idea of M as mother, well... it's action cinema, not Strindberg, and it does not want to be subtle and intuitive. Anyway, insofar as the movie serves to give closure to the M/Bond relationship, it does so with great beauty and grace.
Which is a nice thing for a milestone Bond movie like this to - sort of like how it finally gives us an active Moneypenny, something I've been wanting to see since as long as I've been a Bond film, lo these many years - but at a certain point, one does wish that Skyfall would be less of a Bond retrospective piece and more of a thrilling action movie, especially since those moments in which it lets character psychology go hang are such terrific action cinema
The film is awfully good, and it could, if it wanted to, reach out and touch great: a little more focus, a little less running time, a significant re-conception of Silva. It sets up a new wave of Bond films that, I suspect, will be able to attain greatness (Harris is going to be, for real y'all, a great Moneypenny, and I have high hopes for Whishaw's Q), and will likely also attain unpleasant crappiness. Bond just works that way. What Skyfall does really well, rather than truly stand as a masterpiece on its own, is complete the rejuvenation that began with the (superior) Casino Royale, and we now finally, for the first time since the 1960s, have a Bond ready to go out in the world of today. I look forward to seeing where it takes him.
(NB: the only previous Bond film that I couldn't figure out a way to reference anywhere in this review was The Man with the Golden Gun; and somehow, that seems just right.)