Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw
Review: 3 stars (of five)

The newest James Bond movie often seems like it would rather not be a James Bond movie. Made by a director better known for his personal and introspective films—more quirky and emotional than violent and thrilling—Skyfall seems distinctly uncomfortable with the trappings of a Bond film. At times, you get the sense it would rather be a Christopher Nolan “Batman” pic, especially with a villain who can’t help but remind you of Heath Ledger’s Joker.

The movie opens with Daniel Craig, in his third Bond outing, silhouetted in a dark corridor, walking into one of those cinematic bars of light that illuminate only his eyes. It is, no doubt intentionally, emblematic of the film that follows: Dark, claustrophobic, internal, and focused more on Bond himself than the dangerous, glamorous world he often moves through. Mendes takes the trend of the previous Bond films (darker, more realistic, and with a personal stake for Bond beyond duty) to what must be its ultimate conclusion, and in the process moves it away from some of its essential Bondness.

When the film does deal with the familiar elements of the fifty-year-old film franchise, such as the exotic locales, the inventive action sequences, and the beautiful women bedded by the essentially heartless MI6 operative, it sometimes feels self-conscious, and always feels like director Sam Mendes is crossing another line off his to-do list. Mendes is not comfortable with the gadgets, so he first has his new young Q (a good but obvious gag) mock the concept, and later brings in the classic, tricked-out silver Aston Martin, a really overt nod to what one must have in a Bond film.

“The bitch is dead”

Another box for Mendes to check: The women. He provides the standard issue Bond girls, the hottie and the tomboy (in a world where tomboys are played by virtual supermodels, yet still provide contrast with the slinky, impossibly sultry alpha Bond girls). He’s clearly more interested in the tomboy, a fellow MI6 operative who’s not afraid of intra-office fraternization. But she’s in no way vital to the plot, and it’s the exotic Severine who’s meant to be the Bond girl you remember. But you won’t.

Where the first two Daniel Craig movies made the relatively uncommon move of having one of the women be more than ornamental—Eva Green in Casino Royale, and Olga Kurylenko in Quantum of Solace—this film brings in gorgeous French actress Berenice Marlohe but does virtually nothing with her character, disposes of her in record time, and with near-record callousness.

When she dies, Bond makes a demeaning comment that, in context, is merely bravado as he battles a villain who has the upper hand. But in a film series often criticized for its handling of women, it caps a rather shabby showing for this installment’s chief piece of eye candy.

More than once I wished Mendes didn’t feel too grown-up to be making a Bond movie. As the movie rolls toward its final act, all the Bond trappings drop away, as we move through underground tunnels and across a desolate Scottish moor—astonishingly dismal locales for Bond. But these landscapes are emblematic of the closed-off emotional wasteland that is James Bond. Where past films have simply ignored the question of what kind of interior life a man like Bond must have, the Craig movies have been explicit about the essential brutality and thuggishness of a government assassin. That he is an orphan has been repeatedly stated, that he’s emotionally stunted has not gone unnoticed, and Judy Dench’s M has referred to the job function of this most unflappable of globetrotting secret agents as “a blunt instrument.”

Mendes and his writing team really put the spotlight on this grim killer, and on the tough-love maternal relationship between Bond and M. That M is a surrogate mother for Bond, and that people in Bond’s line of work have dark sides, to say the least, are the givens Mendes starts with. He throws in Javier Bardem as a rogue MI6 operative who deliberately mirrors Bond in terms of backstory: A ruthless, efficient agent who was loyal to M until she callously threw him away (things go poorly for Bond in the early scenes of the film), he constantly casts his, and Bond’s, relationships with M as mother-son in nature. His treatment of his girlfriend, Severine, is the darkest version of Bond’s often more chipper heartlessness. Yet he and Bond are different. He’s the villain, while Bond’s a hero. He is effeminate and probably gay, while Bond is unerringly manly. He embraces chaos, while Bond respects—and enforces—order. And most importantly, no matter how broken a toy Bond may become, he remains loyal to queen and country, while the disillusioned Bardem is unmoored.

This introspective turn provides some interesting lines of thought. Is the fact that Bond applies his arguably antisocial characteristics to the service of a nation and a world order the audience embraces all that makes him a hero rather than a violent monster? How does Bardem’s over-the-top selfishness evoke the more realistic characters of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and other Le Carre novels, who tend to have more in common with their adversaries than the civilians they ostensibly serve? What kind of relationships can you have, what kind of person can you be, when your job is to die when necessary (and your boss’s is to sacrifice you, when necessary)?

This is all good stuff, though Mendes might’ve found a way to fit it a little better into a James Bond world. He might also have found a way to make a tighter story, with characters, themes and random plot points that serve no purpose in the movie.

By the time the film ends, hero faces foe in near-featureless darkness, battling with brutal gun violence rather than any of the improbable flair usually delivered by Bond villains. And what is the villain’s goal? Wealth, world conquest, a grand statement, promotion of a political ideology? No, it’s the blunt, inelegant conclusion of a multi-year scheme to punish his bad mommy figure and the favorite brother.

As atypical as this movie sometimes seems, it’s definitely of a piece with Craig’s previous two outings. Just as Quantum was darker than Casino Royale, and represented a further dehumanization of Bond, this film explores his personality even more deeply. Except the nature of Bond’s personality, as defined in the Craig era, is that he has none.  He’s an empty shell.  When M refers to Bond’s apartment and personal belongings (disposed of while 007 is believed dead), it’s shocking, not because Bond’s off-duty world has never been acknowledged, but because it’s impossible to believe this guy even has one.

By the movie’s end, Mendes seems to assert a status quo closer to that of earlier Bond incarnations. Craig is signed up to (reluctantly) play Bond in future installments, so one wonders whether the next installment will make a turn toward a more colorful Bond, or double down yet again on the grim and gritty psychologies of the Dark Knight and Bourne franchises. Much as I’ve enjoyed Craig’s Bond films to date, I’m hoping for a few rays of sunshine next time.

I’ve thought for years that the Bond series should be turned into a director’s franchise, with distinct, major filmmakers each making their own statement about Bond—let the director carry the film, rather than the star. Skyfall serves as a prototype, in which a notable director puts his personal stamp on the series, at the cost of making it feel, at times, like something other than a Bond film. It’s a cost worth paying, and I hope the next director is as daring, and as willing to bring something unusual to a half-century-old table.

That’s the film I saw (although I haven’t stopped talking about it yet). What do you think?