Thursday, November 22, 2012


When is Bond not Bond? People might reference such instalments as my guilty pleasure Diamonds Are Forever along with The Man With The Golden Gun, Moonraker, and Die Another Day as the worst examples of Bond films, through weak actors or contrived plots or what have you. Skyfall however takes the cake by being absolutely mind-numbingly tedious.
Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were all about rebooting Bond; taking him back to his roots, examining what made him who he is and getting to grips with the psychology and emotional world of a British Secret Agent with a license to kill. Casino Royale was undoubtedly far more successful than Quantum of Solace in that regard but at least they were doing something. Skyfall seems hell-bent on returning 007 to his traditional place as Britain's all-purpose troubleshooter, assuming the trouble literally needs to be shot. Spoilers beware, but we're introduced to a new Moneypenny, a new M and a new Q to fill out Bond's traditional supporting cast. The only thing missing is a villain with a big laser threatening to take over the world.
But Skyfall is assuredly lacking in big lasers or world-high stakes. This is fair enough of course; everyone knows massive stakes lose their impact through tireless repetition. This is about one man's vendetta, and not against Bond or the world but rather against M, who is given a drastically expanded role and relevance to the main plot. Villain du jour is Raoul Silva, a former MI6 computer hacker with a grudge. It's kind of like Goldeneye if Boris was the main villain rather than Trevelyan, which I hope suggests something about the quality and tone of the film.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. The core of the film is Bond's "resurrection". We've seen the character reborn in Daniel Craig's first two outings; now the Bond of days gone by is being brought back to life. Bond is accidentally shot by Moneypenny in the film's opening action sequence and must undergo a metaphysical restoration to life when MI6 and M need his help. We're consistently beaten over the head with how crap Bond is: he can't shoot straight, he's not as strong as he once was, he's getting old and worn out. Over the course of the film Bond, and by extension the audience, must re-learn Bond's power. The fiftieth anniversary instalment asks us the question "Is Bond still relevant?" and tries very enthusiastically to reassure us that "Yes, he is!"
The problem with this postmodern introspection is one fundamental question: who cares? The idea of whether or not Bond is still "relevant" is surely by its very nature absurd. James Bond is a superhero, a larger-than-life character. He's part of a made up division of a British intelligence service so mythologised as to be practically surreal. Bond has always been about escapism: outrageously exotic locations, impossibly beautiful women, amazing technological wizardry. At the end of the day he's never been about reality, even at the height of the Cold War or the War on Terror, certainly not in his cinematic guise. The matter of Bond being "relevant" is nonsense: by his nature he's always been relevant or never been relevant, and in this case it's the same thing.
This is the dilemma which lies at the heart of Skyfall; like enormous swathes of current popular culture, it's mostly just pretentious self-referential posturing which achieves nothing beyond the massaging of its own ego. Making an introspective Bond film is the worst kind of grandeur delusion, acting like the Bond franchise is some kind of high drama rather than a culture phenomenon about a man who jets around the world seducing women and shooting people in the name of Britain.
As I've said, the main plot is about M and this fellow who claims to have been betrayed by her, Silva. Silva's a fairly lacklustre Bond villain in my view; not everyone has to be a foil to 007 or a maniacal supervillain but he's just a camp Spanish man with an inexplicable ability to stay slightly ahead of Bond in crowded corridors. He of course has the arbitrary deformity, a false jaw disguising lost teeth and a saggy face, but beyond that he's rather unimpressive. We're made to see him as very threatening of course: he blows up MI6, he escapes from MI6, and he has his own island in a deserted industrial town which reeks of the limbo landscape from Inception. He achieves all this through computer mastery, the details of which are as usual glossed over to grip us with the dangers of the Information Age, but of course the final confrontation with him ends up being a bunch of guys shooting each other, some big explosions, and a helicopter. 007 should have beat him to death with a PC monitor or something.
The first half of the film feels like incredibly by-the-numbers Bond. We start off with a car and train chase in Istanbul, then it's back to London, then Shanghai, Macau and the desert island. Now if this was Roger Moore he'd probably end up chasing Silva around the island while one of the apartment buildings slid open to reveal a spaceship or a giant laser or something but no, Silva gets captured by MI6 and it's back to London again. At this point the film starts to get weird. It's worth noting that the first half also features the only thing approaching a Bond girl, Silva's arbitrary squeeze Severine, who gets killed before Silva's capture. Bond notes from a tattoo on her arm that she must have been in the sex trade in her past, but he still rather awkwardly seduces her in the shower, which I felt was a decidedly dodgy treatment of sexual abuse. Anyway, she gets offed, no more Bond girl, which feels like a major absence in terms of bringing all this old-fashioned Bond business back into the case.
The second half of the film is a big run-around the UK, first with Silva attacking M at a hearing in Westminster. I naturally assumed this would be the climax: terror strikes in the heart of London! M is vindicated, we're not as safe as we think! etc. But no, Silva escapes and the film proceeds to go for about forty minutes longer than necessary as Bond takes M into hiding at his family estate, "Skyfall", in Scotland.
What follows is the most bizarre Bond action sequence ever conceived, as Bond, his old gamekeeper and M rig up the house with a series of "hilarious" Home Alone style traps like the old shrapnel in the light fittings routine or the time-honoured shotgun shell floorboard trick. Where the hell did this wisecracking old gamekeeper guy come from? What the hell film am I watching? We're revisiting Bond's childhood but really receive no major revelations; he blows up the house, somehow survives an extended wrestle with a terrorist in a frozen pond, and knifes Silva in the back, but not before M is fatally wounded. So passes M.
It's potentially interesting to have a plot so centred around M. It's potentially interesting to visit Bond's ancestral home. It's potentially interesting to have an ignominious final battle with the villain. But does it work here? Not in my view. This last section of the film felt ridiculously tacked-on and unnecessary for Bond's resurrection. I was gritting my teeth in agony as the film repeatedly failed to end at suitable moments, and it was this last Skyfall section which ruined the experience for me and turned my opinion of it from a serviceable but ultimately forgettable Bond encounter to one I genuinely disliked.
The one good part of the film is Ralph Fiennes' presence as Gareth Mallory who, spoilers beware, is set up as the new M. We're introduced to Mallory as a stuffy bureaucrat who, over the course of the film, reveals himself as increasingly competent, capable and supportive, and whose character progression is far more believable than the sight of Craig's craggy, stone-hearted Bond shedding obligatory Hollywood tears over M's body. The whole problem with Skyfall is that it's too damn long for its unimaginative set pieces and self-gratification, making the whole process utterly tedious. The first half is adequate, if unspectacular and rather lacking in impact in terms of its direction, but the second is simply tiresome and far too evocative of other, inferior action and spy films of which Bond was traditionally the unreachable idol. The majority of the dialogue is thin and equally shallow, with characters regularly stating the obvious or delivering lines as if they're ripe with gravitas when they simply aren't. Numerous jokes fall utterly flat and Silva's characterisation relies excessively on him expounding predictable lectures about his betrayal and M's failure which could be found in the mouths of any modern cinema villain.
Bond floats through the first half of the film in particular through improbable locales like an uninhabited Shanghai skyscraper and a Macau casino with inexplicably vicious and improbably large Komodo dragons in a dreamlike reverie all the way up to the surreally deserted island. If this is meant to reinforce Bond's relevance it spectacularly fails to do so, making the franchise's tropes seem artificial and arbitrary. The second half is, by contrast, a bizarrely grey run-around which simply doesn't feel like Bond at all. The series should of course try new things but they at least have to be interesting, and this isn't. It feels like halves of two films jammed together, one Bond and the other a montage of cheap British spy-fi television, all squeezed through a filter of weak Christopher Nolan imitation, producing less of a whole rather than a more complete product. I ultimately found it deeply unsatisfying, largely because of how utterly boring and long-winded it became to little purpose. This was, in my view, not the film to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bond in cinema, no matter how many machine-gun Aston Martins are thrown in.

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