Skyfall (rated M), starring Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Densch and Javier Bardem, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Bond is back. Fifty years since Dr No first appeared on the silver screen and Sean Connery said “The name’s Bond, James Bond”, the international man of mystery has returned in his latest adventure. Despite the effervescent enthusiasm lavished on Skyfall, something doesn’t quite click, much like a pistol with an empty ammo clip.
The movie opens with Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to retrieve a hard drive containing some very sensitive information. In true Bond fashion there’s a motorcycle chase through the grand bazaar of Istanbul followed by a daring train-top fight sequence that also includes a bulldozer.
When it becomes apparent that the drive might be lost, “M” (Dame Judi Dench) gives the order to Bond’s female associate (Naomie Harris) to shoot. She misses the villain but manages to take out Bond who plummets into the river.
As a result, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6 is under review, headed by the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, dapperly dressed in pin-striped three-piece suits, à la his last outing as a superspy in the 1998 film version of The Avengers, which also starred Sean Connery as the villain); a man dismissed as a bureaucrat, but one with “hidden depths”.
When MI6’s HQ gets blown up, Bond returns from “enjoying death” — but as a drunken, physical and mental wreck. The trail ultimately leads to Shanghai and Macau and on to a deserted island, where Bond comes faces to face with the brilliant and flamboyant former MI6 agent-turned-cyber-terror mercenary Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who has an elaborate plan but a simple aim.
The soundtrack is creative and well used from the stunning opening song performed by Adele. The cinematography is similarly able and clever and well constructed, with some excellent shots, especially of beautiful women.
The direction comes from Sam Mendes, famous for American Beauty and Road to Perdition. And the movie is replete with in-jokes referencing as many Bond films as possible. For all that, the plot is much, much simpler than one is used to in a Bond film, and seems overly so.
The performances are excellent, which ought be expected from such an exemplary cast. Roger Moore has claimed that Craig is well on his way to taking over from Sean Connery as the definitive Bond. Judi Dench is masterful as the ruthlessly professional “M”. Ben Whishaw brings geek chic to the role of the new, and very young “Q”. But the star character role is Javier Bardem as Silva, channelling wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange, with his bleached blonde hair and penchant for publicising secrets online.
Despite everything Skyfall has going for it, and the rave reviews of other critics — Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregated critics’ reviews put it at 92 per cent — it feels underwhelming. The point of James Bond, both in the novels and the earlier films, is that it is a patriotic Boy’s Own fantasy, in the proper sense, with Bond as the knight-errant devoted to Queen and Country, the British bulldog taking on the enemies of the Kingdom and being rewarded with wine — well, martinis, shaken not stirred — and women for his service.
The gadgets may refocus the fairy-tale setting away from magic and towards hi-tech, but the underlying principle is the same. Bond’s world is not our world. And yet, what the Craig films seek to do is recast Bond in our world. Can James Bond be realistic and gritty? Not really, because the underlying premise is fantastical.
Any “serious” commentary that arises from these yarns, much like those coming from superhero flicks and sci-fi extravaganzas, comes not from the naturalistic setting, but from the “primal” themes investigated. The characters are archetypes, and the plots are arguments. Thus, these supposedly lightweight entertainments can deal with heavy topics, but in a covert manner.
James Bond represents a pre-modern character, a throwback to another era, but one motivated by peculiarly modern ideals. For Bond, his fundamental principle is those English notions of patriotism that are distinctly amoral and jingoistic — “My country, right or wrong”.
This is not such a bad thing these days, but when coupled with Bond’s particular psychopathic take on things — where lies are necessary, murder is employment and women are a pleasant respite between, and during, missions — they make him a brutal hero, but one who endures due to male wish-fulfilment coupled with a simple, but principled centre.
Skyfall veers to exploring more of the murkiness accompanying espionage, but unlike John le Carré’s George Smiley who was created to subvert the glamorous image of the superspy, James Bond exists to be that very glamorous superspy.
Instead of making Bond more real, it shows his unreality. In attempting to illuminate the shadows, Skyfall exposes the smoke and mirrors and renders the fantasy but a flickering figment of the imagination.