Skyfall – a review

Jamaica. The 1950s. The sun begins to slowly set over GoldenEye where Ian Fleming has been at his typewriter, drink to hand and, who knows, perhaps some lunch with his neighbour Noel Coward. During the war Fleming had worked for the Naval Intelligence Division as an SIS operator. He loved the shadowy world of espionage and intrigue and decided he would use his experience to write a spy adventure novel called Casino Royale all about a British Secret Agent named James Bond (the soon to be very famous name taken from the author of a book titled Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies). What was Fleming’s James Bond like? In many ways he was Fleming’s fantasy version of himself and Fleming was a rather suave character to begin with. A bounder, seducer and caddish bon vivant according to one of his biographers. So Bond was tougher than Fleming, more conventionally handsome, described as having a scar, a comma of black hair over his forehead and the uncanny good looks of a Hollywood film star. Fleming’s Bond was more introspective than the film incarnation but he wasn’t Ingmar Bergman. Although his parents had died in a climbing accident he wasn’t some perpetually tortured soul scarred by his childhood. When the character made the transition from page to screen the legendary producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to – for want of a better word – spiff things up somewhat for cinematic purposes. The novels were a trifle starchy and dated so James Bond was made more pop culture. Playboy magazine. In the guise of Sean Connery he was a super suave charmer who was more than capable of fighting his way out of trouble. The Bond blueprint – the iconic staples – were established with Goldfinger. Gunbarrel, pre-title sequence, title sequence, M scene, Q, exotic locales, grand villain with a masterplan, spectacular last act. The films were larger than life and amusing (not that the books were Dostoevsky to begin with – Fleming’s Bond wrestling giant squids and battling villains with steel hands) and fantastic entertainment. An impossibly suave model handsome preposterously patriotic anachronistic British spy saving the world. What’s not to like? By and large James Bond was a charming constant in an increasingly charmless world. As Cubby Broccoli said, people pay their money and they forget their troubles for a few hours. 
The series has been more grounded before but never to a drastic degree. Timothy Dalton and his films were less flippant than what came before but he certainly looked like James Bond and The Living Daylights with its majestic John Barry score is to my mind probably the last great Bond film. Sure, Roger Moore made a few films too many and the humour got out of hand at times during his run but he looks great in his early films (Moore was the oldest actor to debut as Bond when 46 in Live and Let Die but he actually looks younger than all of them in that film) and the best Moore Bonds were as much fun as anything in the series. Let’s not forget George Lazenby either. Lazenby probably looked more like James Bond than any of the actors and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is easily the best film in the series. He was 29 when he made that film and had never acted before. All things considering he did an amazing job. The series was mothballed by studio litigation in the late eighties and when it emerged again Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. Brosnan had the requisite Bondian looks, was popular and was up for the challenge but he was unfortunate to arrive on the scene during what can best be described as a fallow period for the venerable franchise. GoldenEye was solid enough but the scripts were pretty terrible during his tenure and they never seemed to decide what they wanted him to do. Should he play it straight like Dalton or do the light comedy Roger Moore thing? In the end they tried to do both and ended up doing neither especially well. Still, Brosnan was better than his material and at least part of the template. You could imagine he was the same character that Dalton, Lazenby et al played because they were similar physical types. One important occurrence during the Brosnan years was the death of Cubby Broccoli and his widow and the subsequent prominence of his daughter Barbara Broccoli, now the main custodian of the franchise with her step-brother and manservant Michael G Wilson. I’m pretty sure that Barbara Broccoli’s idea of a good night in is not The Spy Who Loved Me or Goldfinger. She has this bizarre idea that she’s a serious artist and that James Bond films should be winning BAFTAS or something.
Which brings us to Skyfall, a very special anniversary film. Why it’s the sixth anniversary of Barbara Broccoli’s new James Bond series. Directed by Sam Mendes (didn’t he win an Oscar once? how the mighty have fallen), Skyfall’s McGuffin is a stolen hard drive taken from an MI6 agent that contains information on all undercover NATO operatives. This hard drive… oh, I can’t be bothered. Stolen spy records. A plot device stolen from the first Mission Impossible film. Four years and this is the best they could come up with. It’s just a McGuffin and is forgotten about half-way through the film. Don’t they back these things up anyway? If I want to remember something I write it down on a piece of paper and post it to myself. That was just a joke. So James Bond (played by Daniel Craig again) is on a mission in Turkey to retrieve the disc and ends up being accidentally shot by fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and falling in a river. He’s presumed dead but is very much alive and returns to London when the MI6 headquarters suffers a terrorist attack. Didn’t they do that one in The World Is Not Enough? This is not going to be the most original film ever committed to celluloid. I didn’t get this by the way. They write Bond’s obituary but no seems surprised when he turns up again. Was it a hoax? How did he survive in that river? Is he bloomin Aquaman? I’m always reading that Daniel Craig’s films are more realistic but in their own pretentious way they are as daft as anything that came before. A secret agent smashing through walls and ripping door handles off like the Incredible Hulk. It’s hardly Fleming’s Bond. Anyway, it transpires that cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is behind the attack and he seems to have a big grudge against the secret service boss M (Judi Dench).  
There is no gunbarrel at the start of the film again. Mendes said that because the first shot of the film is Daniel Craig with a gun the gunbarrel didn’t work. Why not make the opening shot of the film a location one and then switch to Daniel Craig with a gun Mr Mendes? It’s not rocket science. Oh, forget it. I don’t know if it’s something to do with his shorter stature but Daniel Craig looks silly in his gunbarrel anyway. And once again too the score (by Thomas Newman) hardly uses the James Bond theme at all. It’s like they are embarrassed to be a James Bond film. Don’t confuse us with those silly Bond films they used to make. We are great artists. The PTS is underwhelming and (like many films these days) was ruined by the trailers and previews. It turns out that this is practically the only big stunt sequence in the entire film and I lost count of how many things it reminded me of. By the way, hated Craig leaving the agent to die at the start because M told him to. Timothy Dalton would have told Judi Dench to get stuffed. So, a car chase through a bazaar with flying fruit stands (yawn!) and Craig on a motorbike. Enough with the motorbikes. They did motorbikes in two Brosnan films and Quantum of Solace. Very Jason Bourne and then there is some nonsense with Craig on a train with a bulldozer. The train fight reminds one of Octopussy and is very disconcerting because Craig looks like Steven Berkoff as General Orlov.
Mendes is not of course an action director and it shows. The fight scenes are arthritic in this film. You get a not bad “Bond moment” in the PTS though. Adjusting the cuff links. Negated somewhat by the fact that Daniel Craig has (for reasons that escape me) a football hooligan skinhead and is wearing a Pee Wee Herman suit that looks three sizes too small for him. He looks terrible in the PTS. Like Vladimir Putin. So what of Naomie Harris as Eve? It looks as if she is going to be in future films and I can only say that the Skyfall casting director should probably be shot. She is an absolute block of wood in this film and has no chemistry whatsoever with Daniel Craig. I find it strange by the way that Barbara Broccoli is so obsessed with political correctness and yet never seems to cast proper actresses in these films. It’s always some Ukrainian supermodel or someone who looks like Daniel Craig’s granddaughter and can’t thesp their way out of a paper bag. Here’s an idea. Why don’t you cast a proper actress who is the same age as Daniel Craig? The title sequence. Daniel Kleinman is back. The only genius left on the payroll. It’s good but why is Daniel Craig’s mug in the titles yet again? Where are the scantily clad female silhouettes in the best Maurice Binder tradition? I do quite like Adele’s song. A bit obvious but anything is better than the last two. The film starts and we get “MI6, London” on the screen. Thanks for that. I thought the MI6 headquarters was in Azerbaijan so nice to be corrected. Why does London look so drab in this film? One of the great cities in the world. I remember watching the Olympics and seeing all those wonderful views and landmarks at the various events. Mendes makes it look about as exciting as Margate on a wet weekend, the letter D hanging off the derelict Dreamland sign.
Way too many rooms full of computer screens and people running around with ear pieces in this film – something which got tedious during the Brosnan era. Oh, and too many scenes of Judi Dench in her house. I kept expecting Geoffry Palmer to walk in with a cardigan and a cup of tea. The start of the film has people looking out of rain drizzled windows and is more like watching some ITV drama than a feature film. So Craig’s Bond has been mooching about on an island like the one at the end of The Bourne Identity and swigging from cans of lager (what a sophisticate) but must be reevaluated back at MI6 before he can be pressed back into service. In the last film he still was the rookie Bond who had just earned his 007 status but now there are jokes about him being old and clapped-out. Uh? It’s a mess really and it’s like even EON are now admitting it was ridiculous to pretend the weathered Daniel Craig was a young whippersnapper Bond in Casino Royale. Some new characters here now. Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He’s effectively M’s boss as he regulates MI6 and tells her she’s to be retired. The arc of Mallory in the film is none too surprising but Fiennes is pretty solid. Fiennes and Ben Whishaw as the new Q are too good to be in a Bond film in a way. They aren’t going to get much to do or be stretched so it’s like they are just taking a quick pay cheque until the next West End play. Like Muhammad Ali defending his title against Richard Dunn before he fights Earnie Shavers or Ken Norton. Q works better as an old duffer I think and it’s weird watching Daniel Craig and Ben Whishaw together as Bond looks like his Grandfather. Two more films and Wishaw’s baby faced Q will have to design a gadget laden wheelchair for our clapped out spy.
What wonderful diction Whishaw has though. I actually found the sequence where he’s guiding Bond through the underground the most amusing in the film and I thought he was very good in his few scenes. Don’t like the “were you expecting an exploding pen?” line from Q. Feels disrespectful to what has gone before and pompous. I like those old Bond films exploding pens and all. This is not The Sorrow and the Pity you are making here. Get over yourselves. Around this point Huw Edwards steals the film playing a newsreader. I don’t know if that man is a method actor but bravo. Very convincing Welsh accent too. Craig looks a bit better during the MI6 scenes (despite the white beard) but then he’s suddenly Grandpa Bond again in the Shanghai sequence. This neon hazed set-piece looks pretty but I couldn’t actually see what as happening half the time. Very Dark Knight though. What is bizarre is the way that Thomas Newman’s largely unmemorable score mimics the Dark Knight music. It seems to take forever for the villain to appear in this film. When he finally arrives Bond is on his private island tied up in a chair. Silva spends about nine days slowly walking up to him from the other side of the room while he delivers a speech about the nature of rats or something. Come on mate. We haven’t got all night. Get on with it! Bardem has a blond fright wig and seems to channeling David Walliams. What happened to Daniel Craig’s eyebrows? He doesn’t seem to have any in this scene. Bérénice Lim Marlohe as Sévérine was rather underused I think and should have been given a larger role in the film. She looks like Famke Janssen in GoldenEye. She’s suggested to be a tragic character who has essentially been a sex slave but Bond walks in on her when she’s in the shower and shows no concern over her fate. Charming. You get the impression Craig’s Bond would pull the plug on the entire world just to spend one more minute with Judi Dench. That actually appears to be the real plot of the film. Craig and Bardem both want Judi Dench to be their mum.
Silva is a Joker/Two-Face/Silence of the Lambs hybrid. We learn he was an MI6 agent in Hong Kong and feels he as betrayed by M. The vengeful agent was done much better by Sean Bean in GoldenEye. I don’t know why MI6 had a Spanish sounding agent in Hong Kong but maybe I missed that bit. When Craig is finally shaved and put in a tuxedo for the first time we have him arriving at some Shanghai casino on a gondola and he has a nerdy side parting and looks uncannily like that Liberal Democrat who went out with a Cheeky Girl. What was his name? We are the Cheeky Girls. Have yourself a Cheeky Christmas. I like the Komodo dragon fight sequence. A fleeting flash of the old Bond. It’s Brosnan stuff really but Brosnan would have made you laugh more with his facial expressions. Craig is still a bit of a mumbler at times and also drops his Ts during this scene. I hate it when English people do that. Says beaudiful instead of beautiful. What is noticeable about this film are budget cuts. The foreign locations feel too brief and only fleetingly does one get a sense of location. So it’s back to Blightly for the rest of the film. The tube sequence is amusing with Whishaw and to be fair to old RoboBond he has lightened a bit after playing James Bond as a monosyllabic psychopath in his first two films. The problem with this sequence though is that the extras look terribly unconvincing. One is even smirking and trying not to look at the camera. Hello mum! I’m in a Bond film! In the last Bourne film (the last REAL Bourne firm) they had Matt Damon in a London train station and filmed him from a distance with what seemed like real commuters. It was much more convincing.
And when Silva crashes a tube train notice there are no people on the train. Sure, they must have been sensitive to real life events but it makes the film look like some Universal amusement park ride rather than a real scene. Remember the big subway sequence in Die Hard with a Vengeance? This is very small change compared to that. By the way, how does Silva manage to remain inconspicuous dressed as a policeman with that shock of blond hair? Very realistic. You see a lot of policemen with hair like Robbie Savage don’t you? I was always wary of Mendes doing Bond because, frankly, I find his films dull. Ever tried to watch Road to Perdition? Life is too short. And the third act of Skyfall is seriously dull. Bond returns to the bleak isolated Wayne Manor, sorry, I mean the Skyfall Lodge, where Alfred the Butler, sorry, I mean his gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney) is waiting. Bond has an ancestral lodge in Scotland? Wow, that must hard to maintain on an MI6 salary. I must be missing something here. There is no Skyfall lodge in the Fleming books. He was raised in a pub in Kent. I look forward to him inheriting the Risico bar and grill in the next film. So, anyway, the Craig Bond apparently grew up on the set of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1786. No wonder it was an unhappy childhood. It probably took four days to walk to the nearest shop to buy some crisps. It becomes a tedious siege film with Craig, Dench and Finney setting booby traps and waiting for Silva to attack. It’s like watching the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in a fog shrouded episode of The A-Team.
In the real James Bond series 1962-2002 (or 1962-1989 even), Bond’s hidden trauma is the death of his wife Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Remember the touching moment in Licence To Kill when Timothy Dalton is thrown a bunch of flowers after the wedding of Felix Leiter and smiles sadly? He knows he will never remarry because he doesn’t want to be hurt again. That touchstone doesn’t exist in this new Bond universe and so they’ve invented some nonsense about Bond being haunted by his childhood. Fleming didn’t give a monkeys about Bond’s childhood. When Bond remembers it in the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he recalls it as a happy innocent time. Here, it was apparently a terrible time. So that’s how he became James Bond. He locked himself in a cupboard. Pardon? Did someone actually get paid to write this stuff?
I have no idea what this film is supposed to be by the third act. It’s just bizarre and sort of depressing. Do I still have time to get home and put The Spy Who Loved Me in the DVD player? The villain in that one has an undersea base and it has funky seventies music by Marvin Hamlisch. I know Bond is supposed to have lured Silva there but does Britain not have any soldiers or policemen? In this film the only thing that stands between the assassination of major British government figures is apparently Daniel Craig with a shotgun and a 90 year-old Albert Finney with a Father Christmas beard. The more I write about this film the more it’s annoying me. I love the way Craig has time to reload his shotgun and still shoot the people firing millions of bullets at him. They must be the worst shots since the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars. Apologies to DC but he looks ill during the Scotland sequences. Gaunt and haggard and his hair (which seemed darkened during the MI6 sequences) is now grey. His performance has been surprisingly relaxed at times but he saves his most wooden line reading for the last scene of the film. Doh! Maybe they shot that first and he hadn’t woken up.
Skyfall is a frankly ridiculous film that wants to have its cake and eat it. The pretentious lip gibbering theatrics that have plagued the reboot are still here (god, I can’t take any more films where Daniel Craig and Judi Dench are together) but there are one liners that seem to have come straight out of a Roger Moore film. The problem is that you can’t make a traditional Bond film with Daniel Craig and yet they are tentatively moving on that direction after the critical mauling of Quantum of Solace. Even the Bond music doesn’t work with Daniel Craig. The Bond theme is upbeat and tongue-in-cheek. It doesn’t suit him. And EON really need to stop shamelessly cribbing from other franchises. First Bourne, now the Dark Knight. So we’ve taken three films to get back to where we were in 2002. A Bond with Q and Moneypenny. Message to Barbara Broccoli: stop acting as if you’ve invented the James Bond film. Where does the series go from here? I’m not sure and I don’t think I care that much to be honest. Now where is my copy of Goldfinger?

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