James Bond is after a stolen list of MI6 agents who have been placed in terrorist cells. At the same time. all of MI6 is under attack from someone who has access to the inside of the organisation. Bond is fighting an enemy that has his knowledge and skills. This is a strong, fast, and sexy action story that gives us something different from the Bond films we have seen before. ‘Skyfall’ has a darker tone than we have seen in the past from the series. Sam Mendes directs a script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
‘Dr. No’ had a flamboyant villain plotting a spectacular crime – toppling US rockets – and James Bond got in the way. ‘Goldfinger’ had a flamboyant villain plotting a spectacular crime – destroying the gold in Fort Knox – and James Bond got in the way. ‘Thunderball’ had a flamboyant villain plotting a spectacular crime – holding Miami for ransom with a nuclear device – and James Bond got in the way. That is a plot, repeated so many times in Bond films, is a standard template for a film in the series. But notice I skipped a film. ‘From Russia With Love’ had SPECTRE trying to get a cryptographic device and to embarrass the British Secret Service. While the story was progressing, the first-time viewer was not sure where it would be going.
In ‘From Russia With Love’, Bond was just living by his wits and trying to keep himself and a Russian cipher clerk alive. That was a believable plot for an adult spy thriller because it avoided the standard plot it was considered one of the best Bond films. It was a story that was easy to believe. Few Bond films depart from the template story, but in ‘Skyfall’ there is no giant spectacular crime for Bond to avert. The villain has the capability to do great damage, but he has something else in mind. Carrying out a vendetta is more what he wants. That does not require much suspension of disbelief from the viewer. It helps to make ‘Skyfall’ one of the more intelligent Bond thrillers. ‘Skyfall’ is Daniel Craig’s second Bond story (his first two films comprised a single story) and the writers chose to again avoid the overworked spectacular crime plot and instead to give us a story with an unpredictable arc.
Opening the film is a very long chase set in Turkey and featuring motorcycles and trains. Bond is trying to recover a computer hard drive that contains a list that could prove very damaging to MI6 if released publicly and that is just what his enemy is doing in a manner like WikiLeaks. Soon Bond finds he is facing a new kind a villain, a foe who has all of Bond’s training and ability and who additionally is a master of hacking in cyberspace. This man strikes at the very heart of MI6 with grudges that hit very close to home.
Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis writing ‘Casino Royale’ thumbed their noses at even the most established tropes by having Bond ask if he looked like he would care if his martini was shaken or stirred. For me, anyway, that was the best line in an entire series that always prided itself on its bon mots. It suggested that a lot of the Bond formula nonsense was going away. ‘Skyfall’ brings even more distance from the pop art Bond of the 1960s and 1970s. Bond gets only two gadgets from the new and incidentally very youthful Q. He gets a gun that only he can fire and a radio for tracking. Gone are the days when Bond was in some strange situation and he by luck happened to have just the right tool in his pocket, a tool he never had before and would never have again. These ‘just the right weapon’ contrivances are mostly gone from the formula.
One thing that does need to change but has not is Bond’s most useful weapon, the almost supernatural luck Bond could always count on. In ‘Goldfinger’, Bond overhears just the right phrase that Bond can use to save his life. In ‘Thunderball’, Bond just happens to run into people involved in stealing a nuclear device. The super-luck plot contrivances should have been dropped overboard like the gadgets and the martini preferences. In ‘Skyfall’, Bond cracks the whole case because he happens to find a gambling chip and guesses that it is important. Much more of the plot is still driven by Bond’s overwhelming luck.
The writers have gotten so blas about the whole matter that, early in the film, Bond is apparently killed and then without bothering to give any explanation, the script calls for him just to be alive again. The script never bothers to tell us how he escaped death. He just lucked out. Bond’s over-reliance on writer-provided luck has always been a serious flaw of the series and even James Bond’s luck could not prevent Daniel Craig from aging six years since ‘Casino Royale’. There are several comments that Bond is getting older and slowing down. A lot of Bond fans will be disappointed when Craig is too old to play an effective Bond.
Just to create some continuity with the series there are numerous memory jogs from the older Bond films. Names like ‘Moneypenny’ appear again and Bond’s old Aston Martin plays a large role in this film. That is fine. Bond films are allowed to borrow from themselves. However, the film also does a lot of borrowing from other films that had previously copied Bond. The opening chase sequence, twenty minutes in length, is strongly influenced by the ‘Bourne’ films. Javier Bardem is a very different villain for the Bond films, but his mannerisms and bizarre speech borrow a lot from Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in ‘No Country For Old Men’. Even more odd, the final act of this story seems to crib from Sam Peckinpaw’s ‘Straw Dogs’.
Daniel Craig cements his reputation as the best and the most ruthless of the screen Bonds. But we see him facing really different situations. A large middle section takes Bond to an exotic and challenging locale that Bond has never seen before, the London Underground at rush hour. Dame Judy Dench (sadly losing her eyesight and heading toward retirement) is given her juiciest role in any of her Bond films. Ralph Fiennes seems to have a minor and dispensable role in the story, but it is clear by the end of the film why we see so much of him. Albert Finney is almost unrecognizable in a role that did not require an actor of his talent. On the other side of the camera, Daniel Kleinman had created all the title sequences from ‘Goldeneye’ to ‘Skyfall’ with the exception of ‘A Quantum Of Solace’. His style does lend an air of class to the proceedings.
I like the new Bond, who is a more believable character than the previous Bonds. He would have no place in a John le Carr‚ story, but he is serious, and I like my Bonds serious. This is not a perfect Bond film, but it is one of the best. I rate ‘Skyfall’ a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
With each new Bond film I give my ordering of films in the series from the best to the worst. This may not be consistent with my previous listings since my opinion of films varies with time.
1 Casino Royale (2006)
2 From Russia With Love
4 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
5 Quantum Of Solace
7 Dr No
8 License To Kill
10 The World Is Not Enough
11 For Your Eyes Only
12 You Only Live Twice
13 The Living Daylights
14 The Spy Who Loved Me
16 Tomorrow Never Dies
18 Die Another Day
19 Diamonds Are Forever
20 The Man With The Golden Gun
21 A View To A Kill
23 Live And Let Die
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper