Spoiler-filled review commences after the next 4 pictures of exciting merchandise tie-ins!
Seriously, we're going to ruin the movie for you...
Dudes, don't keep going if you're not serious...
It's almost too late...there's still time to go watch Johnny English or something...
Or, Meet The New Bond, Same As The Old Bond.
After the disappointment that greeted Quantum Of Solace (which, in fairness, I liked a bit better than most), the declaration of Bond fans was indeed that they wouldn't get fooled again. (Yes, I am jockeying for The Who to do the next Bond theme. Because I want to hear Roger Daltrey belting out The Hildebrandt Rarity. Because I said so). And clearly Eon heard the grumbling, and made use of the extra time from MGM's bankruptcy to get all their ducks in a row, and produce what turned out to be a top-tier Bond movie.
How top-tier? I'm going to go out on a hypothetical limb, and suggest that if Skyfall had just 5 or 6 more lines of dialogue in specific places, and about 1 1/2 more scenes that were needed, I'd be championing this as potentially one of the top 5 Bonds ever.
Alas, that is not the case, and in just a couple of tiny ways the film falls just the teensiest bit shy of that exalted status. Which is not to say that it's not very, very good, because it is very, very good. But when we're at this level, small defects can make a large difference, and in the case of Skyfall, a couple of script problems cause the film to stumble a bit when it should soar.
This is to be (allegedly) the last Bond film involving Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who've been with the series since The World Is Not Enough. And yes, John Logan also wrote this, and it is of course a fool's errand to try, from my position of ignorance, to parse who is responsible for what.
But, to a large degree, Skyfall reads like a remake of Purvis and Wade's Brosnan scripts. We get liberal doses of The World Is Not Enough: a villain bent on revenge against M blows up MI-6 HQ; the retreat to Scotland; Bond has a shoulder injury that he has to deal with the entire movie. Add in a helping of ideas from Die Another Day: Bond fails in the teaser; Silva's capture by the Chinese sounds an awful lot like Bond's captivity with the North Koreans, except, of course, Bond threw away his cyanide capsule; the new MI-6 HQ in the Underground.
Let me be clear--almost all of these elements are handled better, and often much better, than they were in TWINE and DAD. Yet the faint whiff of deja vu dings it a couple of points, in my estimation, for the lack of originality. Really, someone at Eon should have said before filming began, "wait, didn't we just do some of this a few years ago?"
Still, these elements are fashioned into a pretty strong movie, an overall excellent script that captures a tone and sets up motifs and moods as well as any modern Bond script--except...well, we'll come back to issue as we go along.
Let's start with the teaser. I despair of ever having the gun barrel sequence at the beginning of the film again, as producer Michael Wilson seems too stubborn to admit that they did something silly in QoS for no good reason, so they're just going to keep doing it. Otherwise, we have a solid, action-packed chase through Istanbul and its outskirts. Cars, motorcycles, trains, bridges, construction equipment...the first, and most obvious thing we should take from the teaser is that those who worried that director Sam Mendes couldn't handle action really had nothing to worry about. Sure, he's mainly known from relationship dramas, and self-satisfied attacks on American suburbia--but if you ever saw Jarhead or Road To Perdition, you had to have suspected he had the chops for what Bond demanded. As an added bonus, Mendes was an actual Bond fan, and was excited to do it, and it shows.
Ah, but the teaser also gets us back to the script problems. Consider this--the MacGuffin is a stolen list of all of NATO's agents embedded in terrorist organizations. If it falls into the wrong hands, it could fatally damage anti-terror operations, result in the death of agents, embarrass Britain in front of her allies, bring down M...but I have to ask this very pertinent question: Why the hell was this all-important file doing in the field, where it could be stolen??
Not to do a comparison with other franchises, but in the first Mission Impossible movie, a very similar file was kept only in the bowels of CIA headquarters, inaccessible, and Ethan Hunt's teams had to jump through ridiculous hoops to steal it. But MI-6's file is on a lap-top in a Turkish hotel, where one lone assassin just has to shoot a guy and walk off with it? Does that make any sense whatsoever?
I'm pretty good at bending over backwards to come up with explanations for things that don't seem to make sense in films, but in all honesty, I can't think of a single valid reason for such a sensitive file, encrypted or not, to be out there. And since this is the inciting incident of the whole plot, and since one of the points of the movie is to judge whether or not M cocked it up, we really need some scintilla of an explanation what the hell was going on here. But the script chooses not to share that with us. Clearly it wasn't Ronson gone rogue (or was it?). Was it a plan to draw someone out? Why use the real file, then? Is that data on all MI-6 filed computers? Did Ronson just grab the wrong computer? Why are 007 and Eve there--as back-up? On a mission to get the laptop back when M finds out the data is on it? How does Patrice know about it, and how to find it? We need some explanation, just a sentence or two, anything that even makes half-sense...but the writers didn't bother.
The teaser also points out another "problem" that some have had with the film...a bit of the "Temple Of Doom Syndrome." The second Indiana Jone' movie's opening sequence was so full-throttle, so over-the-top, that all of the other action sequences in the film just didn't measure up--especially when the next one didn't come for 45 minutes. Well, that's is kind of the case here. After the teaser, we don't get another action sequence for 45 minutes. And of all those action sequences, none are as good as what we get in the teaser. And, CGI komodo dragon aside, few of them seem to have the flare, the panache, that we expect from the Bond team--there's nothing that makes one sit-up and say, "I've never seen anything like that before--this could only be a 007 movie!"
Well, I can see the point, and even agree a bit, although in the end I don't think it's a huge detriment to the film. Yes, the pacing is perhaps a bit slack early on--but all the stuff we get is fairly interesting and well done Yes, after the teaser many of the action set pieces don't seem insanely over the top. But I think that's perfectly appropriate for this movie. With the exception of the enquiry scene (where the people dressed as police shooting at actual police does make things hard to follow), all of those action scenes are quite well done. This is, in many ways, a dour film, a film of beginnings and endings, and too much over-the-topness would, I think, hurt the film, and take us out of the mood and themes they were going for. James Bond going through crazy improbable stunts at the end would have, I think, harmed the impact of M's death scene. And as I've written before, there is room for all types of Bond films, and I'm on record as loving the hardcore, realistic Bonds. I wouldn't want every Bond film to be like this...but this one does just fine.
The theme song, by Adele, is quite good. I have to admit, on my first viewing, it didn't do anything for me, and I was ready to dismiss it as another forgettable effort by a "hot" artist. But on subsequent hearing, it's really earwormed it's way into my brain. The chorus is slinky and seductive, in a Diamonds Are Forever kind of way (a theme song which I like more than most), the melody constantly coming to mind during the day whenever I let my thoughts wander. The lyrics are nothing to write home about, and I think the production buries Adele's vocals too much early on. She really needed to Shirley Bassey-up and belt this sucker out, and plow through the heavy arrangement. But by the time the chorale back-up kicks in, we're in high gear, and the song soars.
Many have complained about how overly elaborate Silva's plan was, and well, duh. This is a Bond movie, after all. And even though his mission was "just," revenge, he also wanted to damage MI-6 and publicly humiliate and ruin M (and maybe corrupt her latest "top agent"). That certainly required more than sneaking up and putting a bullet in her head. And let's note, every time he has M in his sights, he hesitates. This was as much about making a grand gesture, and killing himself, as it was about killing his "mommy."
Yet, our script does leave us wanting with Silva in a couple of ways. In too many ways, it paints him in an outline only (which is covered up very well by Bardem's performance), and I would have liked a little more filled in. M says he "went beyond his brief" and "hacked the Chinese." That could mean a lot of things--over-zealousness? Greed? Treason? Hacked what, exactly? That info could go a long way to explaining his character (and M's--was she justified in turning him over?). How did he get away from the Chinese? Escape? Released? They thought him dead after the cyanide, and he only recovered after they dumped the "body"? What has he been doing for 15 years? Why wait so long for revenge? With the list of activities he had going on, it's hard to believe he had never previously come to MI-6's attention. Had he? Did M have any inkling who "Silva" was, that her former top agent was still alive?
All this could have been easily done with a few sentences hear and there, and made Silva an even more fully-realized villain (and, again, have helped develop M's story, as well). They good news is, they had me wanting more. The bad news is, they didn't give it to me.
I also would have liked to see better back and forth between Silva and Bond. When Silva shows up, he's walks in with a four-minute monologue, and Bond responds with sentence fragments and smirks. Whenever they're together, the dialogue is 90% Silva, 10% Bond. Which can be seen as basically consistent with their characters, but I wanted to see more conversation, with Bond trying to rebut his arguments or question his sanity, or point out the irony that he was doing to the embedded agents what M had done to him, or a tiny bit about the philosophy of being a secret agent. Call him out on the hypocrisy of always dismissing the "running around" Bond does, while he himself relies on hired assassins and armies of thugs! We know that Daniel Craig is capable of witty extended conversations as Bond, but the last two movies seem content to portray him as a nearly-monosyllabic guy who does all his talking with his fists and guns--he had no real conversations with Greene in QoS, either. Unleash Daniel Craig, guys--let him go tongue-to-tongue as well as toe-to-toe with the villains (OK, that didn't come out right).
Another part of the problem is that Silva has absolutely no one on his side of the game to play off against. These are truly the dark days of Bond villain henchmen. We haven't had a memorable, let alone effective, henchperson since TWINE. But Skyfall falls even shorter of that ridiculously low standard. Patrice, the only one with a name, doesn't get a single line of dialogue. None of the other hirelings have an name (they're literally named in the credits as "Silva's henchman" and "Silva's mercenary"!!), none have an identifiable look, an identifiable characteristic--there's only one single line of dialogue in English, and that's "the boat is leaving now." Silva even silences Severine before she says a single word. Not only does this reliance on undifferentiated video game-type cannon fodder hurt our understanding of what's going on in the enquiry scene, and rob us of some of cathartic pleasure in the siege scene; but it also effectively leaves Silva as a solo act, with no one to play against. Eon, please, please, please--bring back henchmen!!
Then again, this section of the movie felt like there was a bit left on the cutting room floor...or, perhaps, again the writers didn't think things through. Bond convinces Severine to take him to meet Silva, he sneaks on the boat, then suddenly they've arrived and are under gunpoint...? Bond had no plan, except "let the nameless thugs walk us in and separate us?" Really? Again, this section feels like a part of the plot outline that never got finished before it was filmed.
After multiple movies examining Bond's having to deal with the consequences of his career choice, it's fitting that we get one wear we deal with what it must be like to be the hard one ordering the Double-Os around. And just as her spies can burn out, so too can M have to overcome the weight of her actions. Eventually, making the impossible calls of who lives and dies, even if justified, comes back to haunt you, if not outright destroy you. And Judi Dench makes M the steadfast, anything for my country, bury my heartache and guilt to appear strong for my people bitch believable and sympathetic.
And it's important to note that, despite being hard, despite the cock-ups and ordering the bloody shot and leaving him for dead, she never really loses Bond's loyalty. Even when they're trading insults, you understand the underlying respect. When Bond calls her a bitch, the others don't realize that it's a compliment. And when Silva points out that she lied to get him back on duty, Bond doesn't see that as "betrayal"--he sees that as a favor. Their rock solid relationship keeps this movie on track.
And applause to the writers for giving her the grace note of earning her death scene. Her actions do get a lot of people killed--losing the drive (pending some explanation for why it was out there), refusing to leave the enquiry, not fessing up about Silva earlier...but she realizes this, and agrees to the ridiculous plan for a Western style showdown because she knows it has to stop, and because she realizes that maybe the time has come to pay the price for her sins.
That being said, one of the banes of modern movies and TV is watching people watch computer displays while randomly tapping keys and narrating what's they're watching. Many directors and writers seem convinced that this is tense and riveting filmmaking. PRO-TIP: It's not. Mendes pulls this off better than most, but really, it can be a dreadful and boring (and lazy, and cheaper, and...) way to make your action film seem "modern" and relevant. Having Q look at a screen and say "Bond, you should be in the tube," followed by Bond replying "I'm in the tube" is not a successful long-term strategy for the characters or the franchise. I do hope they find a way to give Q more to do than that kind of "monitor duty," perhaps some actual field work so he can prove his brilliance...
[I've read more than one review that says that she and Bond remained "chaste," but I'm not buying it. Their faces almost touching, "old dog, new tricks," fade out, come back fully clothed with intriguing entendres? Sorry, there's no way they didn't consummate the relationship. Case closed]
But once again, the writers have left something vital out. There's absolutely no set-up, no explanation for why she opts out of field work. She's more than competent in the field, even despite "the bloody shot." She saves Bond's life in Macau, she handles herself well in the enquiry battle. There is absolutely zero indication that she is having second thoughts about being in the field--no doubts about the lifestyle, no odd looks at dead bodies, nothing. Her announcement at the end comes out of nowhere. Which is a shame, because there could have been some good character work involved in coming to that decision. Instead, it was as if the writers had a brief, "Eve must be Moneypenny at the end," and forgot to do any of the groundwork for that.
Also, they should have set up the Moneypenny revelation better. Tiny thing, but he should have been calling her Eve throughout (along with naughty "Adam" jokes that would entail, of course, and "Adam's apple" during the shaving scene, and...). And you could still unveil her last name in the end. Instead, the "we've never been formally introduced" would have us believe that, during two entire field operations, Bond didn't know here name? What did he do, just refer to her as "Hey, you" all the time?
That being said, let's hope his stories and the family estate puts an end to all of the "James Bond isn't his real name, it's just a title given to whoever is 007 at the time" theories (some of which, I must confess, I've dallied with myself, in moments of weakness).
certain critics who can't seem to remember what they've written about his past performances as Bond, I'm been on board his bandwagon since the beginning, and nothing about his performance here changes that. Craig gives us a Bond we can believe has decided to drop out, albeit for only a while, but comes back when he's truly needed both by his country and his surrogate parent figure.
It's interesting that, despite the burnout, he feels compelled to put himself into dangerous situations, such as the scorpion drinking game. I couldn't help notice that his hand didn't shake a bit there, as it did during his firing range practice. The difference, I would hazard, might be that James could still summon up his old nerve--but not for practice, only when his life was on the line.
So at the end, we've gone full circle...meet the new Bond, same as the old Bond. We've gone through a "reboot" and three movies only to end up back at the beginning, in virtually the same office with the same byplay with Moneypenny and with M handing him missions. But this didn't feel like retreading at all...no, we were earning our way back to the old status quo, showing how everyone got there this time, instead of just turning up in media res as in Dr. No. And this time we're looking the consequences of this type of career straight in the eyes.
It's all done with with high style, and high art, with proper reverence for the past. And if not for a couple of bone-jarringly upsetting script omissions, which fail to lay groundwork and fail to explain things we need to know, well, who knows how high it might have ranked? A few lines of dialogue, an extra scene or two showing us what was really going on with Severine, why Moneypenny chose as she did, and you have one of the true greats.
But it is really, really good...probably top 8, maybe higher. And if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to go see it again...
SNELL'S NOTES AND RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:
**Oh, the missed opportunity!! A Bond film set largely in England, and 2012...and no set piece set at the Summer Olympics? Bond could chase Patrice through the decathlon--discus and javelins thrown! Pole vaults! Breaking up a peloton to steal bikes! Jumping off the high dive whilst shooting! Oh, the lost possibilities...
**That really cool scene where Bond adjusts his cuffs when entering the train? Craig ad-libbed that.
**If Bond doesn't dig out the bullet fragments and have MI-6 analyze them, then they can't identify Patrice, and have no trail to Silva, who wants to be caught. So, what if Bond had actually been dead? Or had his shoulder patched up by a doctor on his little tropical paradise? Surely Silva couldn't have planned on this...were there other bread crumbs he would have laid?
**Our second meeting with Patrice doesn't make a lot of sense to me, despite being fun and beautifully filmed.
First, the payment chip was already in his case? They paid the assassin before the hit? Yes, I know, they wanted Bond to follow the clues, but would Patrice know that? With all Silva's yammering that Bond wasn't fit, how could he count on Bond defeating Patrice and finding the chip?
**And while we're at it, look at the set-up. They hire Patrice to shoot someone from across the street. Then Severine and her goons immediately remove the body. Well, if the intent was to make it look like someone else killed him, why move the body? And if you don't care, why not just whack him yourself, and save the 4 million Euro fee? (Yes, I know, they wanted to lure Bond...but still doesn't explain why they'd move the body. As I said, the "he wanted to be caught" excuse tries to paper over a lot of flaws)...
**"Don't touch your ear" was a nice callback to Casino Royale, doubly nice because that is how Bond made Severine's goons..
**One of Severine's body guards was played by an actor named...Tank Dong. Wow.
**I was going to question the komodo dragon scene, but I researched it, and they have been known to attack humans in the wild, and adults can get as large as 300 pounds.So, OK, then.
**As to all the reviewers blathering about "the first gay Bond villain," A) grow up; B) you haven't watched previous Bond films very carefully, have you?; C) more like bi, given that Severine was his "lover"; D) certainly Silva was overplaying that aspect during the initial meeting to get under Bond's skin; and E) grow up.
**That being said...so, James, where is the "you're scratching my balls" taunt while Silva's feeling you up, eh?
**Yes, 007 could have stalled a little bit longer during the William Tell scene, and thus perhaps have saved Severine...but as far as I can tell, he could have had no idea exactly when (or if) the cavalry would arrive, so he had no reason to think that would be an effective strategy.
**Silva's monologue about the rats was bravura--how long did he spend practicing it, you wonder?--but it was also set up earlier in the film, when Tanner tells Bond that their new underground HQ is full of rats...
**Silva's island is an actual place, not a set. It was formerly a Mitsubishi-owned coal mining facility and community and occasional forced labor camp that was abandoned in 1974. It's a fascinating story...
**M's testimony at the enquiry was essentially the English version of Jack Nicholson's "You want me on that wall! You NEED me on that wall!" speech from A Few Good Men...
**That said, the enquiry was not especially well written. Unless the point was to have M and the mean MP completely ignore each others' argument to attack other straw men. MI-6 too old-fashioned and technology savvy? That's not what we saw, and in fact that dependence on technology is (part) of what caused all the problems. And M's impassioned "you need MI-6" goes on deaf ears, because no one was talking about mothballing it...instead they were critiquing her handling of the specific case and the agency in general. And as I mentioned above, since we never get critical information about what the Turkey mission was, or exactly what happened in Hong Kong in 1997, we really can't judge who might be right...
**It's great to see The Car back...but does this mean the Craig Bond experienced Goldfinger?!? Oh, my aching head...
**I do find it difficult to believe that Jame Bond wouldn't have a couple of bolt holes/safe house somewhere with a few weapons stored for emergencies like this. He obviously had a bit of cash stashed away somewhere, because he sure wasn't broke during his "death."
**Some have suggested that the Siege At Skyfall went on too long. I thoroughly disagree...but I will concede that some of the "preparation" and gazing at Scottish vistas could have been trimmed a bit (especially since more important things were getting ignored earlier in the movie...)
**Some have also questioned the way Silva deployed the first wave of mercenaries during the battle, just walking up there like lambs to the slaughter. Well, I have to point out, when did Silva ever show the faintest shred of caring about his underlings? They were his sacrificial lambs, the ones sent in to test Skyfall's defenses, and flush Bond and M out, and waste their resources. They were the canaries in the coal mine, as it were, just as Patrice and Severine were.
**Some thematic echoing: immediately after the scene in which M writes Bond's obituary, the camera pans down over a statue looking down on London as her car drives by (help me out, Brit friends--who's the statue?).
And at the end, when Bond is on the roof, the camera pans down over him, same stance...
**More nice thematic follow throughs: Recall Bond and Q's initial meeting, as they discuss the painting of the obsolete war ship being towed away.
Cut to the final scene. We see two paintings in M's office. Behind his desk is the old, now abandoned MI-6 HQ, and on the right wall is a painting of the old warships, in full glory. Not so obsolete after all, eh?
**Bond Score: 3. His lover while dead, Moneypenny (don't argue with me), and Severine. Cumulative Bond Score: 61.
And, as always,
JAMES BOND WILL RETURN
...and hopefully they'll call it the Hildebrandt Rarity...