starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench
screenplay by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan
directed by Sam Mendes
by Walter Chaw For me, the James Bond films are the literalization of a very particular Conservative fantasy in which a suave, quippy, emotionally-arrested sociopath battles Cold War foes, beds beautiful women without consequence, always has the latest technology, and engages in the endless murder of foreigners. Just suggesting a "license to kill" reveals a certain level of arrogance; and it's their confrontation of the noisome wake left by those attitudes that makes On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the more recent Casino Royale the powerhouses that they are. Skyfall, the latest in the decades-spanning series, tries but fails to do the same. A good part of the problem can be traced back to non-action director Sam Mendes (superseding Marc Forster, non-action director of the disastrous Quantum of Solace), who, in trying to honour the visceral requirements of the genre, finds himself unable to produce either a meaty melodrama or a capable action vehicle.
What's left is a movie that engages in hackneyed, hollow, pocket psychoanalysis of our brooding hero. It's tempting to compare it to the regressive introspection of Christopher Nolan's operatic Dark Knight trilogy, but Skyfall lacks the feeling that it's accessing myth. Because of this, it also lacks that crucial element of archetypal resonance. Neither contemporary nor timeless, it is, in other words, neither fish nor fowl. Trace the rest of its problems to a sledgehammer colonialist/misogynistic ethos that self-identifies in the picture's closing moments with a mission statement that it's done "playing" around with the complex, ambiguous groundwork laid out in Casino Royale and ready to "get back to work" at the destructive, brute, un-reflective, and incurious pastimes of little boys.
Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed dead after a curiously lifeless prologue edited with far greater skill and intelligence for the trailer. The victim of a stray bullet from a ditzy colleague Biblically-tipped as Eve (Naomie Harris), he spends his time in self-imposed, Bourne-like exile until a terrorist plot takes out part of MI6's London headquarters, sending him back under the auspices of department head M (Judi Dench)--whom Bond calls "bitch" in one of this unpleasant film's more unpleasant moments--in an effort to stop evil ex-agent Silva (Javier Bardem, deserving an Oscar or something). The disappointing dearth of screentime for Silva goes back to Skyfall's dedication to the idea that Bond's worst enemy is his shitty childhood, and that once all totems related to that childhood--including any surrogate mother figures he may have picked up along the way--have been exorcised, Bond can stop being such a moody bastard and start molding the world in his image without conscience. It's a troubling thing handled as a triumphal return--very much the ending of The Silence of the Lambs where a serial killer is cheered for a little pun that promises the death of an undesirable.
Q (Ben Whishaw) appears for the first time in the reboot series as a computer hacker who hands out the film's lone gadget (a gun coded to Bond's handprint), leading to an encounter with a digital Komodo dragon that is unbelievably stupid. Q's role, like Eve's (like M's), is essentially as further belief that the reimagining of this franchise as a serious one instead of an essentially escapist one is akin to feminization and to be suffered no longer. Skyfall is motivated not by vengeance or duty, but by "stop acting like such a fucking pussy." It's reductive to the extreme. It's an old-fashioned Bond movie--or at least promises the next one will be--and that's good news for many.
Skyfall additionally introduces British war hero Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) and Bond girl/cannon fodder Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), the latter given backstory as a child-whore saved from her fate of forced prostitution by mad Silva only to be summarily executed by him in a sequence cruel mainly for the total lack of interest anyone shows in her passing. That's par for the course in Bonds past, granted, but it lands with real impact in Skyfall for all the attempts to present the psychic damage of the male leads. Here, Silva, Bond, and a long list of dead agents are the orphaned children of Shiva-like M: the progenitor and the destroyer; Eve's decision to step away from field work to be a receptionist and the complete marginalization of a woman's role in this universe mean that the picture is best read as a bitter portrait of threatened masculinity. I love the pregnant moment beneath the surface of a frozen pond where Bond has to light a flare to find his way to the surface. What is it about if not regression and denial? In its way, it's the ideal counterpart to Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, which likewise examines the toll that upholding a masculine ideal takes on men (as well as the directions this tension takes in our relationships with the opposite sex), albeit from a woman's perspective (Loktev's) as opposed to through the lens of the most testosterone-rich franchise in the history of film.
To that end, Skyfall's action sequences are more metaphor than kineticism. Mendes, stuck on a theme, predictably has no idea how to shoot an exciting chase and even less understanding of how to use Craig's craggy profile as iconography, making the picture's ending something like an apology for two-and-a-half hours of shallow character development. Skyfall isn't a disaster, but it is small and spiteful, maybe, and not nearly exciting enough to excuse its sins of simplistic self-justification. If only the movie were about Silva instead.