| The Red Right Hand
To avoid spoiling the story, my brief plot synopsis is going to be somewhat more brief than usual. Skyfall opens mid-mission, in typical Bond fashion, as MI6 monitor James [Craig] scrabbling around Istanbul, elaborately chasing down an operative who has stolen a hard drive - a hard drive which apparently contains the name of every undercover operative in action. During a climactic brawl atop a speeding train, his fellow field agent takes a shot and accidentally hits Bond, causing him to plummet several feet into a seemingly watery grave. For losing the data, M [Dench] is reprimanded and brought to trial by the British government; at the same time, MI6 is subject to a massive terrorist attack and several undercover agents are exposed and executed. We soon discover Bond is alive and well but in order to regain his 00 status, he must first complete several trials. Bond's investigations take him to China and to a figure from M's past [Bardem].
As much as Timothy Dalton was probably the finest Bond, Daniel Craig is evidently the best choice for these contemporary tales. His steely determination, patriotic loyalty and determined resolve all mesh into one plausible individual who has signed his life away for queen and country. Furthermore, the wealth of positive elements not only counter the slight missteps in Quantum Of Solace, they connect the previous two films, feeling like a Daniel Craig trilogy rather than random instalments in this alternate Bond-centred universe. The action is gripping, the sets and locations are lavish and the pacing is, in my opinion, completely fitting for the three act structure. But everything unfolds just a little too neatly. In the same way that everyone (including myself) was taken in by the marvel that was The Dark Knight before really stopping to question the reality of such a fiendish plan. In other words, a lot of things had to go exactly according to plan for the plot to progress in the manner it did and while this niggling complaint didn't disrupt my enjoyment of the film while watching it, it's now all I can think of.
It's wrong of me to compare the James Bond franchise to properties such as the Boune series or Tinker Tailor Solider Spy but the lack of gritty realism really hits home and amid the myriad of series tick boxes, references and eye-rollingly blatant product placement, Skyfall's plot is found slightly wanting. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the spectacle and exploration of Bond's human side and backstory but the drama felt a little too underplayed, sinking into the background while the Aston Martins, Omega watches and general James Bondisms traipsed forcefully to the fore. In fact the majority of the references and nods to the previous films felt really forced. Uh-oh, James has gone to a private lockup somewhere, anyone think there'll be an Ast.. oh, yep, there it is. Aston Martin DB5.. oh and a massive orchestral DUN DUN sting to remind you it's a Bond car, in case this is your first Bond outing. But in case that wasn't enough, we should probably reference the ejector seat..... badly. Ultimately, this has always been a problem with the Bond franchise. A new actor comes through and makes their mark on the series before eventually falling into the old, familiar pitfalls and comfort zones that fans expect (Dalton and Lazenby thankfully sidestepped these trappings), with mixed results.
**plenty of plot spoilers here, so just skip ahead to the next paragraph if you have yet to see the film**
So, we should probably discuss the implications and developments by the film's close. Maybe I've just seen one too many films, or perhaps the blatant Bondisms left a trail of breadcrumbs with actual loaves but the whole Dench departure thing seemed rather obvious. I wouldn't say it was badly done because it was actually a nice send off but it made the inevitability of the whole thing a little tedious - I think it was around the time she started quoting Tennyson. But what really irks me is the final shots of Eve bloody Moneypenny (surely they could have shoehorned that in a little smoother) taking her place behind the desk, hat rack neatly placed before Bond steps through the big padded door to his new employer's office. Of course Ralph Fiennes was replacing Dench. If Albert Finney hadn't shown up as the groundskeeper and wasn't older than stone, I'd say it would be him. Bringing Bond's operations back to a small wood-panelled room somewhere in Westminster is all well and good but it felt like Mendes was trying to step away from modernising Bond and bringing the story back to the 60's films; a full circle, if you will. Now, if the series stopped there, I'd say that was the absolute perfect move but we all know there will be plenty more to come, a fair few featuring Mr. Craig, no doubt. So, my real frustration with this epilogue is a.) the unnecessary fan service literally pissing on the groundwork in Casino Royale b.) where do you go from there? But I digress, I have a few suggestions for the future of Bond but I'll save those for my closing remarks.
For me, one of the defining features to any film is the music and for fifty years James Bond films have had the tradition of having two key musical elements; the score and the song. The former has been providing with long-time Mendes collaborator, Thomas Newman and it's thoroughly disappointing. Newman has crafted so many distinctly haunting and beautiful melodies over the years but his presence here falls flat, sticking within the clear-cut boundaries of the familiar James Bond twanging and variations thereof. On the other hand, Adele Adkin's Skyfall theme is superb, combining her own distinctive sound with that timeless Bond feel - much like Gladys Knights did with the theme for Licence To Kill. So, on the one hand, a timeless classic which will probably be remembered as one of the best Bond themes and a mesh of flimsy instrumental accompaniment taking us from scene to scene. Most unfortunate.
Then there's the acting to take into consideration, I'm really not sure what to think of Javier Bardem's character. At times he was utterly superb: a callous, driven, eccentric individual with genuine reason to seek revenge and then he suddenly morphs into this camp, moustache twirling, monologuing stereotype. Whereas this should make for a memorable villain, all it does is sully a potentially phenomenal performance. Also, as much as I like Naomie Harris as an actress, I felt her role here was so very forced. There was no real chemistry between her and Craig and it stapled the subtly sexist (though probably unintentional) theme of presenting an array of rather useless women. Now before you shoot off a couple of emails damning me, I'm not saying women are useless, I'm saying they are portrayed as fumbling, inaccurate, emotionally compromised, weak individuals. I'm not saying you need to butch them up and try and be a female Bond - akin to Halle Berry's rather disastrous performance in Die Another Day - but surely there's some middle ground here!
To summate, I'm not suggesting this Bond film is not up to par with its twenty two predecessors, more that as wholly rounded films, they've all been somewhat lacking. Enjoyable, entertaining nonsense but far from cinematic excellence. In my opinion it's time to shake off the shackles of nostalgia; Bond should either be a 60's cold war period piece or go in a completely 'radical' direction and imply James Bond is simply a codename, much like M, and cast Idris Elba or Colin Salmon. After all, as wonderful a film as Skyfall is, how many more decent Bond stories are there left to explore?
26th October 2012
The Scene To Look Out For:
Once again, two scenes to highlight here. The first is the siege of Skyfall Lodge.. yes, Skyfall is a house. Without wanting to divulge too much plot, it's essentially a nice combination of a big action sequence, a classic Western set-piece and a nice little nod to more of Bond's humanising backstory. Secondly, unlike my fellow critics, I actually enjoyed Chris Cornell's theme for Casino Royale (You Know My Name) and the title sequence as an equally inventive and lush visual accompaniment. The same applies here, a fantastic song and beautifully haunting visuals which mirror the events that transpire and the overriding theme of death - of course, none of that really sinks in until the film finishes but it's delightful nevertheless.
One element returning from the previous films is the Q branch representative, affectionately dubbed, Q. Ben Whishaw has always been a commendable thespian and his role here is exactly as expected. Reserved, arrogant, outspoken yet somehow timid, Q is a fresh embodiment of a familiar character, rather than a mirroring pastiche to a beloved series regular.
"A radio and a gun.. not exactly Christmas, is it?"
In A Few Words:
"Another quality outing that does all it sets out to do but after fifty years, Bond is getting a tad old hat and one wonders how much longer the series can be resurrected"