Skyfall is a movie that is, in many ways, the complete opposite of its most recent predecessor, Quantum of Solace. Quantum of Solace attempted to eschew the classic tropes of the James Bond franchise for a more gritty, contemporary feel, but failed. Skyfall tries to rectify Quantum’s missteps, and in doing so, sometimes commits missteps of its own. It is a mixed bag, filled with more bad than good, but one thing it is not is as good as Casino Royale.
Sam Mendes directs Skyfall all but perfectly. Whatever faults Skyfall has, they are all in the concept, not the execution. Each scene is brilliantly shot and filmed, and Skyfall ends up being one of the most visually striking films of recent memory. Whereas Quantum and even Casino Royale tried to ground the film in settings that felt believable, Skyfall takes us to the most exotic locales. The feel of the film is dreamlike and surreal, as Bond travels from a city of neon lights and dizzying falls to a deserted island, to a Scottish mansion in an empty plain.
Skyfall is, without question, the most ambitious Bond film to date, perhaps too ambitious. It tries to keep the gritty realism of the previous Bond movies, giving us a Bond who is fallible, who suffers from childhood trauma, who feels the pain of his injuries, whose marksmanship suffers as a result of a strenuous car car chase in the opening of the movie. Yet Skyfall also refuses to relinquish all the hallmarks of the classic Bond films–witty one-liners, femme fatales, over-the-top action set pieces, and insane villains. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Skyfall frequently engages in meta-analyis. There are moments–many moments–where characters seem to be talking directly to the audience. When Bond criticizes his quartermaster, Q, for equipping him with only a gun and a radio, Q remarks “what did you expect, an exploding pen?” Not in this movie, folks. This is the new Bond, the gadget-free Bond of the post Jason-Bourne era.
It’s a lot to ask of one movie, but Sam Mendes and the actors get it pretty much all right. Javier Bardem is a perfect example of the synthesis of old and new. His villain is over-the-top, certainly, just as many classic Bond villains were, but in a disturbing fashion that is more similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker than anything else. He is insane, but in an edgy way that is never clownish or campy.
The missteps of Skyfall are not in the execution, but in the conception. The script is the film’s inly weakness, but it is, admittedly, a pretty big weakness for a movie to have.
The humorless Bond of Quantum is gone, replaced by a Bond who is more of a classic ladies’ man, complete with dry wit and flirtatious banter. Unfortunately, flirtatious banter only works if the screenwriters can write it, and in this case, the exchanges between bond and his love interests sound forced. You can tell the people who wrote this dialogue thought it was sharp and clever, but it isn’t, and listening to it is just awkward.
And then there’s the plot. Very little is actually at stake in Skyfall, especially after we reach the halfway mark. Bond’s not saving the world, or even England. No; after the film’s halfway point, the only thing Bond is trying to save is the life of a very old woman who, the film gives us to understand, might deserve to die anyway.
Javier Bardem’s character is presented to us as a clever schemer, but his plan is so needlessly convoluted that it makes no sense. sure, you can reason it all away by saying he’s insane, but it seems like a weak defense. What’s even more unpardonable is that Bond, his allies, and his enemies alike commit grievous tactical errors from start to finish. It all makes you wonder–if defeating Silva (Bardem) is so bloody important, then why did they decide to leave only one agent to defeat his entire force alone? Though the climactic showdown at a mansion is meant to be suspenseful, a sort of Alamo-esque man-agaisnt -an-army scene, it’s a forced suspense, since we know the whole time that the one man could have easily brought an army of his own. The only reason he didn’t was because it would screw up Skyfall’s heavily contrived plot.
The film’s drama hinges on the relationship between M and Bond, depicted here as a sort of troubled, mother-son relationship. The trouble is, they never felt all that close in the prior movies, so protecting M doesn’t seem quite enough to justify all the gunfire and explosions. But the movie has so much going for it–and it’s unquestionably a big step up from Quantum of Solace, whose plot was muddied and lacking any real emotional drive–that it can be forgiven. Skyfall’s failings come not from under-ambition, but from over-ambition, and it’s certainly better to shoot high than to aim too low. On the whole, Skyfall succeeds at its main goal–to provide a fusion of the old Bond mythos and the modern spy thriller, to show that Bond may be 50 ears old, but he’s not outdated or obsolete, not yet.