Skyfall (Mendes, 2012)

There’s nothing seriously wrong with Skyfall, except, perhaps, a little too much Christopher Nolan envy. I enjoy a James Bond who is neither a fop nor a misogynist, and one of the nicer things about Daniel Craig’s tenure as the superspy is the way he straddles the fence between brutish pig and sexy stud. I’m not sure that the weaker, more self-doubting Bond of the first half of this film is an improvement over much of anything, and it seems only really necessary to try to add tension (will he survive?) that never really materializes.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The fundamentals are as follows. An effective but over-long (an omen of things to come) action set-piece plays before the credits,¬†ostensibly setting up the seeds of discord between Bond and M (Judi Dench). The body of the film is a search for a terrorist who has captured MI-6’s list of every spy undercover in terrorist organizations throughout the world. His motivation for capturing the list and how he uses it is tied to a deep sense of betrayal directed at M who is told via computer virus to “think on your sins” whenever anything bad happens.

Skyfall is competent, and I enjoyed Roger Deakins’s cinematography a lot. I am and always will be a story guy though, so when I start dwelling on individual shots , it usually means I’m a little restless. The story, which is more or less bare bones, moves slowly from set piece to set piece. While I wouldn’t necessarily cut any particular part, each sequence goes on about five minutes too long. By the time we get to the climax, the film feels more strained than triumphant. To cite one specific example, a nice exchange between Bond and a mysterious woman in Shanghai segues seamlessly into a fight in a bar pit, complete with man eating komodo dragons, the only purpose of which appears to be to have a pointless visual reference to the walking across the alligators scene from Live and Let Die.

There are lots of little allusions like that, visual or verbal, but none of them charm and at no point does the film delight or marshal enthusiasm. It’s a somber, darker film, with lots of talk about betrayal and duty but none of it serious enough for those themes to carry the film, just to weigh it down. The film picks up when Ben Whishaw arrives as the new Q. There’s lots of nice banter between Bond and Eve (Naomie Harris), and Ralph Fiennes arrives to pretty much stand around for most of the film and hope that nobody wonders to ask what an actor of his stature is doing in such a seemingly superfluous role.

Speaking of superfluous roles, Albert Finney takes over for Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler…I mean Kincade the groundskeeper. Seeing as how Finney has been nominated for an Academy Award five times and never won, I fully expect to see a “for your consideration” campaign trumping him for a best supporting role. Not that the role is worthy of such consideration, but I can’t think of any other reason the part is necessary to the movie–and I was mildly surprised they didn’t give him a dramatic and prolonged death scene to cement the nomination. Or would that interpretation of such a move be too cynical?

Yes, perhaps. Certainly reading back over this review, it sure sounds like I hated Skyfall, and I didn’t. Craig is probably my favorite Bond, and I think him an actor of much more range than anyone who has held the part before, Connery included. He’s believable doing the physical stuff and brings some layers of emotion to the rest. If I’m already on records as saying I liked Deakins’s¬†cinematography, that pretty much leaves only writing and/or direction. Okay, well maybe editing. But I lay the editing part on the director. I am not totally convinced, but I think there is an hour and fifty minutes of great Bond movie in here. To get it, though, would have required the confidence to be tight, brisk, and efficient, and the film is none of those things. It feels very tentative; it’s not that Bond is tentative but the film is…having to lead up to each good shot in such a way as to say “don’t miss it, don’t miss it, don’t miss it…did you see that?”

Skyfall works, but only because, like the slugger taking batting practice, it refuses to stop until it connects on at least a few pitches.

 

 

 

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