You may have heard that Skyfall is one of the better Bond movies. I agree, though the breathless praise it seemed to garner inflated my expectations a little too much. But I found myself ruminating about the entire history of the franchise while watching Skyfall (a natural reaction, and one the filmmakers clearly meant to instill), which led me to a hypothesis.
I would like to posit, here in my first Bond review for this blog, that the rubric for determining whether a Bond movie is "one of the good ones" consists of only two essential and fairly straightforward criteria:
- Is the stupid shit kept to a minimum?
- E.g.: One-liners that hurt worse than most; plot twists that even a Bond noob could see coming a mile off; gadgets and villain schemes that go from "acceptable implausibility" to "ludicrous"
- Does it go above and beyond our expectations in any significant ways?
- E.g.: Atypical moments of real emotion from characters; action scenes that are truly thrilling rather than rote; adding to Bond lore in significant ways
Casino Royale was probably so successful because it merited a resounding "yes" to both questions after such a long period of Bond films that didn't. And of all the Bonds I've seen (which is all of them except Never Say Never Again, and that doesn't count), the only one I can think of that succeeds or fails mostly on criteria other than these is Quantum of Solace (which is anomalous in many ways; really, it should have been called Casino Royale Part II a la Potter/Twilight), so I feel pretty confident about my two-point Bond evaluation scheme. So much so, in fact, that I'll structure this review by it.
First off, I'd like to call for an end to the practice of locking up supervillains in glass cages. Whether it's Loki or Magneto or Khanberbatch or Nuevo-Jaws here (Javier Bardem) or even Hannibal Lecter: you do this, and you're basically just telling the audience in shorthand that this villain will escape. In Skyfall they don't even bother to describe the security measures in place, apart from like one shot of a keypad.
Speaking of stupid supervillain shit: if I were planning my own escape from MI6's bunker, setting up all the charges and the disguises and the extraction and everything, knowing full well I'd be pursued? I think I would shave my absurdly identifiable hair clean off and have a flunky bring me a wig. Not hard to do.
That I'm pointing these things out at all should be a sign that Skyfall is not as check-your-brain-at-the-door ridiculous as some Bond movies are. Yet, this being the Craig era, we didn't expect that anyway. If anything, Skyfall is a slight step back from its much more gritty predecessors.
Speaking of which, one thing that bugged me a fair amount about the first two Craig Bonds was the near-total lack of humor. Skyfall brings it back, and only about twice do I recall wincing at the one-liners. I'd say that's on the low end of average, though lots of jokey bits do succeed.
Above and Beyond
Characterization is stronger here than usual. We get deeper into Bond, the villain, and M (Judi Dench) than usual, and the fine cast is up to the task. I also like the new Q (Ben Whishaw) even though I feared I wouldn't when he first appeared; in the hands of a shittier director and screenwriter, he could easily have elicited audience cries of "GOD SHUT UP GET OFF THE SCREEN."
Making Bond more vulnerable was a good call. (I'd have liked to have seen more explanation/exposition about his little vacation at the beginning; as presented, it was unclear whether he was playing some angle or really just playing dead, at least until he explained it later. Considering the long running time, and the numerous scenes that could've been trimmed, this struck me as an omission—and a missed opportunity for further character development toward the end.)
Action-wise, I found this one surprisingly dull, though not nearly as much as Quantum of Interest. The opening scene is decent (if at times too James Cameronesque), the bit with the explosion on the Tube is pretty great, and the final siege sequence is continually watchable…but in terms of real thrills, I'm not sure this one ranks higher than, say, Living Daylights.
I do definitely want to give Skyfall credit for breaking the mold in a lot of ways. By the time the climactic battle arrives, you realize just how many new angles the script takes, sometimes at 180 degrees. I don't know how much I liked the climactic battle, but I recognized that they wanted to try new things, and that's to be commended in what is probably the most cookie-cutter of the major franchises.
In twenty or thirty years, people will watch Skyfall and go, "Oh right, this is the one that came out around the same time as the Chris Nolan Batman movies" in much the same way we now go "Oh right, Moonraker came out around the same time as the original Star Wars and Star Trek movies." I made a couple half-hearted Nolan Batman riffs early in Skyfall and was amused to find I kept having opportunities to make them. Bond turns into TDKR Batman a bit; the music is often close enough to warrant plagiarism charges; there's even a crate in Bond's house with the initials "B.W." (!!).
A minor point, perhaps, but a distraction from what is obviously supposed to be a very Bondish Bond movie. Skyfall concerns itself with reconciling Bond lore past and present (in its own muddled temporal-anomaly sort of way) and it's not subtle about this in the slightest. Example: Play the "Skyfall Old-Fashioned Drinking Game"—every time a character uses the phrase "old-fashioned," take a sip from an Old Fashioned.
And while the visual and comic style of Skyfall mostly succeeds at this franchise-unifying goal, the plot felt a great deal less Bondish than even the other Craig films. Most of the story takes place in London, which is cool but very different. The cinematography was downright indulgently showy at times, which I sense may be a harbinger of Bond traditions to come. More problematically, the stakes of the villain's scheme are entirely personal; at no point is the world or even London felt to be in existential danger. Pretty un-Bond.
Still, they took their time to set up a lot of stuff and they did it pretty well. I would've handled the villain differently, and I might have put the Scotland battle mid-film and a bigger island battle at the end, but I can't say I have major complaints. And to be sure, I'm more excited about the next Bond installment now than I was after Quantum.
Star Score: 3.5 out of 5