Skyfall **1/2 (out of four)
Ever since the Cold War ended, the producers of the James Bond films have bent over backwards trying to make the character … relevant. After all, no climate for a murderous double agent could’ve been better than a world divided, where brinksmanship all depends on secrecy and espionage. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, so did the Bond franchise, and it would be 6 years before the next installment, Goldeneye, hit theatres. The trademarks were back - the cars, the drinks, the women – but the purpose wasn’t quite there; the villains still wanted to take over the world, but in an uncertain world, where the good and bad had no iron curtain to define them. Yes, Tomorrow Never Dies featured a head-baddie as a deranged Ted Turner-type megalomaniac (perfect for the mid-90s age of round the clock cable news coverage), but it did seem a bit contrived.
When Daniel Craig took over the role in 2006 he had a tall order – to rejuvenate the character, franchise and studio. In a post-9/11 world, the clear threat had to come from rogue-nation terrorism. And now in Skyfall, the 22nd Bond film, all the ingredients match up with a world that bears all but a slight resemblance to the one inhabited by Sean Connery’s Bond over 40 years ago. Here, gadget inventor Q is a young technophile who briefs Bond on all his newest gadgets like a teenager explaining to his father how the newest i-phone can attach video to a email. Moneypenny is no longer M’s secretary but an agent herself, an African-American female who actually “kills” 007 in the gargantuan pre-credit sequence. And the villain this time is a weird psychopath, in keeping with the modern tendency to make the bad guys less Grand Guignol and more just plain sick, as in Heath Ledger’s Joker from Batman Forever and Hannibal Lechter from The Silence of the Lambs (the latter even more directly copied when Skyfall’s villain is incarcerated in an isolated holding chamber, which of course he escapes from). Oh, and did I mention that he’s also a skilled cyberhacker?
About halfway through, we finally get some of the traditional Bond trademarks: the exotic locales, the Bond girls – oh, I mean women (it’s true, that’s what they’re officially called now, according to the press release), and greater use of the classic Monty Norman Bond theme. But it’s almost like throwing a bone to the Bond purists among us – Skyfall is just too danged serious, and I would never in a million years consider this escapist entertainment. (Yes, you’re probably by now suggesting that those old-time Bonds were realistic for their time, but they weren’t – in fact, many critics felt their silliness rendered them inferior to their Ian Fleming source material.) Even the violence level is stressful here. I know the Bond films have always been violent, but in Skyfall the violence is not just more frequent but also more realistically intense – the sort you’d find in a war movie (in fact, the film’s climax, a full-scale nighttime assault on a Scottish castle, reminded me of the gritty finale of Zero Dark Thirty, in which Osama Bin Laden is killed). Perhaps I’m more sensitive to violence in an age where mass-shootings where 100-plus rounds are unloaded is the norm. Or perhaps the action films are budgeted and technologically-equipped now so as to show greater carnage than before. Probably both.
I mentioned the villain earlier, and he’s played by Javier Barden, employing many of the same creepy nuances he did in his Oscar-winning performance in No Country for Old Men. This time, he uses he uses his vocal mannerisms for chilling effect, flirting with Bond in one scene, callously shooting his love interest in cold blood in the next. He’s the best thing in Skyfall, and it’s probably a mistake to delay his introduction until around the second half of the film. He’s the sort of villain, though, that you want DEAD, not charming the pants off Bond while a gold-powered laser beam inches closer to his privates, or stroking a pussycat while pressing buttons to release trap doors. So in that sense, he’s effective.
Just give him to me in a different movie. Right now, I’m going back to watch You Only Live Twice. And not be stressed out.