In a film franchise that has lasted 23 films, you’re bound to have ups and downs. After the missteps in Quantum of Solace and the production delay during MGM’s financial turmoil, at long last we can see the light at the end of the tunnel with the arrival of Skyfall, the latest chapter in the James Bond franchise. Already being hailed as the best Bond film ever, the film is a lot of fun, but it never quite reaches its potential.
When it comes to James Bond, I’m certainly not the connoisseur many are. My first Bond film, at least theatrically, was Goldeneye. If anyone were to jump on me for not being a purist, I certainly wouldn’t blame them, but that film helped me formulate my understanding of James Bond, influenced my expectations for the franchise, and remains one of my favorite chapters. I enjoy all the films, but I’ve grown up with the Bond films as more of action movies than spy stories. And in some ways, Skyfall feels more like a classical Bond film; there seems to be fewer big action set pieces and more of a mental game of chess. I wouldn’t have minded this if it felt like the story compensated equally for the decrease in action, but the plot is pretty standard fare at this point in the franchise. After a failed mission and his perceived death, James Bond (Daniel Craig) must return to action after a new villain rises with plans of destroying MI6. This concept isn’t necessarily new terrain (see Goldeneye), and unfortunately it doesn’t feel much more developed.
The cast and crew of this movie are packed with talent, and headlined by the addition of Sam Mendes. Mendes had an incredibly diverse filmography heading into this film, so his selection as director provided an intriguing choice. As much as I was hoping he might leave his imprint, James Bond feels like a franchise that is produced mostly by the numbers. It’s hard to screw it up too badly or deviate too much from the norm; it is less about the director and more about the script and casting. I wish I could say I felt like Mendes made a big difference in the film, but visually and stylistically it was hard to distinguish his work from any of the other recent Bond films. The script was written at least in part by Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who’ve been responsible for all the Bond films since The World Is Not Enough (which, when you think about it, actually has them hitting below .500, even with a positive outlook on Skyfall…and this isn’t even factoring their involvement in writing the Johnny English films).
One of the most pleasant elements that was brought to this film is the fleshing out of the Bond mythos, which has been a bit lacking since the retooling of the franchise with Daniel Craig. In addition to touching up Bond’s origin story, Skyfall ushers in the arrival of classic Bond characters, such as Ben Wishaw as Q, who has been sorely missed in the last couple of Craig films. Wishaw has been taking theaters by storm in recent months, with his performance here and his standout work in Cloud Atlas. Additionally, the film welcomes veteran actors Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes, who look to be establishing themselves as fixtures in the franchise going forward.
Daniel Craig continues to impress as James Bond. He is wonderful at capturing the mixture of ego, physical prowess, and unrelenting drive that are necessary in playing Bond. Still, in some ways this feels like a mutated version of the franchise to me, something out of a parallel universe, since his iteration of the character feels a lot less refined than his predecessors like Brosnan. Theoretically the films are working to get to that point with the character, but it feels like only baby steps in progress so far. They actually refer to Bond as an old dog in this film, which I don’t necessary think is a problem, but it does make me think he would be further along his journey at this point.
In some ways, Javier Bardem is the perfect Bond villain. His character has the theatricality that is necessary to stand out in a James Bond film. The problem is that while his character is fun to watch, he doesn’t feel particularly menacing. This contributes immensely to a climax that feels more like a pop than a boom. He never really feels as menacing or unrelenting as he did in No Country for Old Men, nor does his plan really feel like it manifests itself in quite the global danger that most Bond villain schemes do.
Skyfall proves to be another solid entry in the long history of the James Bond franchise. The film is fun and entertaining, but left me a little unsatisfied over the adventure. Perhaps there is something to be said for this being the most “personal” Bond film ever, but I’m not sure that is the James Bond I want to see. Unfortunately, I think too much about the movie was revealed in the trailers, and it probably would’ve been bumped up a bit if I had known less going into it. The main problem with the film is what could have been, not what actually is…you can see the tweak that would’ve heightened the existing experience, but it falls just short of the finish line.
Final Grade: B