by Ricky Young
SPOILER WARNING: If worried about Skyfall spoilers, then either go to the cinema and see Skyfall, or sit down and take a long, hard look at your priorities in life.
There’s a moment in Skyfall where the villain unhooks half his face. The remaining rotten bridgework peers out and half his cheek falls away, skin stretching in a cadaverous fashion. At that point I found myself thinking – this film needs to stop messing around and have him go full-zombie, right now.
He didn’t, of course, and therein lies much of the problem with the new James Bond film. Nobody does much of anything exciting, and what they do end up doing is so low-wattage and for such low stakes that by the time it becomes clear that we’re witnessing a half-arsed series reboot, two movies after the last half-arsed series reboot, it makes you wonder that if they can’t be bothered, why on earth should we?
Oh, it’s not a disaster, by any means. Skyfall is put together competently, hits the majority of the beats it aims for without boring your tits off, and nothing jumps out of the screen shrieking ‘GAZE NOT UPON THIS TURKEY!’ like, say, Avengers Assemble. However, it’s defiantly not the return to form that preview audiences breathlessly rushed to their computers to praise to the heavens.
But if you start thinking about that question of form, then you’re left reflecting that in a 50-year, 23-film series, there’s only actually ever been five good ones. So, was anyone really expecting otherwise? Or is the prospect of a genuinely copper-bottomed feel-good Bond success so seductive that people are willing to kid themselves that they just saw something brilliant, when it’s clear that they didn’t?
FAMILIAR INTRODUCTORY TWO-NOTE ORCHESTRAL STAB!
Daniel Craig is back! As Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007! – looking for all the world that if it was up to him, he’d much rather be at home, at his kitchen table as he watches his pretty wife bake a nice pie. Dame Judi Dench is back too, as M, still mining her trademark lemon-sucking disdain. And Rory Kinnear is back too as Named Functionary, who can now never escape that time Charlie Brooker made him fuck a pig on everyone’s telly.
Other than that it’s new faces all round – Ralph Fiennes doing gruff yet twinkly, Naomie Harris as a slinky new Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Matt Smith as Q. Not forgetting middle-brow Marmite Sam Mendes calling the shots.
We join the action pre-credits in a dusty, ad-filled chase sequence (most notable for Harris shouting “VW Beetles, I think!” for no reason, and a long and loving look at Bond’s wristwatch) which ends with Bond apparently shot and left to die after failing in his mission. Cue Daniel Kleinman’s most forgettable opening titles ever, as Adele’s big-lunged honking tells us that the recent spiky, left-field themes are no longer wanted on voyage.
So someone’s got it in for MI6, we soon learn, and Bond returns from the dead to help M in tracking down the culprit. Many have praised Skyfall for its relatively coherent plot, but that’s just because the first hour of a Bond movie is traditionally akin to a 3-2-1 clue, with baffling and gimmicky red-herrings showcasing whichever exotic location the Broccolis have agreed to patronise this cycle.
There’s no doubting Skyfall is something of a visual treat, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the second big action sequence – set in a Shanghai skyscraper and featuring silhouettes punching the living shit out of each other in front of retina-searing neon backdrops – is a corker. In fact, it works even better if you pretend this bit was, in fact, the proper title sequence, and you forget all that rubbish with the skulls.
We then move to a casino/murder-pit in Macau, with a very strange boat-only door policy, and meet our Bond girl. This is where things start to go off the rails a bit. While we’re working out how long she’s got left in the film, Bond makes good on his steely-eyed promise to rescue her from a life of indentured sex-work by immediately sneaking into her shower and boning her. Even for the murky world of Bondian sexual politics, this seems a bit iffy.
The 007 world has never been all that comfortable with The Gays either (“Isn’t that right, Mr. Wint?” “It certainly is, Mr. Kidd!”) and any initial delight to be taken from Javier Bardem’s spirited and lusty commitment to the main villain, Raoul Silva (imagine Harry H. Corbett after a year on steroid shakes) – and the long and thrilling take which marks his introduction soon fades when it turns out he’s just a walking poof-joke, out to settle a score with a former fag-hag.
(One of the very few attempts at humour in the film, by the by, comes from Silva getting a trussed-up Bond to admit that, yes, he played The Biscuit Game while at Fettes, and what of it? Don’t look for anything more amusing that that dismal yuk, btw – you won’t find it. )
So Silva gets banged up, but as is the villain’s wont, soon escapes, and it’s then cat-and-mouse as Bond searches for him in the bowels of London; aided, if that’s the word, by Q. (A lot has been said about the outrageous levels of product-placement in Skyfall. Most of it’s harmless – who cares what a secret agent drinks, and besides, show me a man with a jones for broadcasting his precise gin-adulteration requirements, and I’ll show you an ocean-going fud – but the Sony Vaio connection actually damages the film. The Bondian MI6 should be run on cutting-edge, sparkly technology, not £400 laptops from Comet.)
Bond fails in his mission, and the chase culminates in a furious attack on M, leading 007 to pick up the Aston Martin he’s had in storage since 1965 and whisk her off to his family estate in Scotland. I’m led to believe a sequence where Bond and M discuss the more philosophical aspects of spying over a 10-item all-day-breakfast at the Wild Bean Café at Southwaite services was cut just before release. A shame.
We’re into final set-piece territory here, and we meet Albert Finney as the Bond family retainer, who helps them booby-trap the ancestral home in anticipation of Silva arriving with his goons.
One thing definitely missing from Skyfall is a good second-string villain. You know how the main baddy in a Bond film usually has a visually striking henchman, often plucked from European or Asian low-budget cinema, with a signature killing move that will no doubt feature in his ironic undoing? Nothing of the sort here – Silva has to settle for gaggles of anonymous Taken cast-offs, some of which still have Liam Neeson’s fist-prints on their faces.
I did enjoy the surprise bit of Aston Martin-related fan-service (but didn’t enjoy the symbolic destruction of the car – it was only a car, not a person!), but as Silva continued to flip flashbangs through the castle windows in the manner of Larry Grayson shelling peanuts, everything then came to an underwhelming and all-over-the-place head in the family chapel, where Bond exorcised his ghosts and rescued his boss (his mum) by using his elderly father-figure’s (dad’s) knife (cock) to stab (fuck) Silva from behind.
Except she died anyway, which was what Silva wanted all along. Bond, you knucklehead. You’ve failed in your mission!
Women were fairly ill-served in Skyfall – if it wasn’t his stand-in mum getting gutshot, it was his latest squeeze getting her head shot off because Bond left it two minutes too late to kill all the baddies when he knew he a) could, and b) was certain he was going to have to anyway. Or it was a young field agent deciding it was all too much for her out there in the man’s world of spying and that she’d rather concentrate on getting everyone’s timewriting into SAP by month-end; although to be fair we don’t actually know if that was down to her yearly appraisal, or the repeated quips on how useless she was, delivered by a smirking, jug-eared twat who fucked up absolutely everything about his job from soup to nuts.
So, it’s the end of the film. Everything has settled down, and after all those years dicking around with the parkour and the BMW’s and the lego HQ on the Thames, the series has been reset to the familiar bank-holiday-afternoon image of a man in a suit in a wood-panelled Whitehall office, getting his orders from gruff-yet-twinkly boss as an adoring popsy waits in the hall.
What is this unexpected but rather timid return to normalcy? An admission of failure, or a shoring-up of the brand? Are all the backward-looking references meant to be fond embraces or last kiss-offs? What sort of Bond do we want? What sort of series does it itself want to be? James Bond Will Return, the credits say, but as quite what, nobody seems to know – Skyfall hasn’t a clue, that’s plain as day.
However, if you see just one film this year that’s ultimately about a slightly painful tribunal-led reorganisation within a small civil-service department, then Skyfall is for you.
There are at least two good-ish bits.
Ricky posts on ‘The Tweeter’. He’s terrible at it.