Nov 5, 2012

Skyfall [12A]

Dir: Sam Mendes
Skyfall is a film with an identity crisis.  It can't decide if it wants to be a solemn study of a pretty much burnt out spy, a slam bang actioner, or a traditional James Bond film.  The upshot is that it fails at all three.

The 23rd Bond film, also the franchise's 50th anniversary entry, opens with the theft of a hard drive containing the real identities of all the MI6 agents currently undercover in the world's terrorist organisations.  James Bond (Daniel Craig) fails to retrieve it, and is presumed killed by a wayward shot from junior agent Eve (Naomie Harris) during the mission.  Some time later an explosion at MI6 alerts British intelligence to the fact that someone is planning to use the data for nefarious purposes.  Bond returns, in bad physical shape, but M (Judi Dench) reassigns him to find the person who has stolen the hard drive. This turns out to be Silva (Javier Bardem); a ruthless and tech savvy terrorist with a grudge.

Since relaunching, after disastrous 40th anniversary film Die Another Day, with Casino Royale, the Bond series has visibly strained to find a place in the 21st century.  Casino Royale itself did well; the action was too indebted to the Bourne series for my liking, but it managed to strip away many of the series' sillier trademarks, while retaining much of the Bond feel, and, with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd, redefining the Bond girl in a way the series had been trying to do since Timothy Dalton's stint.  However, Quantum of Solace pushed too far in one direction; becoming a barely comprehensibly directed and not terribly Bond like action film, and in trying to address that imbalance, Skyfall has emerged confused.

Skyfall has a lot going for it in the technical departments, with Sam Mendes providing a safe (read not particularly individual) pair of hands behind the camera, Roger Deakins as DP and Gary Powell returning from the previous two films as stunt coordinator, so it's no surprise that the opening pre-credits action sequence is pretty good; it's nicely cut by Stuart Baird and moves at a good clip, but even here there are things that bugged me.  First off, and this is something that recurs throughout the film, for an experienced and well regarded secret agent, Bond is a terrible shot, but more importantly, for as fast as it moves and as much as it's never dull, this opening action beat never has a moment that feels new, and never takes the breath away.  This is also far and away the best action scene in the film, as others suffer from some dreadful CGI (why are there no people on that [very fake looking] Underground train?) or simply lack impact (a punch up with a henchman in the film's climactic moments, which really ought to be against Silva), and for a 144 minute Bond movie the action beats are few, and far between.

Another key element of the Bond series Skyfall botches is the Bond girl.  There really isn't a Bond girl in this film, and that is one of the key contributors to the constant nagging sensation that this doesn't really feel like a Bond film.  Berenice Marlhoe, as Severine, is the closest thing the film has to a Bond girl, but after a very promising opening scene she becomes little more than a prop; facilitating a key meeting and simply fucked and forgotten, she has no real impact on the film, and is in it so briefly that by the end you'll likely have forgotten she existed.  While there is another woman for Bond to invest in, in the form of M, the lack of a real Bond girl robs the film of a key, and fun, dynamic which has always been a part of the series in some fashion.  It's also disappointing the route the film takes with Harris' character, who seems to decrease in importance and competence with each passing scene.  If in this fashion the film misses the classic feel of a Bond film, when it does try to invoke franchise history it often falls on its face.  The few wisecracking one liners in the film feel awkward set against the dour tone, and Craig can't deliver a joke to save his life.  Worst, however, is the reintroduction of a classic prop, in a silly scene that seems as nakedly designed to play to the Bond fan gallery as any of the tribute moments in Die Another Day.

None of these issues, pressing as they are, is the biggest problem with the film.  That is simply that there never seems to be any great urgency in the plot that it should be James Bond, rather than any more competent and better preserved MI6 agent, who takes this mission.  The film has to work very hard to get Bond into position as M's protector, having her make some reckless decisions to facilitate that (these aren't the only decisions that suggest M is incompetent, seriously, what intelligence head wouldn't pull all her compromised operatives as soon as their identities were leaked, rather than wait what seems to be several months to see what happens?)  The problem is that Bond is unimpressive; a terrible shot; a half broken shell who seems to suffer chronic pain in several areas and (though this may just be how Daniel Craig acts every role) seems disengaged.  This didn't, for me, give the film the emotional depth that others seem to have seen in it, instead it just took me out of the film.  

Unfortunately this doesn't translate to tension, because Javier Bardem's Silva is another of the ways the film seems confused.  Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan seem undecided on whether to make Silva a campy bad guy in the classic Bond mould or a more contemporary threat; a more physically imposing version of Tomorrow Never Dies' Elliot Carver.  Javier Bardem almost manages to square this circle with his memorable performance, and he's especially good confronting Bond and M in a mid movie scene, but he does sometimes push the boat too far out into camp.  When villains are as overblown as Bond's villains have traditionally been, you don't really question the logistics of their evil deeds, but the problem with attempting to bring the franchise down to Earth is that those questions start to niggle at you.  Where does Silva suddenly get a helicopter and a small army of henchmen, what's in it for those henchmen?  Certainly Silva's plan doesn't involve a ransom, so how are they waged?  Without getting too deeply into it, there are a few echoes of The Rock in Silva's motives, and so it shouldn't have been difficult to establish motives for his henchmen (indeed giving them a background in this respect might have made the climatic scenes feel higher stakes, as they wouldn't just be moving targets for Bond).  Even despite his various terrorist acts, Silva never feels much of a threat, there's little in the way of obvious cost in what he does (a few people die offscreen, one onscreen), and despite his background suggesting that he should be able to hold his own, Silva and Bond never have a proper fight, which is inexusable in an action film.

Skyfall has fine technical credentials, but they don't pay off to the degree that they should.  Happily Stuart Baird's editing is comprehensible, meaning that while the action seldom gets the blood pumping it does manage not to give you a headache, and largely retain some sense in terms of spatial relationships.  Sam Mendes brings professionalism to the table rather than personality, and that doesn't seem to me to be the way to really reinvigorate this franchise in its 50th year, but he captures everything competently, and guides his cast (the ever dull Craig aside) to solid if generally not spectacular performances.  Most praised in the technical credits has been Roger Deakins, and to some degree I agree; his lighting is technically stunning, but I did grow tired of the very limited colour scheme, which consists largely of steel blues and golden yellows, in a way that isn't too far off the teal and orange colour schemes that have dominated action cinema of late.  More problematic technically is the CGI, which is more obvious than it has any right to be in a film that cost something north of $150million, and makes a few key scenes look like they belong in something much lower rent.

All this said, Skyfall isn't entirely awful, one of the rare nods to the history of the franchise that actually works is provided by Ben Wishaw's Q, his dismissal of the exploding pens of the past strikes the right balance between gag and tribute, and he really comes into his own in a key end of second act set piece, the problem is that I think he's more fun (and perhaps more use) than Bond.  There is also one extended part where the film works quite well, when Bond travels to Shanghai.  This segment boasts the best shot action scene (a silhouetted fight with Ola Rapace) and the film's best scene, which introduces Severine.  Most of all though it works because these ten or fifteen minutes are when this feels a bit like a Bond film.

The Bond series has always been hit and miss, and for me this will go down as a miss.  It's ultimately no worse than Quantum of Solace, but sadly I don't think it's any better, though for very different reasons.  I continue to hope that the Craig era of Bond can find a consistent tone, and recapture some of what made Casino Royale so refreshing, but the ending of this film has me in doubt.

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