Dec 05 2012

'Skyfall' is Bond at its worst

One of the people who accompanied me to see the latest Bond film, Skyfall, had the misfortune that it was the only Bond movie she had seen. This is a shame, because Skyfall is Bond at its worst: offensive, misogynist, uninspired, bloated, and even corny, with cringe-inducing writing, a couple poor performances, and lackluster direction.

The film couldn't be more different than 2006's sublime Casino Royale, less of a sequel than a total deconstruction of the franchise. That film, directed by the otherwise undistinguished Martin Campbell not only introduced the best actor to portray the role (Daniel Craig, who is also good in the most recent film), but also treated the material as what it was: filled with cruel sadism, real tragedy, but also real tenderness. Vesper (Eva Green) wasn't a plot device, a walking vagina that made sure 007 was motivated onto his next scenic destination. She was a character, not something discarded so that the other characters could get back to shooting each other.

Contrast this with Skyfall's Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe). Within the span of 20 minutes, she is introduced, given a marginal back story, screws Bond, and is unceremoniously killed. Her body is barely shown, nobody expresses the merest of reactions to her death, and she isn't mentioned again throughout the remaining (ponderous) length of the film. Director Sam Mendes, with his shots, shows us that she is of no import: we get no close shot of the body, only a distance shot and a medium reaction shot of Bond marginally disappointed that she's dead. At least Goldfinger had the decency to gild a whore before it killed and discarded her like garbage.

What's particularly disturbing about Skyfall is how much of a return to form the most recent film is to the terrible history of the franchise. In Casino Royale a particularly memorable and obvious scene takes place between Bond and a bartender shortly after Bond is defeated at poker:

Bond: Vodka-martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
James Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

Between this deliberate bit of iconoclasm and the revealing shot of Craig's Bond emerging in a speedo from the ocean, we immediately know that the franchise understands its obsolescence and wants to atone. Gone are the days of posh Roger Moore gallivanting around the globe womanizing and cracking lame jokes. This is a serious story set in the real world, where gender politics exists and murder matters.

Instead, with Skyfall we get Bond fighting a giant mute asian stereotype in a komodo dragon pit, and using the dragon as a step-stool to escape the pit. He playfully innuendos with Moneypenny before going to see (the male) M to get his next assignment. He fucks two women that apparently neither he nor we care about. He grabs onto the bottom of an elevator for no discernible reason. He drives a classic Astin Martin with ejector seat and machine guns built in it. The villain has his own private giant island base. It almost reads as a parody if one didn't know better.

From a writing perspective the film is a bit of a mess. It opens with a failed operation to retrieve a stolen disk containing compromising information about many secret operatives embedded around the world. Bond is shot and presumed dead, and we are meant to believe that during his recovery he picks up a dependency on drugs and alcohol. MI6's headquarters is bombed (good thing that run down cabana gets CNN!), so he returns to help find the disk and stop whoever perpetrated the attack, and it's revealed that it's someone who is targeting M (Judi Dench, seemingly the only holdover from the Pierce Brosnan days). That someone turns out to be Silva (a terrible Javier Bardem), a comically stereotypical gay ex-agent who hates M for leaving him in enemy hands after he was captured several years earlier.

Bond tracks down the man who took the disk and kills him. A casino chip on his body leads him to a casino where he meets Sévérine. She tells him to meet her at her boat, and they ride to Silva's island base, where Bond calls in the military and apprehends him (oh, and he kills Sévérine, but who cares, right?). As it happens, this was Silva's plan all along, as his machine hacks MI6's system allowing him to escape and shoot up parliament. Bond takes M to his childhood home and tells Q to lead Silva to them, while Albert Finney mulls around as an anachronistic caretaker, seemingly there for comic relief. There is a standoff at the old house, and Silva is killed, but so is M.

It's troubling that Bond's drug abuse and alcoholism is a mere plot point; the film has no patience for the actual implications of such a terrible disease, so why bring them up? There is such a thing is functional alcoholism, but it's tragic and debilitating, and if the film was going to mention it so many times, it oughtn't be so easily tossed aside (at some point, Bond is just able to shoot straight again---that isn't how chemical dependency works).

Visually, it's just not a well-shot movie. Sam Mendes has chops: Road to Perdition was as hard-hitting as it comes, and American Beauty, though not on the same level, was also quite good. But the director shoots this movie like TV, and at some points it seemed like I was just watching a BBC drama on a big screen. He has indulgently long establishing shots of London rooftops, but isn't able to frame his characters in any meaningful way. The action scenes are competent at best, never reproducing anything like the visceral camerawork of John Woo or Paul Greengrass. By the time we reach the eponymous estate, one thinks of seeing Miss Marple in the background. The two principals stand in frame staring off into space, a composition representing nothing that I can fathom. As such, Mendes fails to establish any real connection between Bond and M, though he seems to think he is supposed to.

Skyfall has a few moments that could have held real promise. A far-off look by the woman Bond has shacked up with as she recognizes his damaging substance abuse. The trembling Sévérine describing her terrible plight, as desperate a tale as one can imagine. The withering career of an old cold war veteran, M, struggling with bureaucrats who think she's disposable. And maybe even Bond himself, dealing with his exploitation as an orphan by M. But none of these is explored in any depth whatsoever. It's a real missed opportunity, and a real shame.