James Bond has survived 23 films of varying quality. Some of them are brilliant (Casino Royale), some are downright abysmal (Quantum of Solace). Skyfall falls somewhere between the two. It is certainly one of the better ones that the series. Sam Mendes’ direction is perfect, Javier Bardem’s Mr. Silva will go down as one of the best villains of the series, and I am still glad that they are able to create new ways to construct its elaborate action set pieces. There is a fight sequence in Skyfall that ranks among my favorite scenes of the year. This is certainly a good film and I can understand why other critics have been tossing four star ratings at its feet.
But the one thing that prevents Skyfall from reaching true greatness for me is that Bond is not the focus of the film. The past two films were about exploring the character and finally trying to determine what makes him tick. Skyfall tries, but ultimately turns Bond into a pawn in his own game. It’s a shame that the filmmakers decided that Bond was not an interesting enough character to carry his own film. I am still trying to figure out why.
What I enjoyed most about Skyfall is the intelligence that the script gave. It feels like something that would actually happen after a massive intelligence failure. The fact it is released so soon after the real Benghazi intelligence failure makes it seem that much more poignant. M is called before a committee and people are demanding her resignation. She even has a form of competition in the form of Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). And the film has Bond actually miss shots and fail his psychological tests. He is a human character at last, rather than some super hero caricature. And the film even manages to explore his childhood in a way that other filmmakers wouldn’t have ever explored. We finally see glimpses of Bond’s childhood, and how it turned Bond into the man who can kill without feeling.
Indeed, the scenes in the third act are some of the most creative in a Bond film, because of how resourceful they shown Bond to be. Without getting into spoiler territory, the film manages to pay tribute to Straw Dogs while organically showing how resourceful Bond can be. There are no gadgets in this film (despite the reintroduction of Q to the franchise) so Bond is forced to create his own methods of destruction. It is realistic action rather than hops from cartoonish violence to dumb one liners. It’s wonderful to see a franchise still manage to challenge itself. The film even manages to thumb its nose at some of the mistakes of the franchise (Q jokes about not giving Bond an exploding pen, in a nod to Goldeneye) while demonstrating a transition to the next chapter of Bond. Daniel Craig is turning into the classic character that has become among the most famous fictional faces in the world. At the end, there were genuine cheers at the “James Bond will return” graphic, and for once, I smiled at the possibility rather than looking upon it as an inevitability.
But the problem with Skyfall is that Bond almost becomes a supporting character in his own film. The real focus of the film is M and the pressure she faces as the head of MI6. Judi Dench is a great actress and I can understand why anyone would want to finally utilize her. But M is a supporting character, someone who exists solely to give Bond assignments. Bond almost becomes a pawn in the story, rather than the center. This is all wrong and quite distracting.
Another problem I found with Skyfall is the film’s treatment of the hero/villain dynamic. This is not Javier Bardem’s fault. His Mr. Silva is one of the best Bond villains of all time. He is appropriately flamboyant and evil. All of the best Bond villains have been essentially comic book characters. Bardem realizes this very early on and adjusts his performance accordingly. It takes a special actor who can make someone laugh and tremble in fear. Bardem is both.
But this is another example of a screenplay that insists a theme exists when none is organically present. Mr. Silver is meant to recreate the dynamic between the hero and villain that existed in The Dark Knight. Even the basic premise of both films could be explained in the same way – a stoic hero still recovering from childhood trauma faces a deformed, psychotic genius. But Bond has no personal stake in the fight against Silver. Even Bond’s “death” at the beginning is not Silver’s fault. I guess what the script is trying to suggest is the fact that Bond could easily become Mr. Silver (both men were, in a way, betrayed and “killed” by M) and the film tries to insist Bond has a personal connection to Mr. Silver. But Mr. Silver does not particularly care about Bond – his goal is revenge against M. Bond could be replaced by any character and I have a feeling Mr. Silver would act the same way. The characters are not proper foils of each other, and one of Skyfall’s main themes suffers for it.
I have a feeling that time will be very, very kind to Skyfall. It teases at great things to come and is a more than competently realized vision. But I just cannot join the crowd that states this is among the greatest Bond films ever. I have no clue where the Skyfall bridge will end up leading. I can only hope to a place where Bond is the lead again.