Warning: This review discusses the plot and reveals the fate of some characters. You may want to defer the pleasure until you’ve seen this title.
Did those lucky chancers Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, this time joined by Star Trek franchise killer John Logan, drop in on a wedding, like Timothy Dalton’s Bond, in the days before getting to work on Skyfall’s screenplay?
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue: that old rhyme seems to have guided their hand. The old, with the weight of anniversary expectation baring down on each decision, is the stuff you associate with a half century of 007’s exploits: a sultry opening ballad, bother abroad, lady shapes and thank God, Q branch – all employed in the service of nostalgia and reassurance; a balm for an audience still bruised by the crazed experimentation of Quantum of Solace.
The new is identity politics, a move away from the familiar defaults to something we can associate with modernity. Bond hints at a bisexual past, Javier Bardem’s blonde villain, Silva (was Flaxenmane not even considered?) doesn’t need to hint. The female M finally bites the dust but no fear, Miss Moneypenny returns with a new race. Surely, you say, it can’t be long before Bond is using the ladies for matters of bowel and bladder rather than libidinous release, and I don’t mean that Bond 24 will feature tarmacing and golden showers.
The borrowed is the continuity from the pre-Craig run of Bonds and an ending from the ‘80s. Skyfall’s screenplay may be deadly serious and bulked out like its intense leading man, for the talk runs on and on, but it’s also confused, perhaps as those old hands Purvis and Wade are confused, betraying the reality that this Bond reboot was only ever half-hearted and, you sense, not fully embraced by the poor hacks that had to make it work.
From the moment Craig appeared there was always a problem: Judy Dench’s M. Just what was she doing there? She’d been present, younger and newly installed, when Brosnan crowned in Goldeneye, then the recognised successor to Robert Brown. If Bond had just become 007 then her presence made no sense. Clearly a new actor was required to draw a line under previous entries, but perhaps because Dench was under contract, or maybe because the producers liked her in the role, she was retained and consequently Bond continuity, already problematic given the series’ ultra-long lifespan, became a headache. Skyfall promotes that ache to a full-on migraine.
With the familiar elements of a male M, antiquated Whitehall office, hat stand and everyone’s favourite secretary reinstalled at the close, Dench looks to be both successor and predecessor to the old order. The Aston Martin DB5 that plays a minor role here, isn’t the standard issue model won by Craig in Casino Royale, rather the kitted out version from Goldfinger, complete with frontal machine guns and ejector seat. Goldeneye gets its anniversary nod in an exchange between James and new Q Ben Whishaw, leaving us all scratching our heads in a twilight Bond universe in which all 22 previous entries have some canonical value.
You might think that 6 actors and 50 years blows a hole in continuity anyway, but how much easier things seemed before the half-reboot, when Licence to Kill could make a direct reference to Tracy’s death in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and we could suspend our disbelief enough to imagine these movies as the ongoing adventures of the same man. Skyfall pays the anniversary piper but in doing so it muddies waters that were already clay thick.
The borrowed ’80’s ending resembles another couple of sequels, Superman II and Crocodile Dundee II. Bond comes home for his 50th birthday, spending much of the running time looking distressed at various London locations, but he truly goes native in the final reel, retreating to his childhood abode, the eponymous pile in the Scottish Highlands. His gambit, to gain the home advantage on personal turf, will be familiar to fans of the aforementioned movies who saw both Superman and Mick Dundee even the odds in similar style. The only problem with Bond using the same ruse in a bid to decouple techy-villain Goldilocks from his cyber-infrastructure, is that it leaves him dangerously exposed. In this he is one with the screenplay.
Action is sparse and absent from most of the 2nd act, making the story’s thinness more conspicuous, but the climax illustrates that in a bid to tie Bond’s present to his past, the hacks at the typewriters have taken leave of their senses. Silva is good enough to show up with just a clutch of men and one helicopter but what if he’d sent 50, or, having deliberately being handed Skyfall’s location by MI6, just destroyed the place in a drone attack? Being in a place with no technology doesn’t make you less vulnerable to weapons controlled by technology. Lucky that this virtual criminal insists on carrying out an analogue hit.
Despite that fortuitous flaw in his enemy’s intellect, Bond will have been disappointed that his intelligence colleagues couldn’t be roused to send a single man to help him defend the family home. Scotland may be just one hour from London by plane but MI6 seem content that Bond has a geriatric gamekeeper on side, so won’t require back up.
Finally the blue, in this case M’s declaration that “I’ve fucked this up, haven’t I?” Well no ma’am, not you but Sam Mendes and his team of scribes who’ve created a handsome but oddly laid back affair that lacks urgency, even in its most dramatic moments and eschews action for character development. A noble shift in emphasis you’ll say and right you are, but such a change requires a screenplay that’s got the requisite depth to cover the sacrifice of spectacle.
Skyfall doesn’t have the layers it needs to strut so casually for so long. The sort of balance reached for but manifestly not acquired, is something like Timothy Dalton’s couple of entries: Bonds that added grit and light behind the eyes while delivering the thrills that has made this cinema’s most enduring franchise. Mendes, eyed with suspicion on appointment by those that suspected the theatrical wunderkind was no orchestrator of action, promised not to kiss off the bang bang in pursuit of brains. He lied.