Film Reviews

Skyfall Sam Mendes

Rating - 7/10

Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond espionage franchise, is notable for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest shocker is that Sam Mendes, the Academy Award winning director of American Beauty, took his turn at the helm. Just as notable, it has elements of Daniel Craig’s anti-Bond personality for those who find the franchise too cheesy and testosterone-driven as well as the explosive fun of the Bond of days past. Bond is brooding and a bit depressed, human and more than capable of failure, but this is also very much a James Bond movie, complete with the images that come to mind with the name. As such, Skyfall is perhaps the most universally appealing film in James Bond’s 50 year life on the screen.  There are not many gadgets, but there are plenty of gun fights, chases, and girls to make the biggest Bond lovers happy. Complete with stars, strong camerawork by Roger Deakins (perhaps most famous for his frequent collaborations with the Coen Brothers), and some technological and political discourse to boot, Skyfall has something for everyone.

So while Skyfall may be best while operating as a commentary on the Bond franchise and its evolution as a whole, it has more than enough character conflict to command your attention. Agent 007 is believed killed in a mission to recover a file holding the names of NATO undercover agents, postulating the shortcomings of digital technology and leading MI6’s head “M” (Judi Dench) toward forced retirement for her handling of the introductory mission. The M here is a malicious and cruel one, unwilling to be second guessed and unsympathetic for decisions that end up poorly. She does Bond wrong at seemingly every turn, and Skyfall promises perhaps the most complex relationship between the two characters in their history.

It never quite lives up to that promise, opting instead to place M as a woman with a fragile past, one unforgotten by Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who is out for vengeance after being wronged by her similar to how Bond was. On paper, it’s a brilliant triangle, but it too is underwritten, as the film opts for flashy chase scenes instead of character development. At 140 minutes, it seems silly to say that the film is too short, but there’s an abundance of material waiting to be explored here, and Skyfall makes plenty of promises that demand to be fulfilled that are instead satisfied to be adequately written off. If this film ever frustrates, it’s not in its pacing or length and certainly not in its smooth attempts to cement its own place within the Bond mythology, but in how its complex characters do not get the arcs that they deserve. Another 20 minutes could go a long ways, particularly in developing the relationship between Bond and Eve (Naomie Harris), a relationship begging to be explored with how the introductory chase ends.

However, where Skyfall overcomes its character flaws is in how easily it is able to throw the series back to classic Bond without also harkening back to what many perceive as a time when the franchise was less intelligent than Craig’s Bond debut, Casino Royale,or Mendes’ track-record promised. But that Mendes is so unafraid of making an action movie first and a drama second despite his prior films and the Craig’s other two Bond films is precisely what makes it so intelligent. There are plenty of references to past Bond films for the loyalists to pick-up, but if this film were a mission statement, it would state that sometimes the old way is the best way. That means that sometimes the simplest devices are the best, and when we watch fire extinguishers and knives save the day as digital technology does more bad than good, we can see exactly how that’s possible. By extension, sometimes the best way to make a point is with explosions and bullets, because MI6 desperately needs proof that espionage and field agents are a necessity even in a time when drones wage our wars and it’s assumed that the way to locate someone is with the tracker in their iPhone.

Essentially, where the film disappoints in character, it succeeds in displaying a complex ideology. It is far from one-sided but very well established and especially relevant today. It’s a problem that the franchise could have tackled when Cold War tensions first began to settle, but it was not until now that it has done so with any kind of conviction or coherency. But make no mistake, Skyfall is no nostalgia trip in content or in theme, it is acutely aware of its place in the digital age, and it has no interest in saying that one way is better than the other. There are no “people good, technology bad” morals and there certainly are no generalizations about the presence of government despite so many chances to make them. Just as this Bond cannot fit comfortably into the new mold or the old mold, instead taking elements of each to make its own comments on the franchise, it uses that internal dialogue to suggest a balance between new ways and old ways. It may not get there in the most exciting and unexpected way, but the themes come through strong even when the content lags. Similarly, Skyfall may not be the best James Bond movie, but it is almost certainly the most widely appealing one, equal parts fun and smart, with its own place in James Bond history to support its themes, And it simply wouldn’t be Bond if you can’t get the takeaway from just one small sequence. So just wait for the barrel shoot.