Despite a strong first half and some great character material, "Skyfall" craters thanks to a boring second half, lackluster villain, and plot holes galore.
This review contains gigantic spoilers.
From The Beginning…
“Skyfall” gets off to a great start – one of the best of any Bond film. We begin quietly, in a hallway of all places, as a silhouetted Bond arrives at the scene of a murder of an MI6 agent and the theft of a computer drive containing the names of all the MI6 agents. What ensues is a long chase scene, as Bond and female partner Eve (Naomie Harris), chase the suspect through Istanbul on foot, on motorcycle across rooftops, and eventually atop a moving train.
The action is directed remotely by M, who gives Eve the order to shoot the suspect from atop a ridge before the train goes into a tunnel. Eve misses and hits Bond, who falls from the train into a river below, where he sinks into the darkness.
It’s a great setup and very well executed. For starters, we have master editor Stuart Baird reversing the editing disaster from "Quantum of Solace." The geography of the action scenes are all clear, so we can follow what’s happening. It’s crisp storytelling, as the stakes get raised with each successive beat. It’s spectacular – this is where the leaked scene of a backhoe tearing into a train so Bond can enter occurs – so it’s true to Bond openings. It’s also great to see Bond working with another agent – one who makes a mistake, no less. Most importantly, it sets up the ongoing conflict of the film: Judi Dench’s M making a bad judgment call.
The opening credits sequence is terrific – filled with images of death that just as well may have been Bond’s own hallucinations as he battles the Grim Reaper, and Adele’s haunting voice providing the emotional undercurrent. Nice stuff.
The explosion at MI6, which triggers Bond’s return, along with his re-entry into the field is also great. We rarely see 007 off his game. We never see M getting criticized, in this case by Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) who appears to be preparing her to be sacked. And we rarely see MI6 embarrassed (privately, in the raid on the safe house in "Living Daylights," and publicly in the previous MI6 explosion in "The World is Not Enough"). It’s refreshing to see our usually invincible heroes thrown on their heels. It makes them human.
The sequence in which Bond goes to Shanghai is absolutely outstanding. Director Sam Mendes’ strength is as a visualist. With the great cinematographer Roger Deakins by his side, and production designer Dennis Gassner along for the ride, we are treated to the film’s most visual sequence. Note that Gassner won the Oscar for “Bugsy” and was nominated three other times for his bravura work on “Barton Fink” and Mendes’ “Road to Perdition."
The use of color, line, shape, form, and space in this sequence should be noted by anyone who loves cinema. The sequence has no dialogue until the end. Every shot is carefully constructed to deliver the information we need to understand the scene. Although not as perfect visually, the following sequence in the casino retains many wonderful shots, and unfolds in classic Bond fashion.
Once Bond arrives on Silva’s island, the film starts to wobble. Javier Bardem is a gifted actor, yet he is given a villain that is not menacing, with an agenda we’ve seen before: revenge against M (“The World is Not Enough”). That he is apparently gay has no purpose to the plot or his character, and it creates a cringing moment when he first meets Bond. I like the idea that he was betrayed by M in an agent exchange, and that his cyanide capsule failed to work. Yet when he confronts M following his capture and shows her that the cyanide destroyed his teeth, it comes off more as a child whining about his chompers than his betrayal.
Now the ridiculous plot holes appear. We are supposed to believe that Silva arranges for himself to be captured, so he can be placed in MI6’s new digs, knowing that Bond and Q will be able to unravel his amorphous computer code, that will trigger the shutdown of MI6 security, allowing him to escape his cell, where he somehow kills his armed guards even though he has no weapons, so he can escape into the Tube, where he is handed off a police uniform disguise by accomplices who pass him at exactly the right moment, also knowing that Bond will chase him, and confront him in the exact spot where Silva has planted a bomb under a track, so he can set off the bomb and plunge a completely unoccupied subway train, blocking Bond’s pursuit.
The third act is a complete blunder. Bond whisks M away to his childhood home in Scotland, the estate known as Skyfall, knowing Silva and his men will come to try and kill them. There they are met by the Bond family gamekeeper, Kincade (Albert Finney), who has absolutely no reason for existing. We’re also supposed to believe that MI6 would not send a battalion of agents to lie in wait for Silva, and that Bond would take no weapons with him. The final showdown plays like a bad version of “Straw Dogs,” with nameless henchmen being dispatched. M is wounded, dies in a chapel by the Bond family graveyard, Bond kills Silva, Mallory becomes the new M, and Eve becomes Moneypenny.
Why it went wrong
The film goes wrong for several reasons. While I really liked and appreciated the character aspects revealed in Bond and M, the pressure M is put under, and the first half of the film, the script is the culprit. This is a Bond film. I’ve never been bored in a Bond film until this one. Because Silva is merely seeking revenge, is uninteresting as a character, and plows his way through ridiculous plot holes, we simply have stopped caring.
The writers concentrated too much on character on not enough on Bond set-pieces. Bond films have big climaxes. This was low-tech and low-rent.
Mendes also proves, once again, that his talent begins and ends with his ability to put great images on film. But his storytelling and pacing are awful. They always have been. “American Beauty” was a vastly overrated film, and “Road to Perdition” took a great concept and delivered the most plodding chase film I’ve seen.
There is simply no urgency here. Even more frustrating is that the producers had a built-in plot for this film had they simply gone the natural route set up in the first two Craig Bond films! On repeat viewing, “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” hang together very well as far as Bond’s emotional arc and the mysterious organization known as QUANTUM. Why the heck didn’t they keep all the groundwork they had laid? All of it was jettisoned! What the heck were they thinking?
I liked that a theme ran through the film – that of the collision of the antiquated methods of spying and technology with the newer ways of doing things. In that regard, the climax at the dilapidated Bond estate, with our heroes using low-tech improvised weaponry and shotguns against superior firepower (and winning) makes perfect sense. But it isn’t Bond. I think the filmmakers were too intent on making a “thinking man’s Bond film,” and that’s just not something one should attempt.
Believe me, it kills me to have to write this review. After watching every Bond film over the past three years and reviewing them in great detail, after seeing the great trailers, and after the last two outings, I wanted to love this film. Again, there are many strong points here, but my advice is to ditch Mendes next time. Get back with Martin Campbell. Put QUANTUM back in play. Hire back writer Bruce Feirstein, who elevated the first two Brosnan pictures. And get back to Bond.
I give “Skyfall” TWO STARS.
Next time I’ll wrap up the series with the best of the Dalton-Brosnan-Craig era, and choose the best elements of the entire series!
"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service"
"For Your Eyes Only"
"From Russia With Love"
"The Man With The Golden Gun"
“The Living Daylights”
“Tomorrow Never Dies”
“Quantum of Solace”
"Diamonds Are Forever"
"The Spy Who Loved Me"
"Never Say Never Again"
“Licence to Kill”
“The World is Not Enough”
“Die Another Day”
"You Only Live Twice"
"Live and Let Die"
"A View To A Kill"