Opening: SKYFALL Reaches High, Yet Stumbles
Some two weeks after opening in much of the civilised world (i.e. Europe), Skyfall will finally be unleashed in North America tomorrow, Friday, November 9. Advance word -- including a review by our European Editor, Brian Clark -- has been very strong indeed. Does the film deserve such plaudits?
About a year ago I wrote an article, asking you people what you were anticipating for 2012. Up came the usual suspects: Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, and... the new Bond film by Sam Mendes. Wait, what?
Yes, the new Bond was eagerly anticipated, by me as well. I was rather late in getting on the Daniel Craig bandwagon, only catching up to Casino Royale when it appeared on Blu-ray, prior to watching Quantum of Solace. But the new films had a big impact on me, and to my own surprise they rekindled all my love for the franchise once more. The new start with Bond as 00-rookie, the new grittier realistic universe, the continuity between the two films, the uncommon focus on decent acting... I loved the new Bonds, and especially Daniel Craig's take on the character. So to have the third one directed by the guy who did American Beauty and Road to Perdition? Oh HELL yes!
So I avidly read Brian's review last week, delighted to hear about what worked and dreading any bad news. Thankfully, all seemed to be fine. Quoting Brian:
"...for all the spectacular action set-pieces in the film - and there are some real jaw-droppers - perhaps the most impressive stunt that Mendes pulls off is the tonal tightrope the film walks. It keeps the harder-edged, conflicted character that Craig introduced five years ago without sacrificing the sense of fun and even nostalgia that makes the classic films so compulsively watchable. Yes, it is dark, serious, thrilling and surprisingly character-driven. At the same time, it's grimly funny, sexy, nostalgic and, on occasion, ridiculous."
Score! Color me stoked. That was exactly the story I hoped to hear. But then Brian also had this to say:
"There are a few baffling jumps in the plot, which I normally wouldn't mention in a review of a Bond movie, except that the movie is so assured most of the time that they are difficult to ignore."
And herein lies the understatement of the year. Skyfall is not a bad Bond film, or even a bad film in general (different measures apply for Bond). It's the longest Bond and most of its running time is spent on character development. The cinematography is gorgeous and may even pick up an Oscar in a few months. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem and Dame Judi Dench are excellent and every scene with two or three of them in it shines.
But, and pardon the analogy, this is the Prometheus of the Bond franchise. Remember that film being lambasted for characters doing inexplicably stupid things just to get to the next kill? A guy who just explains how to use the best compass in existence and then gets lost because he fails to use it? The biologist who, upon FINALLY encountering an alien corpse, decides he's no longer needed? Well, you'll see that here too. And it's bad to the point of being insulting. People will act in a completely illogical way just when the film has spent plenty of time setting them up as capable.
And James himself, if you look closely at his actions... I do not mind him being damaged, frail, wounded, old, beaten, drunk, scarred, doubting himself. I do not mind him starting a plan and failing to execute it properly. I do not mind him being wrong, or not good enough. That stuff is all actually pretty cool and fits in this Bond's universe.
But I do fucking mind him being dumb. And unfortunately in Skyfall he sometimes is very dumb indeed.
I'm not going to go into story details or spoiling stuff for people just yet. As Brian wrote, with most Bond films you go in for that special atmosphere, the action, the glamour, so you take the bumps in stride. But this film specifically invites you to care, to believe... and then it spits in your face story-wise, several times over. Enough so to derail the film for me and getting me angry in the end.
Plot inconsistencies or dumb behavior are par for the course in earlier Bond films, where indeed you wanted to get at the next big set-piece as quickly as possible. But despite Brian's strong recommendation concerning several jaw-dropping spectacular action set-pieces, to me the action scenes are not particularly memorable. Skyfall starts strong with a truly excellent pre-opening-credit-sequence but in the entire remainder of the film there isn't a single setpiece, stunt or fight which matches it. The thrills that are there are all due to anticipation and tension-building, not so much the pay-off. This is not just true for the third act, it calls attention to itself through the entire film. That it reaches its 143rd minute without boring the audience to death is entirely due to its characters.
In itself there is certainly nothing wrong with that but it basically turns Skyfall into a thriller, not an action movie. And in a thriller, especially one which sells itself as an intelligently, thoroughly crafted one as Skyfall does, weird lapses in logic hurt a lot more than in an action flick. If you possess a chip in your brain which keeps a tally on cause-and-effect, do yourself a favor and switch it off when watching this film or you will be left wondering why Bond isn't in jail during the epilogue. It's not quite as bad as Spielberg's godawful The Lost World (where every single casualty in the film is directly attributable to the heroes) but it comes close.
So do I hate the film? Well... no. Neither did I hate Prometheus for that matter (although several people have told me I'm far too forgiving in general).
And I love how Skyfall builds a bridge between the James Bond origin story of the past two films on one side, and the serial super-agent films we've been enjoying for decades on the other side. I love the small character touches throughout the film, how Skyfall incorporates stuff from Bond's private life hinted at in the Ian Fleming novels but (so far) carefully kept out of the films. And I do hope Daniel Craig will return for another one.
But please... if you go watch Skyfall this weekend, keep your expectations in check. That's always good advice, but doubly so for this film. Don't expect the action to blow you away, because it won't.