WASHINGTON - Bond. James Bond.
Expectations. Damn expectations.
Far too often, hype fuels gripe. And here, the hype was sky high.
Three factors have made "Skyfall" the most anticipated James Bond movie in recent memory:
- 50th Anniversary. Marketers had a field day noting that "Skyfall" marks
the 50th anniversary of 007, and the occasion made us all go back, rewatch our
favorite Bond flicks, rank our favorite moments, and hope the latest effort would match the best in the series.
- The Rule of Threes. Sean Connery's third film was his best
("Goldfinger"). Same for Roger Moore ("The Spy Who Loved Me"). Three was also an
unattainable threshold for Timothy Dalton (2) and George Lazenby (1). So you can
imagine the anticipation for Daniel Craig's third after the magic of "Casino
Royale" (2006) and the sophomore slump of "Quantum of Solace" (2008), which Roger
Moore called "a long, disjointed commercial."
- The Individual Pieces. "Skyfall" seemed to gather all the right pieces, with Craig playing Bond, a villain played by terrifying Oscar-winner Javier Bardem ("No Country For Old Men"), a theme song belted by Grammy-winner Adele, and a director's chair filled by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"). That's a stacked lineup few Bond films can compete with -- on paper.
If you take these things, shake them up and pour them into a martini glass, you get a cocktail of unreal expectations. Indeed, the 2 1/2-hour binge was a good night out on the town, at times loads of fun, but with a lot you can't remember. As I digested the uneasy aftertaste, the title suddenly made sense: I was feeling the "fall" after "sky" high expectations.
That's not to say it's a bad Bond film. "Skyfall" is a solid addition to the series, far better than the weakest installments, and deserving credit for looking gorgeous, exploring new backstories, and introducing one of the most deliciously insane villains Bond has ever seen.
Still, to me, it doesn't come close to being "The Best Bond Film Yet," as proclaimed by IGN.com, a risky proclamation when fans are this jacked up.
"Skyfall" opens with a high-octane chase where Bond (Craig) is left for dead. Of course, he survives the ordeal, but his wounds make him a shell of his former self, unable to pass MI6 physicals and unable to shoot the broad side of a barn (think Eastwood's aging gunslinger in "Unforgiven").
This makes it all the more dangerous when he's asked to track a former agent, Silva (Javier Bardem), who has gone rogue, hacked the MI6 computer system and spooked M (Judi Dench) with threats to "Think on Your Sins." With the help of M's assistant Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), tech-wizard Q (Ben Whishaw) and sexy fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond tracks Silva everywhere from Shanghai to Macau to London, a journey that leads back to his childhood home of Skyfall.
Viewers can enter this Bond story for the 23rd or first time, with a stand-alone plot that doesn't require seeing the previous films. Of course, you'll get more of the in jokes if you know your Bond history, as Craig says, "for her eyes only," references an exploding pen, pulls his Aston Martin out of a garage, threatens M with the ejector seat and tells a martini-shaking bartender that's exactly how he likes it.
As for the running tradition of Bond girls, "Skyfall" could use some more work.
Gone are the playful double entendres of Pussy Galore and punch line setups like Christmas Jones. They also lack the danger of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), who broke Bond's heart in "Casino Royale." Instead, we get Berenice Marlohe as Severine, who disappears way too quickly, and Naomie Harris as an effective Agent Eve, who deserves much more screen time. Her purpose is revealed in a final twist, but I wanted more bang for my buck. Or, I guess you could say, more magic for my "moneypenny."
On the flipside, Bardem is a showstopper, turning Silva into a jaw-dropping wonder of a villain. Hilarious, twisted and physically and emotionally scarred, he's introduced with a rat-eating analogy similar to Blofeld's piranhas in "From Russia with Love" (1963). Later, he does his best Hannibal Lecter, taunting his captors from a remote prison cell.
What makes him all the more fascinating is that he doesn't show up until well into the movie. There are traces though - explosions, hired assassins and threatening computer messages to M. When we finally do see him, it's a long "single take" (a long sustained shot without any cuts) where he opens a door deep in the background, then slowly approaches Bond, who sits on a chair in the foreground.
The shot is the mark of a director who, when produced properly, is capable of greatness. Mendes catapulted from theater to screen by winning Best Director for his directorial debut "American Beauty" (1999), followed by "Road to Perdition" (2002), "Jarhead" (2005), "Revolutionary Road" (2008) and "Away We Go" (2009).
The British native seems to revel in directing Britain's most famous film hero, working with cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Fargo") to make certain scenes some of the best-looking in Bond history. Their collaboration really shines during a Shanghai skyscraper fight, where colorful jellyfish swim on giant video screens, and Bond's arrival to Macau, where Chinese dragons fill the screen.
Mendes also has found a way to avoid the nauseating quick cuts of many action flicks, allowing us to know exactly where we are in the action, even on top of a speeding train as it barrels into a tunnel (a shot that made me duck in my seat).
Still, the most visually imaginative sequence comes during the opening credits, where the CGI "camera" plunges into Craig's eyeball (think "Vertigo") and plows constantly forward through a series of symbolic graveyard graphics (think "Ed Wood"). To me, it was the most engrossing part of the entire movie, 4 minutes of pure cinematic bliss, thanks to Adele's silky-smooth voice. Shirley Bassey ("Goldfinger," "Diamonds Are Forever"), Paul McCartney ("Live and Let Die") and Carly Simon ("Nobody Does it Better") would be proud, as the song and its images continue to echo in my head.
If only the rest of the film was as hypnotically engrossing. Redundant scenes make us aware of the movie's 143 minutes, a length we didn't notice in "Goodfellas" (146 minutes), "Forrest Gump" (142 minutes) or "The Shawshank Redemption" (142 minutes), where the scripts are much more precise.
The "Skyfall" shortfall is puzzling, considering it was written by Oscar-nominee John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator," "Hugo") and the veteran Bond team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who wrote "The World is Not Enough" (1999), "Die Another Day" (2002), "Casino Royale" (2006) and "Quantum of Solace" (2008). After five Bond scripts, I wonder whether "Casino Royale" owed more of its success to co- writer Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby," "Crash," "Flags of Our Fathers").
"Skyfall" has the seeds of a compelling script, delving into M's backstory, highlighting Bond's own limitations and returning to his childhood origins. Unfortunately, the writers aren't truly invested in exploring these questions. Instead of "Rosebud" we get "Home Alone," as the "Skyfall" finale follows Macauley Culkin's creed, "This is my house. I have to defend it." Craig's "Home Alone" stand against Bardem's "Apocalypse Now" helicopter invasion didn't feel like the culmination of a masterpiece. It left me wanting to know more about Bond's family origins, which would have prevented the randomness of Albert Finney showing up as the gamekeeper of the Bond family estate.
Perhaps this territory will be further explored in additional sequels, but as written, it feels like a film that wants to be an "origins" story but doesn't want to devote time to it. "Skyfall" is too preoccupied with setting up a "new world order" for the future, working out Judi Dench after seven films, working in Fiennes, and reintroducing the classic sidekicks of Q and Miss Moneypenny.
This transitional feeling is palpable, leaving me to doubt Craig's commitment going forward. Sure he'll do more movies, but his heart may not be in it. His killer blue eyes are starting to look a bit tired. As he recently told Rolling Stone magazine, "I've been trying to get out of this from the very moment I got into it. But they won't let me go, and I've agreed to do a couple more, but let's see how this one does."
I'm sure it will do just fine at the box office, Mr. Craig. Surely there are worse problems than having to wear sweet suits and kiss beautiful women as James Bond. And yet, the world is never enough. Part of me understands Craig's lament under the weight of a storied genre, studio pressure for tent-pole spectacle and expectations of fans wanting him to become the greatest Bond ever.
It breaks my heart to tell you, but "Skyfall" was not "The Best Bond Film Yet." Maybe my expectations were too high, so hopefully this review will lower yours enough to be pleasantly surprised.
The movie's worth seeing for Bardem and Adele alone. But sitting in the theater, I was reminded of Mark Twain's famous line: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated," which Bond could say after his apparent death in the film's opening. As the film wore on and its merits crystallized, I scribbled a line in my notebook: "Reports of 'The Best Bond Ever' are greatly exaggerated."
★ ★ ★
The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)