Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriter: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 11/5/12
Opens: November 9, 2012
As you survey the unfolding landscapes in this 50th Anniversary issue of the James Bond series, you may think, as did I, that the most impressive decision was made not by Sam Mendes, who directs the movie, not by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan who scripted the work, but by a small group of top leaders in the Chinese Communist party. The skyline of Shanghai, a city I visited in 1985 which then looked somewhat like Omaha, Nebraska and which had an airport that would be more at home in Ouagadougou, is sensational. It looks like Tokyo in the year 2040. All this change resulted when China’s leaders decided to shuck communism in all but name to make their land the super-capitalist nation that holds much of America’s debt and sends us a landslide of products from computers to sweaters.
After watching the breathtaking scenes filmed in China’s largest city, you might wonder what happened to the rest of the film. Dark, gloomy sets, scenes filmed underground in damp, scary tunnels proliferate. But what is lost most in this “Skyfall” is everything we recall that made the wildly successful franchise so different from other spy tales that fill our screens annually, whether the Bourne series which represents a generic example, or the dull, literary bore that was “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.” In short, “Skyfall” has become that sadly generic thriller, full of car chases, explosions, and acts of derring-do, but which lacks the irony made famous by Sean Connery, the greatest of the Bonds, in everything from the opening work of the series, “Dr No,” through gems that hit the screen annually like “From Russia with Love,” “Goldfinger, and “Thunderball.” Sean Connery was well aware that James Bond’s activities are absurd, unbelievable, but he showed us the playfulness of the franchise by virtually winking at the audience when he made a cappuccino in under forty seconds and whose dialogue included such gems as “shaken, not stirred.” What’s more the early Bond movies were filled with gadgets like exploding pens, automobiles that spewed thunderbursts of clouds, and watches that could do a lot more than the most expensive Rolex. And when Sean Connery introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond,” the impact on the movie audience was electrifying.
All we have no is a standard-issue thriller which, though I’d grant the terrific job by a virtual army of special effects technocrats who make us believe that Bond and a villain could engage in a life-or-death struggle atop a fast-moving train, ducking just in time as it approaches a tunnel. And the chief villain Silva, played by Spanish star Javier Bardem, is no Donald Pleasance, who died in 1995 but who will always be remembered by me as the scoundrel who stroked his cat in “You Only Live Twice” while verbally exercising his power over Connery’s Bond.
Sure, there’s some psychology in “Skyfall,” more than you’d find in most other pics of this series. Bond (Daniel Craig) is shown with a weakness that should have drummed him out of M-16, Britain’s famed spy agency. He cannot shoot straight, he can barely get through tests of muscular strength graded by an accreditation panel. Why? He is victim of a near-murder thanks to a bad decision by M (Judi Dench), his boss, who tells agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take a shot,” despite the risk of hitting Bond rather than the man he is fighting. M even believes that Bond, like many of her other agents, has died and which threatens to cause her dismissal from the agency per her superior officer, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).
Daniel Craig acquits himself just OK despite being the anti-Sean Connery. Terrific as Tuvia Bielsky in Edward Zwick’s “Defiance”—perhaps because as the leader of a group of 1,000 Jews hiding in the forest from the Nazis the story is grounded in reality—he is here given nary a slice of witty banter, nor does he seem like the sort of actor who could pull that off, at least not like Mr. Connery. More like Timothy Dalton than Pierce Brosnan, Craig is merely adequate in the job. Don’t blame the scripters, who may have realized that they did not have a Connery on hand.
In this tale, Craig’s character is assigned the task of bringing down a rogue agent of M16, a man who was sold out by his boss, M, who gave him up to save five or six other agents and who bears a fierce urge to gain revenge against the woman he calls “the old lady.” Nor does Sam Mendes give him enough sex to frighten the MPAA into giving an R rating—ironically good for box office since the PG-13 will bring in a far bigger audience.
Character roles include Ben Whishaw’s Q, or Quartermaster, a computer geek who tracks Bond’s every move and Kincade (Albert Finney), unrecognizable as a caretaker of a bleak stone structure who helps Bond put an end to the vengeance-hungry Silva. And what’s with Severine (Berenice Marlohe) a tall, young woman packed with make-up who is in effect a captive operating in a Macao casino? Bardem is himself a character actor, bearing a blond hair dye-job, a swishy dude made psychotic by months of torture which he blames on M.
If we want to see a spy story, we’d go to any of the Bourne series, or even better some of the best oldies being Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” Or we can take in the exploits of agents during World War II such as “13 Rue Madeleine.” We go to 007, however, to see irony, wit, and sex, don’t we? But we don’t get much of that this time around. That’s mighty disappointing.
Rated PG-13. 143 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C-
Acting – B-
Technical – B+
Overall – C