For The Prosecution: Skyfall

We are in the midst of Bond-fever, SPECTRE is printing it’s own money and all the initial reviews have been stellar.  I’ve not got round to seeing it yet due to a lack of time and, oddly, worry.  Skyfall related worry.  Skyfall opened in October 2013 to universal relief.  Quantum of Solace, in this writers humble opinion, is one the best Bond movies ever made.  It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, mostly due to constraints of the writer’s strike.  I have gone to some length on the subject of QoS in a previous blog, so, for now, I’ll just get stuck into Skyfall.

Skyfall is the third of the Daniel Craig Bond films and the one packing the biggest behind-the-camera names.  Directing is Sam Mendes, Oscar winning director of American BeautyThe Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road.  Joining him is one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema, Roger Deakins.  Returning to script duties are regular Bond scribblers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time by John Logan, writer of RKO 281, Rango (love Rango) and The Aviator, among others.  So far so perfect.  The film begins with a near perfect pre-title sequence.  Bond in Istanbul hunting down a stolen MI:6 agent list.  But, if you look closely, you spot the first problems with Skyfall.  The opening shots are beautiful, Deakins at his finest.  Bond enters a room and finds another agent mortally wounded and the hard-disk containing the agent list, gone.  Bond, wired into Vauxhall Cross, informs M (Judi Dench) that an Agent is down and he stops to give aid.  This is the first problem, this is the man who dumped his friend in a dumpster after betraying him a movie before.  His mission is the list, not his fellow agent, Bond here is risking all of them to worry about one of them.  It doesn’t sit.  Luckily, the rest of sequence is fantastic (the cuff fix post digger jump is probably the most Bond thing ever committed to film), ending up with Eve (Naomie Harris) shooting him on M’s order of “Take the bloody shot”.  It is everything we expect from M, her agents are her tools and Bond, as we remember from Casino Royale, a blunt one at best.  Bond falls into a river and queue the song, by Adele, the less spoken about the better.  It is a miserable piece of song writing, written by a woman who wallows in luxurious self pity.  Anyway, that is another story.  Back to the film.

We return three months later with M called to see the head of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Mallory (the always brilliant Ralph Fiennes).  Informed that The Cousins are not happy about the lost of the list, Mallory informs M that she is due for retirement, will be given GCMG (Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George) and replaced in two months.  It is a grand scene where two great British theps go head to head, but also, in the name of Fiennes’ character, gives you warning of what is to come.  Mallory, M, big name British star of the stiffest collar?  We follow this up with the brilliant hacking of MI:6 and blowing up of M’s office at headquarters, with M, stranded on Vauxhall bridge, looking on.  Given the ridiculous lengths the baddies are about to go to over the next two hours, why don’t they just snatch M there and be done with it.  Ok, they are playing with her, but still, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  Plus, no traffic on Vauxhall Bridge at that time of the morning?  Come on Baddies!  When are you ever going to get a chance like that?  Anyway, we move to M’s house and a surly Bond has broken in, just as he did at the beginning in Casino Royale and here we have another problem.  In Casino Royale we have M questioning herself if it was too early to promote Bond to Double-O status and he responds that he understands that Double-O’s have a short life expectancy.  M retorts that arrogance and self-awareness do not do hand in hand and that she wants him to judge situations without ego and dispassionately.  Which he proceeds to do until Vesper, and again for the length of QoS where, once she’s caught him, lets Bond go because of the trust.  There are shadows and remembrances throughout the three films, in the first two they stay true to each other, that conversation laying the rules of their interactions.  In Skyfall, M stays true to that in telling Eve to take the shot.  Bond is a tool to be used at her discretion and when he shows up in her house, he is the petulant Bond everyone hated in QoS, only drunk and unshaven.  But because M let him get shot, he gets a pass?  Please, he is expendable.  In Live and Let Die, Flemming opens the story with a Bond, brainwashed post the events of his revenge of Tracy in You Only Live Once, shows up and tries to kill M with acid.  After being “reset”, M sends him on a suicide mission to kill Scaramanga.  It is only us who think Bond in indispensable, the threat is what is important.  Not here.  Not any more.

Bond reports to work, still unshaven, showing us all his unfit state and inner turmoil (we expect more Sam, we really do) and undergoes a series of tests that it is clear he fails, but allows us to see M’s faith in him, allows Bond to be warned by Mallory and to find the chap from the opening sequence, on his way to Shanghai to do a job.  Up next is a brilliant scene with Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw) in the National Gallery, clearly pre-photos allowed rule (see selfie rant), as they are allowed to sit and gaze upon Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.  A painting of a great weapon being towed to its final fate, its a metaphor people.  The issuing of Bond his kit, a Walther and a radio gives us a brilliant line,  “What were you expecting?  An exploding pen?”  It is a line rather undermined by something that crops up with the car later.  Anyway, Shanghai (keep your eye’s peeled at the airport for the bespectacled gentleman that walks across the shot in front of Bond, that’s my golf buddy Alan Greenham), fight scene with Dr No reference later (Dr No showed Goya’s Portrait of The Duke of Wellington which at the time had been stolen, but is now back at the National Gallery.  Skyfall gives us Modigliani’s Woman With a Fan, which was stolen from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010 and is still missing), briefest of introductions of the latest in underused Bond Girls, Bérénice Marlohe‘s Séverine, we end up in Macao.  Here we get a great Bond sequence between Bond and Eve, Bond being shaved by Eve showing us he is getting back in the game, and plenty of banter.  The casino scene, though, is classic Bond, beautifully staged with Séverine both reeling Bond in and pushing him away, Bond playing her equally.  Marlohe plays the stress of the situation beautifully, very understated, watch her eyes, it is a remarkable performance when given very little else to do.  We also have couple previous old Bond references thrown (“Don’t touch your ear” – Casino Royale and a fight involving Komodo Dragons harking back to Live and Let Die and the Crocs), are you seeing a pattern here?  In scene as classic Bond as this, we don’t need to keep harping on about the past, let this one stand on its own.  Skyfall continually shows a surprising lack of confidence, hidden in in-jokes.  After the literally steamy scene, we finally end up on a boat to meet the villain. 

The Macao casino and the Abandoned Island lair scenes are the strongest in the film.  Javier Bardem is wonderful, turning the Bond villain up to eleven.  The rat and real world speech is a blunt continuation of the water MacGuffin in QoS, but it does a superb job of showing us of what M is capable of, and that her order to “take the bloody shot” is pure pragmatism.  Bardem’s Silva is showing Bond his choice, become him or realise that M was right, he is a tool, he is expendable.  Silva reveals Bond’s real test results and, a clumsily handled attempt at homoeroticism later, we have poor Séverine being killed to get yet another Bond reference in (the 50 year old single malt?  A 1962 Macallan, 1962 was the year Dr No came out and this is the 50th Anniversary Bond, get it?  I need a drink…).  Q’s radio saves the day and we are back in London and if you didn’t know that this is exactly what Silva wanted, you’ve never seen a Bond film before.  The fish tank scene between Dench and Bardem is beautiful, a child wronged, lashing out at his parent.  The back and forth is more for Bond than anything else, again Bond’s stark choice is laid out before him.  The reveal from M that by giving up Silva resulted in a clean hand over of Hong Kong and the exchange of six agents for one working beyond his remit.  Again we have M telling Bond that the bigger picture is more important than her agents, again having to explain to her second petulant child why she does what she does.  This theme gets clumsier as things go on and we know Bond will rescue her when Silva inevitably escapes because no one has mentioned what the hell Skyfall is since the interview with the shrink.  Plus, our genius Q plugs in the laptop of the guy who previously beat his safeguards and blew up his boss’s office, killing a whole mess of people.  Go back to the exploding pens Q, they seem safer.  The tube sequence is a great hunt in the crowd with Bond a step behind.  We inter-cut with the hearing where M is being grilled by committee and we start to see Mallory’s true colours.  A tube crashing through a wall and a massive gun fight in the committee room later (Mallory gets a gun and get shot for his trouble, showing him mucking in and that he is a good chap) and Bond whisks M away to safety. 

Now for the bit that I still can’t figure out and is rather annoying, Bond’s DB5.  So Bond and M show up at a lock-up where Bond’s stuff is stored.  And there is the silver Aston Martin DB5, iconic and the moment where a fun, troubled, film kind of falls apart.  Switching out of the Jag into a car with no electronic signature is good field-craft, but the conversation in the car quickly shows us something that throws up all kinds of issues.  So, Bond and M leap in, nice gag about the ride quality of the British Icon and then Bond flips the top of the gear-stick revealing the Connery-Bond ejection button that the original Q, Desmond Llewelyn, tricked the car out with back in Goldfinger.  Now, in the original script of Skyfall, the Skyfall in Scotland wasn’t Bond’s childhood home, it was a retirement home for former Double-O’s at which Connery himself was waiting.  The two Bonds would fight along side in the big showdown at the end of the film.  So I don’t have to spend much more time on it, the big battle at the end is a good action scene with an impressive pay off, killing off one of the stalwarts of the series, something Marvel could learn from.  The remnants of the Connery-element are left, with the prepping of the house for battle and the few moments of Albert Finney getting to be bad-ass again, but it is the car that is the problem.  Bond uses all of Q’s toys to gun down the baddies outside of the house.  Now, it is a great nod to the old Bonds, but, for Daniel Craig’s Bond, the DB5 was won in Casino Royale, over a hand of poker against Alex Dimitrios in the Bahamas.  So, unless we have removed everything Bond did in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, which the new SPECTRE tells we haven’t, that means between the encounter at the card table and his being shot in Turkey, Bond and Q-Brach spent an impressive sum of cash, tricking out his car with 1960’s tech and weaponry.  Yes, it’s just a movie, yes it is a fiction, but Ian Fleming, despite the flights of fancy, misogyny and racism, at least kept Bond and his timeline honest.  When Bronsan’s Bond raced about in his DB5, all he had was a Bollinger chiller in the centre console.  This fully gunned up DB5 is silly, bordering on ridiculous.  The DBS with the med-kit and gun?  Fine, it just about makes sense.  A 50 year old car tricked out for an agent that will never be used on an op?  With my tax dollars?  No way in hell does that make sense, even in a Bond film.  I understand one of the gags in SPECTRE is Q rebuilding the car for him.  Again, silly and pandering.  This, given the talent making it, should be smarter.  

So, Skyfall ends, M is dead, long live M.  MI:6 is relocated to a very familiar 60’s style headquarters and we stumble over the “reveal” that Naomi Harris’ Eve is actually Eve Moneypenny…  It’s tacked on and clumsy and undermines all the stuff she’s done so far in the film.  The banter about Moneypenny not being cut out for field work also points towards an uncomfortable notion that spying is a man’s game.  It is not well done.  Neither is the “Are you ready to get back to work?” line, what the hell has he been doing then?!  It is pandering to those who want the same old thing over and over again, which, if you care to pick up a book, Fleming didn’t do.  His Bond, was put into tricky situations where he needed to work himself out of.  The films follow a pattern, the better ones are the ones that break the mould, but it does seem that, given the box-office, we will not see EON take a risk with Bond again.  This also means that, when Daniel Craig hangs up the Walther, we’ll more than likely see yet another White Bond.  The time is right to change things up, but given the above, it seems that the people handing over the cash, and most of the people I know, would rather see the same old Bond, doing the same old things.  We have a two hour plus film reminding of all the things we love about Bond, without actually giving us a new reason to love Bond.  It is the ultimate pulled punch and disrespectful to Bond fans everywhere.  At least the drink still works.

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