Lester Burnham, the hero of American Beauty, would love Skyfall. In Beauty, the directorial debut of Sam Mendes, Burnham grumbles, “I’m missing the James Bond marathon on TNT,” before attending his daughter’s cheerleading event. Skyfall is Mendes’ latest movie, and it’s perfect for the kind of Bond fan who craves a TNT marathon. Allusions to the franchise’s history pepper the action, and by the end, Bond’s world is familiar again. But by constantly insisting upon its relevance and breaking the fourth wall, Skyfall jettisons the stakes of its premise, as well as the depth that comes with it. It preserves the franchise by regressing to the status quo.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in the middle of a chase, as always. Hurdling through Istanbul, he’s trying to catch an assassin who stole a list of every embedded double agent in NATO. He isn’t successful: M (Judi Dench) orders another agent (Naomie Harris) to shoot the assassin, and she hits Bond instead. Presumed dead, Bond goes on a tropical bender until he hears that a terrorist bombed MI6 headquarters. The terrorist in question is Silva (Javier Bardem), who is apparently as brilliant as he is unhinged. Silva has a history with M, and through improbable sabotage, he seeks revenge by undermining her moral authority. The only way Bond can stop Silva is by springing a trap from an unlikely place.
Written by two Bond veterans and newcomer John Logan, the screenplay constantly calls attention to itself. After 007’s return to MI6, characters such as M’s boss Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) constantly question whether the spy — and the franchise by extension — is obsolete. This kind of meta-dialogue is funny, but the wrong choice. What made Casino Royale such a success was how it dealt with Bond’s psychology; it explored the cost of turning a man into an amoral spy. In Skyfall, death is little more than a cruel joke: during a word association game with a psychologist, Bond pairs “murder” with “business.” By questioning Bond’s relevance concurrently with the movie itself, the character cannot undergo the existential crisis the script requires. Too clever by half, the script is its own worst enemy.
That is not to say, however, the movie is an utter failure. Mendes, once again working with cinematographer Roger Deakins, has made the best-looking action film in years. The evocative light heightens the violence and sophistication: when Bond trails his mark through a Shanghai skyscraper, he can only stay hidden through flashes of vibrant color. Later, as Bond arrives at an exotic casino on a barge, Mendes frames his figure with natural, symmetric light, so he literally radiates confidence. Mendes is not known for action, yet here he demonstrates that he can shoot a set-piece competently while preserving an eye for powerful imagery.
Unlike many previous Bond movies, the plurality of Skyfall takes place in England. Pervasive silliness undermines the action: when Silva’s task is simple, the script supplies him with endless, superfluous destruction. I understand that large-scale action is part of Bond’s appeal, but the best films in this genre suspend disbelief by generating tension, which is the opposite of what happens here. Even when a subway train threatens to crash on Bond, there is no sense of danger. The story serves the spectacle, when it should be the other way around. Oh, and the talking killer fallacy (i.e. Silva talks to Bond longer than he should) rears its ugly head three times. The first time works because Bardem and Craig are clearly having fun — they even hint at Bond’s flexible sexuality — but by the end the fallacy loses its appeal, becoming a lazy way to protract the inevitable. A modern Bond movie shouldn’t eschew the classic clichés, but it should keep them invisible, if only for its running time.
When Q (Ben Whishaw) gives 007 his new pistol, he notes, “It’s less of a random killing machine, and more of a personal statement.” Bond loses the pistol twenty minutes later, and its loss is an apt metaphor for Skyfall. It promises terse focus, only to abandon nuance in favor of clumsy entertainment. Even Silva’s agenda hints at significance it never achieves. The requisite Bond girl warns us about the depth of his danger, yet Bardem is more kooky than menacing. Admittedly, his effete gestures are a good counterbalance against the forceful Craig, who once again imbues the most ridiculous moments with a strain of credibility. Still, Craig’s first foray as Bond is a hallmark because, finally, we saw the person underneath that tailored tuxedo. Skyfall, in an unfortunate pivot, doesn’t quite turn James Bond into a hollow, random killing machine. It just points him in that direction.