I get it.
It’s James Bond’s 50th anniversary and so all the stops have been pulled out to craft a worthy movie to mark this historic occasion.
And as far as it goes, the Sam Mendes-directed Skyfall does that admirably.
It has the daring over-the-top, larger-than-life opening action sequence with high speed chases in cars and on motorbikes through (and over) Istanbul, market stalls being rent asunder, and people ducking for cover from a dramatic firefight, and verging-on-the-unbelievable (but very Bond-esque) fight scenes atop and inside a train whistling through the Turkish countryside.
The credits are also suitably high gloss, and almost fantasy gothic in red and dirty turquoise with Adele’s supremely evocative vocals wafting over them like a ghostly siren summoning her flawed but noble prince.
And you have the near-death and resurrection of James Bond (the impossibly handsome and debonair Daniel Craig who frankly has yet to find a suit that doesn’t flatter the life out of him) who is accidentally shot by a fellow agent – who in fairness is trying to shoot the bad guy he is closely tussling with – tumbles from a towering rail bridge into rapidly flowing waters, before washing ashore, somewhat mysteriously, on a tropical paradise where you drink hard liquor with scorpions clinging to the side of your hand.
There is, of course, the camp, revenge-driven bad guy Silva (Javier Bardem) with a diabolically evil agenda, scant regard for life (OK let’s be honest; none at all) and more tricks up his life than a magician entertaining the entranced tourists in Las Vegas.
The ending too is suitably epic – although we are spared the almost redundant speech from the bad guy explaining exactly why he did what he did moments before Bond thwarts all his nefarious plans – and thanks to a series of massive explosions and the sparse emptiness of the Scottish moors, an almost Lord of the Rings otherworldliness as good and evil head for a final fiery (in this case, literally) showdown.
In short, it is everything you’d expect from a Bond film (including the requisite love scenes although they do seem perfunctory at best), and thanks to Daniel Craig’s impressively nuanced acting, which is utilised to its full capabilities when he returns for the first time since childhood to his tragedy-scarred family home in the Scottish Highlands with M (Dame Judi Dench, bringing her usual gravitas and rare talent to the role), it has a level of emotional depth and an intelligence missing from some of the earlier Bond films.
And yet …
And yet I was left underwhelmed at the end of the movie.
As I pondered why that might be a number of things came to mind.
For all its Bourne-eque gloss, which it carried over from the superb Casino Royale (2006) and the oddly-named and deeply flawed Quantum of Solace (2008), which was evidenced in everything from the slickly executed chase scenes to Daniel Craig’s suitably icy cold portrayal of a wounded and single-minded Bond, it also suffered from a severe case of camp-itis.
I am not sure if that came from the need to pay homage to the previous 50 years of Bond movies, which let’s face it raised cheesy theatricality to a high, or low, art form depending on your point of view, or simply the desire of the screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan to have fun after two very serious instalments of the franchise, but the weird mix of 21st century spy chic and 20th century camp posturing never really gelled for me.
That was not necessarily the fault of Javier Bardem who invested his character with all the requisite insane menace, and melodramatic posturing (not to mention a highly-charged homoerotic scene with James Bond where fingers glided across chests and thighs were caressed) you would expect of a Bond villain.
I suspect it was simply because Bond had, until now at least, well and truly moved on from the cheesiness (so ably mocked by the Austin Powers films) of earlier movies.
And yet suddenly in Skyfall, he is once again a man with a foot in both camps, at once the winking all-knowing Bond of old, and the new graver and less certain Bond feeling every last one of his years.
The question of whether Bond is too old for the spying gig he has dominated for so long is a theme that is echoed repeatedly through the movie, and not always elegantly.
The film’s dialogue is replete with references to the passage of time, the old ways versus the new, and whether the old guard are, in the words of Bond in one highly charged with M, “all played out”.
When Bond meets the new Q (Ben Whishaw), the conversation is thick with talk of “age doesn’t guarantee efficiency … youth doesn’t guarantee innovation” and there is a constant comparison of the computing talents of both Silva (who displays un unnerving ability to hack into MI6 at will) and Q versus the brute force and real world activites of Bond, M and other agents.
It is even visited in a parliamentary enquiry, on whose panel sits Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) destined to play a pivotal role in future Bond films, where M is quizzed by angry politicians, after MI6’s HQ is blown up and a hard drive containing the names of agents embedded in terrorist organisations is stolen and their names released resulting in their deaths, on the wisdom of having agents in the field when the real war surely is now fought in the cyber realms.
(Cue at this point a furious firefight in this same parliamentary enquiry room to underscore that the real world threats or the “shadows” that M warns of, and where enemies unknown congregate, are not wholly done away with just yet.)
It is an interesting theme, and one worth visiting in Bond’s 50th year on the big screen but alas it is dealt with all the finesse of a sledgehammer slamming into a resistant concrete wall, weakening and making tiresome what could have been an intriguing debate.
Add to this litany of woes, poorly written double entendres that fail to flow and spark with the required verve, even in the hands of gifted actors like Daniel Craig and Naomie Harris (who plays Eve, also destined to figure prominently in Bond’s future), and a clunky narrative that staggers all too obviously rather than darts nimbly from scene to scene and you have a Bond movie of high intelligence and lofty ambition brought low by a less-than-wise attempt to pay homage to that which went before.
It is by no means a failure of a movie as evidenced by the overwhelming number of people flocking to see it on repeat viewings, making it the number 1 movie in the USA this last weekend well after its initial release, and Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench shine as the heart and soul of what is in all fairness a well crafted spy thriller, but I was left feeling that it could have been so much more than it is, and that it was not the iconic milestone movie that its creators had intended.