There was a time in my life when I was quite a fan of Mr. Bond. It was the late nineties and GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 was hot. Certainly I was familiar with the concept of 007 prior to that, but only secondhand. Most of my time spent with friends outside of school consisted of tossing proximity mines on walls and karate chopping at tiny Oddjob’s engorged head, but of the dozens of movies about Her Majesty’s secret service, I had seen none. That had to change.
Ultimately, my Bond obsession was short-lived. Trying to catch up on 30 years of fairly similar spy movies as quickly as possible just isn’t a good idea, I was forced to admit. Perhaps if I’d spaced my viewings out a bit more reasonably, I could have maintained my appreciation for the series a bit more, but the way I handled it, they all quickly blurred together and I lost interest.
Which brings us to Skyfall, the first one of these I’ve seen since 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. I can tell you this: it’s the best-made one of these I’ve ever seen. There’s none of that cheap shaky-cam garbage that all the action movies do these days. You can actually follow what’s happening. The camera movement, the framing, the lighting - it’s all top-notch, and that classic music can still get me pumped. Some of the compositing on the special effects is pretty terrible (Look out, James! There’s a cartoon scorpion floating near your hand!), but, for the most part, this is a work of excellent craftsmanship. HD cameras have been kind to this series.
The movie gets straight to it, with a huge, gun-fire-riddled car chase that culminates in a fist fight atop a moving train and a tricky sniper shot, and it’s all done with as much skill as I’ve ever seen in a movie. I found it boring.
Ultimately, there’s some point in all this recycled material about how the characters (and the series and style of movie they represent) worry that they’re too old for this; that the world has moved on and they’re no longer necessary. The movie then goes on to disprove the notion, and I think it has some success in that regard, but the thought that hit me while watching this sequence, the thought that stuck with me all the way through the end credits, was that I don’t ever need to see people drive quickly and make cars explode again. It’s a sad thought, because I like car chases as much as the next guy, but here I was, watching some people with all the money in the world put on a nice little drivey-shooty-blowy-uppy car driving show, looking just as lovely as things have ever looked, and I simply didn’t care. And then some dudes are punching each other on top of a train and, oh, no! here comes a tunnel! and I’ve seen all of this before. Apparently I’ve reached the point where seeing it done better isn’t enough, even if it is contributing to the central theme of the movie.
It’s my understanding that Skyfall is continuing along the trajectory set by Casino Royal, which gave us a gruffer, darker, more serious James Bond. Certainly the violence here is a bit harder and more consequential than I remember it ever being before, and I’m left wondering who wants that. Loads of people, apparently, but I find it such a bizarre half step. Like, am I supposed to care when someone gets killed, because the number of witty one-liners nearly matches the final body count, which is huge. There’s this bit where you get a glimpse - just a little peek - at Bond’s childhood and, seriously, am I supposed to care? Almost nothing meaningful is gained from it and he’s still some super-spy who orders shaken martinis and sneaks into a shower with a former sex-slave who greets him with wordplay, and his villain is still a monologuing cartoon character with a secret cuh-razy deformity that he reveals so you know he’s evil. Don’t ask me to take these people seriously.
Based on everything I’ve written so far, it must sound like I hate Skyfall. I don’t. In fact, I really like it. I just don’t care about the gritty, serious, plot-heavy side of it. It’s unearned. The silly, throw-away jokes directed to no one in particular, on the other hand, are delightful. The creative action scenes are completely awesome. In fact, the only reason I’ve spent so much time going on about a boring car chase instead of komodo dragons, sneaking through a swanky skyscraper in high-tech Shanghai, the subway that goes somewhere subways shouldn’t go, or the part where James Bond Home Alones those naughty bad guys is because I don’t want to give away too much information for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie. Those parts absolutely make the movie worth watching. I have big problems with Skyfall, but it’s good in spite of all that.
Even if you’re not as tired of exploding cars and train-top fist fights as I am, I think you’ll agree this movie could benefit from being about half the length and losing all that earnestness about its boring plot. Ideally, I’d throw in a few more crazy gadgets, too, because that’s what I like from my spy pictures, but I have to admit, James Bond doesn’t need gimmicks. The old ways, stripped down and skillfully done, still can work.
There’s a moment where Bond is stalking an assassin through a room full of reflective surfaces and projected lights, clearly hearkening back to The Man With the Golden Gun. It leads to a one-on-one fist fight, shot in silhouette, and it looks gorgeous. It’s simple, it’s referential, and it is riveting. There are fifty years worth of 007 movies sitting around, and they’re filled with cars flipping over. If I want to see a car blow up, I can go watch those. As familiar as everything about this scene is, it’s presented in a way that still feels fresh, in that way that watching human beings interact will always appeal to me, even after cars and the tunnels and the fireballs have lost their shine.