"What makes you think this is my first time?"
SKYFALL, the latest James Bond thriller, begins with a splendid high-speed chase involving all manner of transportation and a capable female colleague who seems to be able to match Bond stunt for stunt and quip for quip. Eventually Bond is fighting a villain atop a speeding train, with the female colleague perched far away with a rifle trying to get a clear shot at the bad guy. Bond falls to what looks like his death, and there’s a rather sticky situation – not only does the bad guy get away with vital information about every single British Intelligence officer serving in the field, but the shot that takes Bond down was fired at M’s specific command, despite the lack of a clear enough shot to ensure Bond’s safety.
Bond lays low for a while, hiding out in some tropical place, drinking and screwing himself senseless. Meanwhile, British Intelligence is having a rough time of it – as supervillain Raoul Silva (a marvelous and genuinely frightening Javier Bardem) has decided to take some revenge on the entire organization in general and Judi Dench’s M in particular by publishing that vital information online. Computer messages with the words CONSIDER YOUR SINS pop up on M’s computer before assorted bad things happen, Bond sees TV coverage of a particularly nasty event and decides to report for duty, and we’re off.
There’s no denying that SKYFALL is a substantial improvement over the previous outing, the lackluster QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The story is clearer, the action scenes better handled with none of the handheld jittery camera and bad editing that made certain scenes in QUANTUM damn near incomprehensible. SKYFALL is a return to solid action movie-making, and that turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as the film also thinks it has something important to say about the state of the world, and the high price of keeping us all safe, and the vexing question of how far the good guys can go before they become bad guys too -- M gets an extended speech that touches on all of those issues, and it seems characteristic of the film that it only touches on those issues.
It is hard to understand what the film is trying to tell me – mixed messages are the order of the day here. It turns out that British Intelligence has already gone pretty far in being Bad Good Guys, and they’ve become a pretty nasty and arrogant bunch – Bardem’s Silva has a pretty solid grudge against them in general and M in particular, M having sold Silva out to the Chinese in return for some captured agents and the smooth transition of power in Hong Kong. Silva’s experiences in a Chinese prison have left him a physical wreck and ready for some payback, and I for one don’t see how anyone can blame him for wanting to wreak a little havoc. The film’s more than casual racism cannot be denied, as the film’s heroes are damn near exclusively White and British, and the film’s villains are damn near exclusively Neither. It has to be noted that the only person of color to survive to the end of the film does so by taking a notably servile role – the sharp and smart black woman who makes such an impression in the film’s opening sequence is finally revealed as the new Miss Moneypenny (new for this version of the franchise, anyway). The really tasteless moments when Bardem as Silva suggestively strokes Bond’s skin at one point brings back all kinds of ugly memories of stereotyped gay villains from the bad old days of the past, and would be really appallingly offensive if it wasn’t mitigated somewhat by the real justice of his grudge, and the overt symbolism of his Bond-executed final dispatch – Silva gets stabbed in the back. The film’s surprisingly forthright criticism of the arrogance of British Intelligence, best shown by Ben Whishaw’s snotty young Q who damn near brings down MI6’s entire computer network due to sheer conceited stupidity, doesn’t fit well with the film’s ending, in which a Great White Male Authority Figure is installed in M’s position, with Bond's full support and respect because well, he's the new guy in charge and loyalty and all that.
Now of course this could all be very much the point, but I'm going to have to say that it never feels like the point. Over-reaching has never been a characteristic of the James Bond franchise, until SKYFALL. A shame, as the Daniel Craig version of the franchise had upped the ante considerably over the earlier incarnations, as we got to watch Craig's Bond learn the hard personal lessons of being a killer for hire. SKYFALL seeks to up the ante still further, and it just doesn't work. I hope they settle for less next time.