Skyfallen: Home Alone with James Bond

Obviously, this isn’t a movie blog and I’m not a movie reviewer, but since most professional movie reviewers are clearly idiots (and then there are the prominent fans who ought to know better) I feel it necessary, while this steaming turd is still fresh in my memory, to have my say. OK, it’s not that bad. It’s not Quantum of Solace bad (to begin with, it’s not named “Quantum of Solace”). It’s not late Roger Moore bad. But it’s bad. It’s “if they don’t make any more Bond movies after this, fair enough” bad. (But Skyfall has gotten good reviews and decent Box Office so I expect we’re going to get more of this crap.)

Warning: spoilers.

Skyfall is too long, has too many false endings, has possibly the stupidest plot of any Bond movie I can remember the plot of (and that’s no mean feat — when I was into the James Bond 007 RPG I committed most of the canon to memory), and it’s lazily written.

The movie does start out quite promisingly. We have a chase through Istanbul which is really quite good (despite Bond allowing several opportunities to kill the guy he’s chasing to go begging — Bourne would have killed the guy five times before he got to the train). Then Bond gets shot by Moneypenny (on orders) who is so stunned by this that she neglects to shoot the bad guy.

After a terrorist attack on M.I.6, Bond returns from the dead.

There’s a sequence in Shanghai where Bond is sent to intercept a hit man and find out who hired him, which is generally well-done (the elevator sequence is cute, albeit horribly contrived), visually spectacular, and makes no sense at all at the time, and less in hindsight. Bérénice Marlohe (playing femme fatale Sévérine) is gorgeous and way too good an actress to play a Bond girl, and the whole damsel in distress setup is quite good, but exactly why she’s in the story at all is never explained. Note that I will make no effort to explain the plot — you’ve either seen the movie and have some idea of what’s supposed to be going on, or you haven’t. Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any sense either way.

The ferocious man-eating Komodo dragons are a hint of the awfulness to come (as is the one-trick-pony gun Bond is issued by the new Q) but then Silva (Javier Bardem with a spectacularly bad dye job) appears and starts out seeming to be a genuinely interesting villain — his cause has some justice, and he could almost be making Bond a tempting offer — until he starts leaking crazy all over the place, and then gratuitously kills Sévérine for good measure. (It’s a testament to fragments of good acting and writing that I still felt quite a bit of sympathy for Silva.)

Aside: do American talk show hosts feel tempted to call Mr. Bardem “X Javier”? Perhaps “J Javier”. How confusing it must be for them.

Silva gets captured, but it’s too soon for it to be the ending — which is sad because the good part of the movie is now over. Instead he is placed in a smaller version of Magneto’s cage (does anyone who makes these movies think that making interrogation and holding rooms look like the sets of science fiction movies is in any way a positive?). It’s at this point we discover that, actually, M is the Major Villain in this movie. Silva was betrayed by her and seeks revenge, she’s captured him, announces he will be prosecuted and forgotten, his name stricken from the list of fallen M.I.6 heroes, and then she leaves him behind in — effectively — a slow motion death trap.

All of this would be deliciously ironic if the script had any wit to it, but the only laughs for the audience are when Bardem turns the camp up two or three notches too far (the audience of which I was a part laughed loudly in many inappropriate places, and always at Bardem’s performance). Indeed, at some points the movie seems to be intentionally satirizing the Bond genre; in one case — when Q ridicules gadgets from earlier movies — it clearly is; but mostly it comes across as half-arsed, a violation of the fourth wall, and not funny.

Anyway, getting captured at exactly this time and then placed in Magneto’s cell turns out to have been all part of Silva’s diabolical plot. Let’s simply leave aside the ridiculousness of this plot and accept it.

So there’s a not very good chase through tunnels and then — detonating a bomb he had no time to set — Bardem is able to escape by the barest of margins and is picked up by two well-armed henchmen posing as police so they can get to their true plot — assassinating M while she is being grilled by some kind of ministerial oversight panel. Oh, did I leave out the fact that the entire sequence of events was largely initiated by Bardem using his mad hacking skillz to blow up M’s office at M.I.6 while M was pointedly not there? Well I guess he wanted to humiliate her and then kill her. Fair enough.

Even so, his plan could have consisted of: (a) blow up M.I.6; (b) wait a while; (c) go with his henchmen to the meeting and kill everyone. Magneto’s cell, killing special forces guys while armed only with false teeth, remote controlled bombs presciently planted in just the right spot, perfectly scheduled commuter trains falling out of holes left by said bombs, gratuitously killing pretty girls you’re quite fond of — all this stuff wasn’t necessary or helpful. But hey, it’s a Bond movie, so we can let all this slide too.

Now, if three guys with pistols could shoot their way into a British government meeting on security following a massive terrorist attack against M.I.6 then the IRA would have wiped out the British government decades ago. (It’s not like they didn’t try.) I suppose Silva was badass enough to kill two heavily-armed special forces guys while armed only with false teeth, and of course, Bond winked at the Ralph Fiennes character — before shooting some fire extinguishers (apparently to help Silva escape, since it served no other apparent purpose).

So, Bond — having facilitated Silva’s escape — abducts M, ditches her car in favor of his Aston Martin DB5 (yes, that one), and then conspires with Q to leave a trail so cunning that only two weasels or Silva would be clever enough to figure it out. The cleverness of this plot will dazzle you: he takes M to his family home in Scotland. Bear in mind that Bond’s name isn’t a cover, he has never troubled to conceal it, his family appears to have been moderately prominent, and his parents are buried in tombs with the surname “Bond” carved into them. As I said, as cunning as two weasels.

They get to the family property and are greeted by — wait for it — Albert Finney, their old American gamekeeper. Yes, they picked a crusty old American actor who couldn’t be bothered to even half-assedly fake a Scots accent to play a gamekeeper in Scotland. What. The. Fuck. Of course, Albert Finney is a huge enormous star, a teen heart throb, and a box office draw of considerable magnitude. Oh wait, no he isn’t. But he was in the Bourne movies — maybe some of the magic will rub off.

Next we have a “fortifying the house” montage — think Home Alone meets Straw Dogs only without the humor of the former or the ingenuity of the latter. But hey, Dustin Hoffman was playing a mathematician in Straw Dogs. Everyone knows how badass mathematicians are. (Perhaps a Chaos Theorist might have spotted the flaw in the whole “let’s keep uber hacker Silva in a big glass box controlled by computers” plan.)

(Note that I nowhere mention the wall-to-wall crap that passed for any discussion of computers, hard disks, networks, hacking, or encryption in the story. I’m not trying to hold this movie up to impossibly high standards, I’d just like something vaguely coherent with the right tone that’s fun to watch and has good action scenes.)

Silva’s hired fanatics eventually show up, presumably after Silva paused to scan Bond’s personnel file or Google him or something (as only genius hackers can do). I call them fanatics because they’re willing to fight to the death for a giggling campy lunatic. I guess that competent fanatic mercenaries are hard to come by because these idiots elect to attack Bond’s fortress by — get this — walking through the front gate and fanning out. (Clearly Bond didn’t anticipate just how incompetent Silva’s men would be or he could probably have popped half of them with his dad’s hunting rifle rather than taking out a couple using a far riskier trick involving the DB5.)

I guess the first wave of fanatics lacked radios — they show no signs of coordinating their attack, and presumably Silva’s other hirelings would be demoralized hearing them all die over the air.

I should also mention that the action scenes around the old stone house are a shapeless mess. You don’t know where anyone is or why they’re doing what they’re doing. E.g. the house clearly has an entire upper level which is never put to any tactical purpose; during the fortification montage they build perfectly sized wooden frames to cover the windows (something of a feat of carpentry I thought at the time — wondering why they didn’t spend the time driving down to the nearest village and buying guns and ammo), and the only role they serve is that Bond smashes one of the frames to shoot out of a window later.

Never mind. Silva then arrives in a helicopter with more rent-a-fanatics and ineffectually strafes the place. Bond sends the geriatrics out the secret exit, and they proceed to walk from the sally port to the family chapel while using a flashlight. (Despite the fact that the entire area is quite well lit by a burning house.) Silva sees the flashlight. Anyway, there’s more pursuit, the last two rent-a-fanatics die, everyone ends up in the chapel, Bond kills Silva with a thrown knife (and Bardem manages more hilarious antics while dying), and M dies in Bond’s arms.

Finally there’s a completely unnecessary series of scenes apparently targeted at mentally impaired members of the audience who can’t figure out for themselves (or wait for the next movie to discover) that M will be replaced by Ralph Fiennes (we get several lines of wooden dialog establishing that he is M now, got it?), and that the gorgeous but incompetent* agent who shot Bond is retiring from field work to become M’s secretary and that her name is Moneypenny. That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back.

Note: * Bond says she’s incompetent, repeatedly — it’s a kind of abusive running joke. This is despite the fact that the only thing she did wrong was freeze after accidentally shooting Bond on M’s direct order. Aside from that she appears to be by far the most capable M.I.6 agent we’ve ever seen in any movie other than Bond. For starters, she survived to the end of the movie.

Did I mention that for significant stretches this overlong movie is deadly boring? I noticed Rosanna checking her email during one of the early scenes in Scotland.

It’s pretty clear that the James Bond franchise has entered crisis mode as a consequence of the Bourne movies. (Ghost Protocol probably didn’t help either, and in fact if the Bond franchise wants to imitate better movies, Ghost Protocol and not the Bourne movies should be its touchstone.) Casino Royale was good in part because it abandoned almost all of the typical Bond tropes (except Baccarat) in favor of a personal story of gritty survival and frustrated vengeance. You know, like the Bourne movies. The problem was that it wasn’t really a Bond movie, and it was seen — and treated by its producers — as a reboot of the franchise which then promptly returned to those worn-out tropes, only with a little bit of Bourne garnish.

It’s not like Bond was ever gritty before. Ever seen the Alec Guiness as Le Carré’s George Smiley? Nor even the last word in action movies. Ronin has far better chases in it than any Bond movie (before or since), and Where Eagles Dare is pretty much a better military spy story across the board than any Bond story. Bond movies at their best are a law unto themselves — as a villain you can spend unlimited money on a plot with no chance of making a profit, as a hero you can be badass and never ruin your tuxedo. If the girl you slept with last night gets brutally murdered it makes you really mad, but the next girl will help you forget. You can’t just slather “gritty” fairy dust on stories this ridiculous and make gritty movies — you just get a stupid movie with horribly inconsistent tone.

And that’s what Skyfall is.