(Needless to say, story and finale discussed in detail here)
Not really a big fan of Sam Mendes--thought American Beauty a plodding, watered-down version of Blue Velvet, thought Road to Perdition a pretentious if handsomely shot adaptation of the graphic novel. Mendes has talent, but it's difficult to get a read on him as a filmmaker--there isn't a very distinct personality, visually or emotionally speaking.
Which makes it a pleasure, I suppose, to say Mendes has finally found his metier, as an above-average director of Bond films.
Skyfall is back-to-basics Bond, and yes he--or at least the franchise--has tried this before, tried to breathe life into a tired franchise through radical change, either rebirth or death or resurrection. Here he pretty much does die, shot in the chest and dropped hundreds of feet into what looks like a foot of water (Chuck Jones would have milked a good gag out of that) to disappear apparently forever, apparently and officially deceased.
Nowhere else to go but up, then. The basic premise is that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has emerged from the past and plans to revenge himself on Bond and, through him, on former boss M (Judi Dench)--seems that at one point she had handed Silva over to the enemy, and was tortured for some months; now he feels the need to pay her back the favor, with interest.
Dark and complex stuff, apparently, and Mendes seems to want to inject all this inkiness into his concept of Bond, but what it all really boils down to is that Bond is at war with himself, or a photographic negative of himself--Silva being Bond if Bond were less tough, or sane, or loyal. For the role Bardem dons yet another bad wig, blonde this time, to--what, tell us that his Silva is every bit as badass as Anton Chigurh, perhaps? As a way of parodying Daniel Craig's close-cropped pate? Bond as the epitome of British values while Silva is its perversion down to his Spanish accent, outlandish against the background of clipped vowels?
That's what the spectacular opening sequence racing through the streets and later rooftops of Istanbul must have been all about: Bond betrayed by M, yet unlike Silva running back to be at her side when Britain is in trouble. Both are M's favorite sons, who respond to her stern and at times ruthless ministrations according to their respective mirror-image natures; both love and hate her in roughly equal measure, with equal intensity.
It's not bad. The film's real stars are Roger Deakins, who manages to shoot much of the action in gorgeous amber lighting (Skyfall, Bond's ancestral ruins, looks beautifully barbaric when lit up from within by gasoline fires) and Bardem, who plays giggly brilliant psychopath with genuine relish (do I like this villain better than the one he played in No Country for Old Men? Oh yes--here you have an idea where he's coming from and what's driving him, and the moments when he is tender with M are every bit as ghastly as the moments when he relentlessly stalks her). If I have a complaint it's that they don't really do enough with Bardem's Silva--the man is deadly until he approaches his target, and then his aim goes bad, his luck turns sour, his brain softens to mush. I suppose it had to be; if he was consistently brilliant the movie would have ended at the halfway point, with an eighty minute running time.
Silva's overtures to Bond are fascinating; equally fascinating is Bond's coy response ("What makes you think this is my first time?"). His bluff called, Silva drops the pose, which is a disappointment--I'd have loved to have him persist trying to recruit/seduce Bond, to equate himself with Bond; more, I'd love to have seen Bond tempted however slightly to take the offer ("This is after all my soul brother, in espionage and in hair color"). Join me or joust with me; let's link arms, rise up, slay our spiritual mother--that might have been a more interesting conflict.
But no, Mendes' subversiveness is largely a tease; like Silva approaching M when he approaches radical revisionism of the Bond mythos his aim fails and he falls aside, leaving us with Business as Usual with Big Explosions. Bond may be abused but never revenge the betrayal; he may be enticed but never really seduced; and he may have his heart tugged, but God forbid that it actually break.
A brief sidenote on the women--but then the women being treated as sidenotes already says something about the movie. Dench's M plays a significant role, it's true; it's also true that she's helpless for most of the picture (in chess, she's the king not queen), makes bumbling decisions, ultimately steps aside in favor of yet another male authority figure (was she tired of the role, or did she ask for too much money?). Naomie Harris' Eve is a more active, more entertaining foil to Bond, but hardly gets to bed him; Berenice Marlohe's Severin does bed him, but ends up as punchline to a sadistic joke. Good respectable girl ultimately sits docilely behind desk to play secretary, bad promiscuous girl gets screwed in both senses? Bond politics is as retrograde as ever, only the filmmakers can't use the times and a sense of wicked fun as an excuse anymore (the early Bond films took very little seriously; as a result (I suspect) audiences then and now don't need to take their misogyny seriously).
Is this the greatest Bond flick ever? Calm down; a little perspective is necessary. Skyfall is good, arguably the best recent Bond, but my list of better titles would include Never Say Never for introducing the idea of an aging, worn-out Bond; the original Casino Royale for its sheer anarchic perversity (Orson Welles as Le Chiffre, Woody Allen as one of several in a family of Bonds); On Her Majesty's Secret Service for the moment--carefully prepared for and presented--where Bond does break down, is more emotionally naked than any of his women, ever; and above all Goldfinger, for perfecting the Bond formula on third attempt, a Cock-a-leekie of beautiful girls, supervillain, fantastic gadgets (some of which sport spinning license plates and roll on four wheels), inventive action and droll humor, all in precisely measured amounts and kept in the air, juggled in an intricate choreography.
In fact one might as well drop the other titles and stay with Goldfinger. Not for nothing did Anthony Burgess include the Fleming book in his 99 Novels, his list of the best 20th century fiction; not for nothing did Robert Bresson express admiration. Burgess liked the book, I suspect, partly because the prose was so evocative--a meal of stone crabs with iced pink champagne near the beginning has been known to provoke angry growls from the unwary belly, while the golf that follows manages to turn a monumentally dull game into a thrilling cat-and-mouse competition.
The novel is divided into three parts: "Coincidence;" "Happenstance;" "Enemy Action." Fleming thought of the story as a series of encounters between Bond and Goldfinger involving ever-increasing stakes, an ever-increasing intensity of loathing; and just as Bond comes closer and closer towards Goldfinger--first in a chance encounter (Coincidence), later as an assigned mission (Happenstance), much later as part of an all-or-nothing desperation ploy (Enemy Action)--Goldfinger himself expands and blooms, growing in size from card cheat to SMERSH agent to larger-than-life Bond supervillain. It's one of the most elegant plots I know, unfolding and unpacking like a magician's trick blossom, until what started as a sapling ends up as a mighty redwood, in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud.
There is an embarrassment of riches in the film, from Shirley Bassey wailing the title song over Robert Brownjohn's gold-dipped beauties to Ken Adam's gigantic sets, their bunker-cavern feel connecting them to his work in Dr. Strangelove--another film from the same year that deals with the anxieties of living in a nuclear age. Paul Dehn may not be adapting literature (Burgess might beg to differ) but it's possible he knew of what he wrote--a year later, he would adopt one of John Le Carre's finest novels to the big screen. No, the director Guy Hamilton is not the filmmaker Sam Mendes is, but he needn't be--he's working from Fleming's perfectly structured book, and with the help of Ted Moore (who lensed all of the early Bond films) achieves a crystalline comic-book look that is part adventure, part parody, pretty much all entertainment.
All that said, there are moments when Hamilton transcends his workman's credentials--the aforementioned attacker-in-woman's eye which Bresson so admired, for example; the entire opening struggle, a series of lightning-fast lunges across the hotel room floor that ends with a literally electrifying checkmate (said finale foreshadowing the even grimmer struggle yet to come). Fleming's crude circular saw updated into a memorably cool hi-tech laser--with the even more memorable exchange:
"Do you expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."
There's Harold Sakata's chillingly genial Oddjob, who can work you over with his machine-shop hands like a hunk of taffy while he grinned his infuriating grin. There was the finale, set literally in a fabulous underworld of barred gold (Skyfall with all its lovely locations can't quite come up with a set as awe-inspiring as that vision of auric splendor) with an atomic weapon ticking away in one corner, Bond in another, and--blocking the way like a parked tank--the implacable Oddjob, waiting patiently.
Novel and film follow the classic storytelling structure of introduction-rising action-climax with such smooth and confident grace it takes one's breath away to note how humbly it starts--a game of canasta outside a Miami hotel--and how quickly it ascends to an absurd yet somehow frighteningly convincing scenario: Goldfinger threatening to detonate a nuclear device inside the Federal Bullion Depository of Fort Knox (convincing because Goldfinger--with the shadowy figure of Fleming behind him--had done his research, and apparently knows more about the depository than any other human on Earth).
All this in a running time of about a hundred and ten minutes (compare to Skyfall's one hundred and forty), and lean: no extraneous scenes, no moments of auteurist self-indulgence, no cinematic fat at all.
Goldfinger ends with the threat of an atomic explosion--what other conclusion is possible, in the age of Mutually Assured Destruction? To be fair Dr. No also threatened in a nuclear manner, only reactors don't inspire the kind of gut terror that bombs do, and looking at the bubbling pool in the movie one couldn't help think of (it was a low-budget effort) a tricked-out jacuzzi in the swinging '70s. Worse, after that most ultimate of dooms, it's difficult to imagine what kind of stakes a Bond supervillain might raise, or if there are any stakes left one can raise (Thunderball immediately following Goldfinger solved the problem--kind of--by employing two nuclear devices (which when you think about it is just the same damned thing, done twice)).
One could make the argument that after Goldfinger all succeeding Bond films were redundant, that they could never capture the same precise mix of humor, sex, and action, that Bond could never face so impossible odds and beat them with as much inventive and stylish flair ever again--and one in my book would be right. Goldfinger far as I'm concerned is the apex of the franchise; everything that followed--no matter how talented the people involved, no matter how many Oscar statuettes floated in their wake--is basically downhill.