(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 much of a 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 the producers have tried to breathe life into the tired franchise before, via revamp (the preferred term nowadays being 'reboot') or untimely demise. Here Bond pretty much does die, shot in the chest and dropped hundreds of feet into what looks like an inch of water (Chuck Jones would have milked that setup to, well, death).
Nowhere to go but up, then. The basic premise is that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has emerged from the service's shadowed past to revenge himself on Bond and, through him, former boss M (Judi Dench)--seems she once surrendered Silva to the enemy, who tortured him for months; now he feels the need to pay her back the favor, with interest.
Dark and complex stuff which Mendes seems to want to incorporate into his concept of Bond. Basically Bond is at war with himself or a photographic negative of himself, Silva being a less tough, less loyal, less sane Bond. Both are (were) M's favorite sons; both responded to her stern ministrations, betrayal included, according to their respective natures. Both love and hate her in equal measure, with equal intensity.
For the role Bardem dons yet another bad wig, blonde this time --a signal that Silva is every bit as badass as Anton Chigurh, perhaps? A comic response to Daniel Craig's close-cropped pate? Bond as the embodiment of British values with Silva its inversion, his flowing Spanish accent an affront against all those precisely clipped vowels?
It's not bad. The film's real stars are Roger Deakins' gorgeous amber lighting (Skyfall, Bond's ancestral ruins, looks like a beautifully barbaric heap of stones, lit up from within by out-of-control gasoline fires) and Bardem's giggly brilliant psychopath (do I like him better than Chigurh in No Country for Old Men? Sure; here you know what's eating him up inside--can't help but react with revulsion when he's suddenly all tenderness towards M, caressing her like the mother she never was). If I have a complaint it's that they don't do enough with Silva--the man is deadly until he nears his target, then his aim goes bad, his luck turns sour, his brains soften into mush. I suppose it's inevitable, even necessary: if he were consistently brilliant the movie would be over in forty minutes, tops, with M's and Bond's heads on pikes.
Silva's overtures to Bond are fascinating; equally fascinating are Bond's coy replies ("What makes you think this is my first time?"). His bluff called Silva drops the pose, which is a disappointment--I'd loved to see him persist; more, I'd love to see Bond tempted. "Join me or joust with me; link arms to slay our spiritual matriarch"--that might have been a more interesting conflict.
But no, Mendes' subversion is a tease; like Silva nearing his target Mendes' aim fails and he flails about, leaving us with Business as Usual and the Occasional Big Explosion. Bond may be abused but will never seek vengeance (at least not against the Crown); he may be enticed but will never be seduced; he may have his heartstrings tugged, but God forbid that it actually break.
A brief sidenote on the women--but the fact that the women are sidenotes already says something. Dench's M plays a significant role, true; 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 Dench tired of the role, or did she ask for too much money?). Naomie Harris' Eve is a more entertaining foil to Bond, but doesn't get to bed him; Berenice Marlohe's Severin does bed him, but ends up as punchline to a sadistic joke. Good girl settles docilely behind secretarial desk, bad girl gets screwed in both senses? Bond politics are as retrograde as ever, only nowadays the filmmakers can't use the times as an excuse anymore--actually you're not sure what possible excuse they can offer, or if they have any to offer at all...
Is this the greatest Bond flick ever? Settle down; a little perspective might help. Skyfall is arguably the best recent Bond, but my list of preferred titles would include Never Say Never (for the concept of an aging, worn-out Bond); the original Casino Royale (for sheer anarchic perversity--John Huston and Val Guest as two of six directors; Orson Welles as Le Chiffre (can you imagine if they made him director?), Woody Allen as Bond's younger misfit brother); On Her Majesty's Secret Service (for the moment when Bond does break down, leaving him more emotionally naked than any of his women ever were or could be); and above all Goldfinger (for achieving Bondian perfection on the third attempt).
In fact one might as well drop the other titles and stay with the gold standard. Anthony Burgess included the seventh Bond book in 99 Novels, his list of the best 20th-century fiction; Robert Bresson confessed to being a fan of the film. Burgess liked the novel, I suspect, because the prose is so evocative--a meal of stone crabs topped by melted butter washed down with iced pink champagne inspires ravenous growls from the unwary belly; a wagered game of golf turns 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 where the stakes grow ever larger, the loathing between them ever more intense; as Bond approaches--first a chance encounter (Coincidence), later an assigned mission (Happenstance), much later an all-or-nothing desperation ploy (Enemy Action)--Goldfinger himself expands in size from card cheat to SMERSH agent to larger-than-life Bond supervillain. It's one of the most elegant plots I know, a magician's trick sapling unfolding and unpacking to bloom into a mighty redwood, in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud.
There's an embarrassment of riches here, from Shirley Bassey's rendition of the title song to Robert Brownjohn's gold-dipped beauties to Ken Adam's gigantic sets, their bunker-cavern feel recalling his work in Dr. Strangelove--another film from the same year that dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age. Screenwriter Paul Dehn may not be adapting literature (though Burgess might beg to differ) but possibly Dehn knew of what he wrote--a year later, he would adopt one of John Le Carre's finest novels to the big screen. The director Guy Hamilton isn't in the same caliber as Sam Mendes, but he doesn't need to be--he's working from Fleming's perfectly structured book, and with the help of Ted Moore (who lensed all the early Bonds) achieves a bright-lit comic-book look that is part adventure, part parody, pretty much all entertainment.
That said, there are moments when Hamilton transcends his craftsman's credentials--the attacker-reflected-in-the-woman's-eye shot which Bresson so admired, for example. The opening skirmish is a series of lightning-fast lunges across the hotel room floor that ends in a literally electrifying checkmate (said ending foreshadowing the grimmer, even bigger finale). Fleming's crude circular saw is upgraded into a memorably cool laser, with the even more memorable exchange:
"Do you expect me to talk?"
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"
Harold Sakata's chillingly genial Oddjob works you over with his machine-shop hands, all the while grinning his infuriating grin. The film's climax is set in a fabulous underworld of barred gold (Skyfall for all its exotic locations couldn't top that vision of auric splendor), an atomic weapon ticking away in one corner, Bond standing in another, and--planted in the middle like a parked tank--implacable Oddjob, blocking Bond's way.
All this unfolding at a lean hundred and ten minutes (Skyfall was a distended one hundred and forty): no extraneous fat, no moment of auteurist self-indulgence in sight.
Goldfinger ends with the threat of atomic Armageddon--what other conclusion is possible, in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction? To be fair Dr. No also threatened nuclear disaster, only reactors don't inspire fear the way bombs do, and looking at the boiling bubbling pool that climaxed that first Bond film one couldn't help think of (it was a low-budget effort) a tricked-out jacuzzi from the swinging '70s. Worse, after this most ultimate of dooms it's difficult to imagine what stakes a Bond supervillain might raise next, or if there were any stakes left one can raise (Thunderball, which followed Goldfinger, employed two nuclear devices--which when you think about it is just the same damned thing, twice).
One could make the argument that after Goldfinger all succeeding Bond films were redundant; that they could never recapture the same mix of humor, sex, and action; that Bond could never face such impossible odds and beat them with as much invention and stylish flair ever again--and in my book one 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.