Skyfall, I have to say, was a weirdly underwhelming experience. After an extended hiatus brought about by financial trouble, the venerable James Bond franchise comes growling back to life, revamping the formula in time for the fifty year anniversary and doing so with apparent triumph. Daniel Craig reprises his well-received Bond persona, the ultimate spy imagined as a posh thug, an Angel of Death sporting the trappings of upper-class luxury, a lascivious Terminator. For all the bold statements of a fresh start that the filmmakers slip into the narrative, with Ben Whishaw’s spry young Q stepping in as belated successor to Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese (among other twisty flourishes), there seems to be far more in the way of continuity than change. The Bourne-inspired freneticism of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace returns, though it trades it some of the po-faced professionalism, instead meshing the adrenaline of the modern action scene to a sort of playful savagery that evokes the storied history of the wider franchise, together with much nodding and winking towards certain staples of the Bond iconography.
All this adds up to what in the final balance is an intensely conservative, very backward-looking action movie. In fact, Skyfall seemed quite hollow, almost uninspired, riding on references to its illustrious predecessors but adding very little to the mix itself. Even its villain is derivative. Don’t get me wrong; Raoul Silva is actually the best part of the movie. The sight of a talented actor discovering better living through evil is almost always fun, and Javier Bardem is so blatantly having the time of his life as the loopy yet tragic cyberterrorist Silva that you can’t help but grin along with him as his murderous, convoluted antics unfold. But though the film mines the rewarding seam of his tragic, darkly Freudian back-story with Judy Dench’s hardy M, this is still an over-familiar villain type; the giggling apostle of small “a” anarchy with broad smiles and cruel eyes. It’s a very entertaining villain type, of course, that’s why it’s so popular at the moment. But the fact that Silva is so obviously retreading the same well-worn path to damnation walked by the villains of multiple recent superhero blockbusters takes some of the impact out of his performance.
To be honest, Skyfall’s devoted homage to the franchise, its sizzling greatest hits reel, only hammers home for me how dated the formula seems to have become, how chained to endlessly recycled pop-cultural fascinations it all is. Staples like the disposable woman (there is a really ethically-dubious liaison around the half-way mark) death as a punch-line, the rarefied luxury-porn of casinos and swanky offices, and the by now utterly tired theme of British post-colonial funk (how many Actually Existing British People are genuinely still angsting over Empire in 2013?) are all present and correct, but between the fancy-pants cinematography, assured acting and decent action, there isn’t much to recommend repeat viewings, nothing that’s going to get on many all-time great movie moments countdowns. Bond is as unlikeable and uninteresting a character as ever; the film delves into his rarely-mentioned back-story as an aristocratic orphan to try and humanise him, and his abrasively affectionate relationship with M is played up, but this incarnation is too dark and too smug to be a true hero, too brutalised to be a fantasy character, and too simplistic to be interesting as a compromised antihero.
And yet, Skyfall has made Bond history and cracked a billion at the box-office. However tired it seems to me, it’s obviously resonated with a lot of people, or at least entertained the hell out of them, and it deserves credit for that. Perhaps there is a pent-up hunger for more of a well-regarded brand after the extended pause? Perhaps a recession-boosted craving for pop cultural nostalgia is to blame? Maybe by looking both backwards and sideways so relentlessly, while providing just enough sound and fury to let the audience get their action jollies, Skyfall has found in Craig’s Bond the hero the people need right now?
Of course, there are the duller explanations of the rising ticket price and the marketing blitz. But still, Mendes and crew have managed to take something so seemingly stale and serve it up as something fresh. Whether this trick is going to keep working for future instalments remains to be seen.