Skyfall

 

Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw 12A cert, general release, 143 min

It has its moments, but there’s too much product placement in Skyfall, writes DONALD CLARKE

LET’S CALL IT “Operation Restore Good Will”. After promising to reinvent James Bond for decades, the good people at Eon Films finally delivered with Casino Royale. The protagonist was a bit nastier. The action was more robust. Some layers of camp were scraped away. Then they squandered all those warm feelings with the baffling catastrophe that was Quantum of Solace.

Arriving in time for the 50th anniversary of the 007 franchise, Skyfall proves to be a marked improvement on its chaotic predecessor. This is not saying a great deal. Two and a half hours of pigs dancing to Boyzone would have managed that unimpressive feat. But the film does have a sweep and a momentum that suggests the project is back on course.

Occasionally coming across like a celebratory Christmas special – bits of previous episodes are cut and pasted randomly into the action – Skyfall never quite coalesces into grown-up entertainment. We should, however, be thankful for the small mercies on display.

Setting out his golden-jubilee mindset, Sam Mendes – the most lauded director yet to helm an 007 movie – begins the 23rd episode with a pretty convincing motorbike chase that, somewhat bizarrely, mutates into a near line-by-line retread of a Bond classic from the late 1960s.

A great deal of passable plot-heavy hokum then ensues. It seems that a maniac has engineered the theft of details concerning the identity of various MI6 agents and intends to release the information gradually on the internet. Some ancient connection with Judi Dench’s still-impressive M appears to be at the core of the conspiracy. Before too long, Daniel Craig’s classless Bond is back to his old tricks: sleazing up to damsels, murdering foreigners, drinking to excess.

One senses a conflict in Mendes’s attitude to the great traditions of Ian Fleming’s imperial thug. He enjoys the clothes (how does James still find so many opportunities to wear a dinner jacket?), the exotic locations (a smooth fight is backlit by Shanghai’s neon signage) and the massive conflagrations (though a tube train crash is poorly rendered). But neither Mendes nor his writers seems quite so happy with the gruesome, dated notion of the “Bond girl”: the turns by Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe are so perfunctory they’re hardly worth bothering with.

One presumes Mendes was stuck with the revolting levels of product placement. The argument that Fleming started this game doesn’t quite hold up. That posh writer mentioned specific brands as a way of fleshing out the Etonion spy’s taste for luxurious living in a time of austerity, not because he had entered into sponsorship deals.

Moreover, though Fleming might have approved of this Bond’s conspicuously highlighted choice of malt whiskey, he would turn in his grave to see him shoot the product back like a dose of cough medicine (or some awful American spirit).

Aspects of Javier Bardem’s undeniably entertaining performance as the deranged villain are more troubling still. Can Mendes really believe that, having gone through the full circle, it is now acceptable to portray predatory homosexuality as a symptom of criminal megalomania? When, having tied Bond to a chair, Javier begins fondling the agent’s nipples, one can’t help but think of the extravagantly dressed gays that used to molest Robin Askwith in 1970s Confessions films.

So, Skyfall abounds with bum notes and unfortunate compromises. But Mendes has found many fresh things to do with this dusty old machine. The relationship between M and Bond is as nuanced as any interactions in the history of the franchise. The efforts to flesh out 007’s background open the character out without annihilating the mystique.

Then there’s the bizarre, overstretched denouement in the Scottish highlands. We expected many things. But we didn’t anticipate the film closing with an amalgam of Withnail and I and Home Alone.

Dear, dear. Whatever next?