Note this piece contains spoilers. Do not read on if you have not yet seen "Skyfall."
Thanks to a friend who is a judge for the Oscars, we sat by the fireside last night and watched a judges' DVD edition of Skyfall, the latest of the long-running James Bond franchise. The DVD begins with the usual FBI warnings about not infringing the copyrights and all that. But then this Oscar-judges' version carried yet another instruction: We were ordered to cut the DVD in half after watching it. I naturally assumed that this was in order to preclude its entering the black market of cinema rip-offs that deprive producers of their legitimate revenues.
Having now seen Skyfall however, it seems equally likely that someone sneaked that admonition onto the DVD as an act of mercy, intended to squelch any further distribution and thereby spare others the nearly two-and-a-half hours of lamentable nonsense that ensues.
For those of us who missed that pre-movie hint of what was to follow, we surely should have picked up a strong premonition when, in an early scene between "M" (played once again by Judy Dench in a spiritless walkthrough) and "007" (played once again by Daniel Craig whose mirthless mein is mistaken for acting), the two speculate about whether one or the other or both may be over the hill. You already know by now what my judgment would be on that question, but to be (almost) fair, let's let the film offer its own opinion.
During the film's patented opening scenes of high-wire derring-do, Bond is apparently killed. But after a brief spell during which all presume Bond is dead (yeah, right), he reappears and applies for his old job back again. Unfortunately for us movie-viewers, he is granted a reinstatement audition. Even more unfortunately (but with a foreshadowing that should have warned us to slice up the DVD right then and there), he fails virtually every aspect of the test: physical prowess, psychological acuity, marksmanship, and so on. But like the producers of Skyfall who must certainly have realized they had a loser on their hands no matter how much script doctoring was done, "M" suppresses Bond's failing scores and reinstates him in a do-or-die role to save what's left of the British Empire from a Bad Guy.
Unfortunately, Bad Guy Raoul Silva (played to/over the hilt by Javier Bardem) appears to have wandered onto the wrong set at the movie lot, as he was surely intended to play the role of the Joker in a new episode of Batman. While there has never been anything subtle about the antagonists in the James Bond series, this Silva character owed more to the comics than to the classic characters created by Ian Fleming. Couldn't they at least have given him a ridiculous name, like Jaws or Goldfinger or Dr. No or Oddjob? Raoul Silva? Yeeesh.
For nearly an hour, nothing happens. The cinematography is unquestionably dazzling, with over-the-top use of multiple images and reflections thanks to a set/world in which all buildings are made of nothing but plate glass. But our small group of seasoned film buffs had long-since begun casting sidelong glances at each other and eventually sotto voce comments ("Am I missing something? Is anything going on here?") Absent a plot, the filmmakers did their damndest to make the most of glittery images and vehicle antics left over from Fast and Furious outtakes, but nothing ever added up to anything. Just one long, increasingly boring display of moviemaking tricks, without a hint of plot or drama or character to be had anywhere. I could only imagine poor Ian Fleming turning over in his grave.
Near the end, the film makes a desperate stab at resurrecting the old magic of Fleming's James Bond by dusting off his iconic Aston-Martin DB5 with all the sly gimmicks we loved when it first appeared in Goldfinger so very long ago (e.g., machine guns under the headlights, oil dispensers at the rear to foil pursuers' pursuit). As it turns out, the car is of negligible value as a weapon for "007" in Skyfall but its fate is entirely symbolic. The penultimate verdict on the film and perhaps the Bond franchise is rendered when the Bad Guy blows that magnificent Aston-Martin to smithereens.
The ultimate verdict, however, comes shortly thereafter. In a scene near the end which, in prior episodes, would have showed Bond warming up the foreplay with an unthinkably seductive sex kitten, we see him cradling the wrinkly face of a 70-something "M" who is displaying excellent judgment by dying in his arms and thereby sparing herself the humiliation of appearing in any further faux-Fleming films.
It must be admitted that some of us were first imprinted with James Bond 007 over 50 years ago after hearing that Fleming was JFK's favorite author. We reveled in the plot of a well-crafted mystery, the drive of a strong narrative, the delight of clever acting instead of clichéd special effects, and a winsome delight in self-mockery ("Octopussy"???) Because of the indisputable success of Skyfall at the box office and the approval of some critics whom I can only assume are half my age, it seems clear that the Bond brand-name is still capable of spinning the turnstiles irrespective of a film's relevance to Ian Fleming's rather more sophisticated legacy. And since that turnstile-spinning, rather than the spinning of a wonderful tale, seems to be the order of the Hollywood day, I wish them well and bid them adieu. That vintage DB5, "M," and I are outta here forever.