The durability and the continuing popularity of the James Bond franchise has led to a wide divergence of opinion on each individual film.
Although most 007 fanatics, such as myself, will admit that there have been more than a few duds over the past 50 years, nothing has managed to shake our faith in the franchise.
We bounced back from “Moonraker” and “The Man with the Golden Gun” and even “A View to a Kill.”
The reception for the latest Bond picture, “Skyfall,” is unusual, however, in that the reviews have been just about the best in the history of the series (the highest overall rating since “Goldfinger,” according to the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregating website).
In addition to raving about the film in general, critics have suggested that Javier Bardem’s over-the-top performance as the villain is of such a high calibre that he should be Oscar nominated for it (which would be an unprecedented event for the series — no Bond performer has ever been acknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy).
As a Bond fan since the very beginning — I’m old enough to have seen “Dr. No” in a theater when it opened in this country in 1963 (I was 12!) — I was primed to love “Skyfall,” too, so it saddens me to file a minority report.
I think the 143-minute running time is ridiculously padded, that Bardem is good but no Goldfinger (or Rosa Kleb), and that the increasingly grim tone of the series runs counter to what I loved about the early films.
When the Bond pictures were launched in the 1960s, the comic elements and the absurd overscaling of the sets and the villains were a big part of the movies’ appeal. Sean Connery was a completely convincing man of action — in the field and in any bedroom — but he also knew how to bring a lot of humor to 007.
There were plenty of grimly realistic espionage movies in those days (“The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” being foremost among them) but the adventures of 007 were seen simply as great escapism — fast and funny and exciting (movies in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful “North by Northwest” in 1959).
Bond didn’t really deal with Cold War cases, but rather went after extravagant gangsters and a Mafia-like crime cartel (SPECTRE) that existed outside the US-Soviet conflict. The villains were fun in those first five or six movies because they had nothing to do with our real global political fears in those days.
“Skyfall” has its share of the old style Bond movie humor — particularly in the performance of Ben Whishaw as “Q” and a few amusing nods to the past — but most of it is played very seriously as if it’s an offshoot of the Jason Bourne series. Gone are the great stylized Ken Adam sets and the largely cerebral skills of Connery’s Bond. Instead the villain rules over an ugly, bombed-out, vaguely Eastern European ruin of an island, and Daniel Craig seems to spend hours running and racing motorcycles all over the place.
(The last “Mission Impossible” movie “Ghost Protocol” was more like a vintage James Bond movie than “Skyfall” in terms of its pure fun quotient.)
The final 20 or so minutes of the new Bond are a low point in the series. To “protect” his boss M (Judi Dench) from the revenge-seeking Bardem (who is more Hannibal Lecter than Auric Goldfinger), Bond doesn’t put her in an armed London fortress with dozens of troops guarding her. Instead he takes her to an old manor house in middle-of-nowhere Scotland where his only combat partner is the 80-year-old groundskeeper played by Albert Finney. Whatever strategy inspired this boneheaded plan is never explained and it makes our hero look like a self-destructive dunce.
As a result of this miscalculation, the final act of “Skyfall” comes off like an homage to “Straw Dogs” rather than something out of the James Bond playbook.
I love the fact that this very old series is still so popular — “Skyfall” had already grossed $518.6 million globally before it opened here Friday — but I wish the producers would figure out a way to bring a lighter and swifter approach to the next one.