Mendes opens things up. There are three exquisite set pieces, one in MI6’s vast new underground lair that — austerity measures be damned — features a chic interrogation hangar with a holding tank that Bardem fills with the high-minded arrogance of Hannibal Lecter and the musky perversion of his serial killer in “No Country for Old Men.” Another is that Hashima Island interlude. The last is the film’s climax, which has been orchestrated in and around the grand old Skyfall manse in the Scottish Highlands. Nearly every Bond movie has fabulous exterior sequences. The ones in Skyfall are the first to achieve theatricality.
Mostly this is the result of ingenious art direction and production design, but it’s also a result of the manner in which the camera and editing resist carving up all that open space. As much as he can, Mendes wants you to appreciate the scale. These are sublime locations, particularly the last two. Why waste them in a barrage of technical excess? I would love to see them again. That, of course, would mean watching this movie a second time, and there’s not enough here to make that worth doing, even on HBO at 2 a.m.
Mendes conducts things with such deliberateness and precision that often all you have is clockwork. There might be people excited by trains that pull into the station on time, but that’s the least a good rail system can provide. Mendes meets expectations and visually exceeds them, but I didn’t have much fun at “Skyfall.” A kind of incompetence is the engine that keeps the franchise going. Professionalism should come more from MI6 than the filmmaking, per se, and all you notice with “Skyfall” is the professionalism.
This is especially true of Craig, who after three movies actually does look ready to retire. He has an actor’s dramatic heft, but, with the exception of “Casino Royale,” these movies have given him very little to act, which means you need a star with the kind of shameless, unembarrassed charisma that Craig — unlike Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan — might be too self-consciously talented to deploy. “Casino Royale” gave him a psychology to play. Here, he’s best as a kind of solemn fashion model, leaping from an excavator into the car of a moving train, stopping only to adjust the cuff of his shirt. Craig is either playing a man who’s psychologically firewalled or he’s layered a lot of posing and grave expressions into a sophisticated illusion of instinct — Richard Burton not drunk enough to let loose.
For all of “Skyfall,” I thought about the most recent “Mission: Impossible” — “Ghost Protocol” — a movie that didn’t need to exist and was seemingly delighted by its own extravagance. That movie had a star who loves, loves, loves being himself and a director who prizes coherence and was spared the assorted hassles that come with being responsible for a half-century-old franchise. The “Mission: Impossible” movies, as well as the “Bourne” films, a generous handful of television series, and almost anything starring Jason Statham, breathe the cultural oxygen of the Bond franchise without having to contend with or maintain its legacy. What was special about these movies’ ideas of international politics and sexual indecorousness 40 and 50 years ago feels standard now; some of that specialty, like Bond’s suaveness (Tom Ford made the excellent menswear), has a dated allure.
We’ve absorbed these movies so fully that there’s almost nothing left for them to say. The marketplace demands that the franchise exist, and with that comes a kind of pressure not to trash things too much. This means James Bond could never have been a woman or have sex with a man, that he must continue to battle craggy foes, that he’ll be more beholden now to the demands of the ratings board than he was even a decade ago (like many of its predecessors, the movie is PG-13, but this time the decorum is depressing), that he’ll never fully live in the 21st century because, this series seems to say, there’s something undignified about how we live now. But if these movies are ever to matter again, their makers have to be willing to say to hell with dignity.