The James Bond movie franchise turns 50 this year and continues with Daniel Craig in the title role. But to hear everybody in “Skyfall’’ debate whether, after 23 movies, James is now too long in the tooth for glamorous spy craft — the leaping onto speeding trains, the sneaking up behind a sexy lady as she showers — you would think the star of this movie is Methuselah. “Skyfall’’ refers to James’s boyhood manor. But, really, it’s what Chicken Little calls his action thriller, not 007.
At almost 2½ hours, the movie plays like a long, familiar family conversation: Should we put dad in a home or not? This idea of retirement comes up over and over, and it does so at the expense of the actual fun of these movies: their exaggerated interpretation of international politics — warlords, terrorists, greedy pigs, insane demands, the pathological need of sex to be had.
“Skyfall,’’ which has a midnight showing tonight at the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theaters in Reading and Natick, doesn’t feature much of any of that. The movie gives us Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an evil former agent who’s still mad about his treatment by MI6 and its ruthless director, M (Judi Dench). He wants the British intelligence agency in general and M in particular to suffer, so he steals a file with the names of NATO field operatives and begins to blow their cover, one mission at a time. He also has a computer virus obliterate the headquarters and flash ominous messages on M’s laptop. Obviously, she needs her precious 007 to stop the destruction. But before he can begin, James’s fitness for work is questioned. He was presumed dead after the film’s opening sequences and returns to London a drunken wreck. The security breach and James’s resurrection prompt the new intelligence and security chairman, Gareth Malloy (Ralph Fiennes), to question whether it’s time to put both the spy and his boss out to pasture. It’s the dignified thing to do, Malloy tells M. “Oh, to hell with dignity,’’ she spits, Denchly.
These are truly tedious stakes for an action movie. The franchise isn’t worried about world safety. It’s fretting over whether to start wearing Depends. After more than an hour, Silva reveals himself, among the vivid brutalist ruins of Japan’s deserted Hashima Island. The combination of Bardem’s slabby handsomeness and his newly yellow hair and orange eyebrows achieves unsightly alchemy: He’s Frankenstein’s Ken doll. Silva ties James up to a chair and proceeds to fondle, among other parts, his Adam’s apple. It’s quite a moment, one that both deliberately echoes a grisly torture sequence in “Casino Royale’’ (a much livelier evening at the movies, with Craig’s maiden outing as Bond) and implies the character’s bisexuality. Silva is flirting with Bond, and, sadly, “Skyfall’’ is flirting with us. Silva brings bond to Hashima Island not for sex, but to lecture him about what dinosaurs they all are — Bond, M, the agency, the series, their technology, their jet-set approach to intelligence.
The script is credited to John Logan and two regular Bond screenwriters, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. The film’s been directed by Sam Mendes, an Englishman with a high style that can either mask mediocre material (“American Beauty’’) or find unexpected moral art in familiar subject matter (the first Gulf war in “Jarhead’’). I don’t know what Mendes believed he could bring to the series that would have freed it from all that it’s obligated to do. It seems as if Silva’s contempt for M — his vengeance is like that of a spurned child — and her discovery of an orphaned James might push the film into strange psychological territory, that M might be some rethinking of the manipulator Angela Lansbury played in “The Manchurian Candidate,’’ that the “M’’ might stand, sardonically, for “Mommy.’’ But the misogyny in this movie doesn’t extend that far. It’s still mostly women as bait, screw-ups, and exercise.
Watching the purposefulness of this movie, the way Mendes argues for conversation and atmosphere over conventional, incoherently assembled chases and fights, I realized I was frustrated. “Skyfall’’ does every single thing these movies have to do (Bond’s last-name/full-name introduction, the shaking of the martini, the sport cars and sport sex; the stunts, deployment of gadgets, and camped-up villainy), and there’s little Mendes can do to enliven the familiarity. He has a set of instructions and straying too far from them risks rearranging an entire room when your assignment was simply to remove a chair. Once James finds himself behind the wheel of an Aston Martin, Silva reveals his detachable jaw, and the equipment specialist, Q, and the executive assistant, Moneypenny, are reintroduced to the series, the movie’s self-defensiveness has atrophied into the kind of nostalgia that calls into question going on with this enterprise at all. Here we go again.
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.