I’m willing to bet the most popular comment you’ve heard about Skyfall so far is that it was “not as good as Casino.”
Perfect though Daniel Craig may be as Bond, at this point he and the franchise appear to be suffering from a condition that may fairly be called the “agony of success.” Since 2005’s incredible Casino Royale, Craig and the pair of subsequent directors he’s been with since have worked in its deservedly intimidating shadow. Casino's own director, Martin Campbell, himself never recovered. Hailed as an invigorating visionary, he was saddled with impossible projects like making Green Lantern cool and accessible and resurrecting Mel Gibson’s action career with Edge of Darkness. And he failed somewhat miserably at both.
After the lukewarm, convoluted, and strangely forgettable Quantum of Solace disappointed so many, veteran Bond producer Barbara Broccoli (daughter of legendary original Bond producer Albert Broccoli) appears to have encouraged a “back to basics” approach with Skyfall. The plot is trite and familiar, the pacing is relatively leisurely, the characters are easily identifiable, and generally nothing is too confusing (although sometimes left deliberately unclear).
Director Sam Mendes gives us a crisp, impressive, and largely inoffensive action product, coupled with a deliberate but cautiously subdued effort at humanizing and psychologizing James himself. My favorite reviewer, Tom Carson at GQ, really dumped on the idea that James Bond should be written with any measure of emotion:
Who the hell wants James Bond to have a psychology?
…[Bond’s] whole pop-culture function defines the difference between identification and projection. We always wanted to act like him, sure; who wouldn’t? But we never wanted to be him, because there was no “him” to be.
While I find this to be a truly interesting excuse for keeping lowbrow entertainment lowbrow, I think after 22 installments and a half-dozen subtle variations on pure maleness, the need to keep Bond mysterious (read: one-dimensional) has long since evaporated. I’m not suggesting Bond go emo or anything, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a glimpse into who he is, where he came from, and what’s going on behind such an impossibly cool exterior. So I appreciated even the somewhat superficial attempts at depth we get here, like M being kind of a surrogate mother and the climactic violence at the end serving as cathartic release from vague “unresolved childhood trauma.” Or whatever.
The cast is so perfect, one wonders if anything enjoyable about the film would survive without them. Aside from the credible chemistry we see between Craig and Judi Dench, Javier Bardem has the time of his life playing the “malevolent homosexual” villain, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else anyone pulling off something so politically incorrect. Bérénice Marlohe is also excellent, exuding melancholy and reluctant beauty.
The film is competent and fun, and suffers from no shortage of great moments. At the same time, we’re not given even the mere pretense of real franchise/genre innovation here, and none of it feels very fresh. After all, “freshness” was what made everyone love Casino so much. In other words, what you’re hearing is indeed true: Skyfall isn’t half the movie Casino was. But on its own merits, the film is still quite good.