Is there anything more pathetic than an unsexy James Bond movie? That’s exactly what moviegoers are getting this weekend when Skyfall, the twenty-third entry in the long-running screen adventures of the dashing secret agent immortalized in Ian Fleming’s spy novels, arrives in American theaters. Helmed with lugubrious, hired-gun listlessness by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), the latest 007 yarn, the first since 2008′s Quantum of Solace, aims to burrow deeper into its hero’s mind and finds a pop-psych blank. The only thing it generates well is not thrills or titillation, but impatience.
It’s been six years since Daniel Craig, the sixth actor who has taken on Bond, revitalized the franchise with his brusque, defiantly gritty take on the character. Back then, purists carped about the Layer Cake star’s blonde locks and lack of suave refinement, but I was sold on this stony-faced Englishman with the brawler’s physique and steely baby blues from the get-go. He brought a welcome vulnerability that added depth and nuance to this martini aficionado’s rough-around-the-edges behavior. But seeing Craig now, sleepwalking through Skyfall, I see a performer who hasn’t figured out that there’s a very thin line between portraying weariness onscreen with just going through the motions. His conviction is MIA.
You can tell Bond’s in sore need of some vacation time. In Skyfall’s Turkey-set opening sequence, he relentlessly pursues a slippery contractor who has gotten his hands on a computer file containing the names of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations. Identity, Mendes asserts, is a vital theme here, but the by-the-numbers chase that ensues once Bond and his colleague Eve (Naomie Harris) find the hitmanhitman lacks a distinctive personality, and veteran Stuart Baird’s choppy editing doesn’t help matters. Leave it to Mendes to make a rooftop motorcycle sequence feel boring. It all ends with Bond and the baddie duking it out atop a moving train. Eve warns M (Judi Dench, back for more), with whom she’s communicating on speaker, that she doesn’t have a clean shot of the target. Her boss tells her to fire, and Eve does, hitting Bond instead.
Cue the somber, gallows-imagery-heavy title sequence, which elicited a little hope from yours truly that Mendes, who is working from a screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, will stray from formula enough to inject some vitality into a familiar movie icon. But he doesn’t. Bond, presumed dead, does resurface several months later (he did have a chance to get some R and R, after all), but the friendly-fire incident has left him disillusioned (yet still determined to find the source of this massive intelligence breach), and his funk turns Skyfall into a glum, tedious slog.
I kept asking myself, when is this 007 movie going to get started? M’s dilemma, in which she faces an involuntary early retirement from Her Majesty’s secret service because of her agency’s intelligence failure, is initially promising, because it gives Dench more to do than usual in this role, but her storyline rarely goes beyond a bureaucratic problem-solving excursion, and when it finally does become interesting, she gets stuck playing second fiddle to Bond’s passionless soul-searching.
All roads lead to Silva, the shadowy figure intent on dismantling British intelligence, but Mendes takes well over an hour to introduce its flamboyant villain. How flamboyant? He wears a canary-yellow suit, sports a Walter Mercado hairdo, and delivers some tasty one-liners. Javier Bardem, essentially giving us a campy variation on his unstoppable No Country for Old Men sociopath, is having a ball letting his hair down, but in the context of this film, his lively insouciance just makes the perfunctory dullness of everything else stand in stark contrast. The scene where he and Bond first meet face to face is spiked with homoerotic banter, but after teasing us with the possibilities of Bardem’s fabulous terrorist, Mendes returns to business as usual, this piquant diversion reflected in his rearview mirror, and Silva devolves into just another sadistic queen with Hannibal Lecter envy. Bardem’s presence in character ultimately feels like an afterthought, a colorful addition to Skyfall’s limp narrative.
You keep waiting for Bond to get his mojo back, and the same can be said for Skyfall. Not even a cameo by a beloved piece of machinery from the early days can make up for Craig and Mendes’ battle fatigue. Next to Brad Bird’s galvanizing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Mendes’ plodding, lazily plotted brand of espionage feels especially anemic. At just under two and a half hours, it plays like an endless setup to a payoff that never comes. At the center is a nearly catatonic Craig, and there’s nothing sadder than seeing this once-exciting talent phoning it in. Without a compelling central figure, viewers are left with a mechanical tale of death and retribution that’s distressingly devoid of both suspense and glamour. In the world of James Bond, the only stiff thing in sight (that can be shown onscreen) ought to be the drinks, and Mendes has concocted a weak cocktail. Sorry, Skyfall, but you bored the living daylights out of me.
For a more successful depiction of career rebirth, check out the return of the newly buzz-heavy documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which premieres this Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque following a brief run at area multiplexes back in September. Here’s hoping the story of Rodriguez, the heretofore little-known, Detroit-born folk-rock artist whose American dream was alive and well in South Africa, finds the audience it so richly deserves.
A labor of love for young Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, Sugar Man unfolds like the most genial of detective stories. Stephen Segerman, the owner of a Cape Town record store and a longtime fan, narrates how Rodriguez’s music turned the long-haired singer into a rebel icon for his country’s anti-apartheid youth. How popular was his 1970 album Cold Fact? The government had it banned, and it confiscated and scratched every copy it could find. Through the years, Segerman wondered about his reclusive American idol and whether the rumors about his death by setting himself on fire onstage were true.
The sad truth is, until the late nineties, Rodriguez (born Sixto Diaz Rodriguez to Mexican immigrants) had no idea how influential a figure he’d been in South Africa. His two albums were flops in the States, and he eventually receded into obscurity, embarking on a career in construction. He is, however, very much alive. Looking like the love child of Bob Dylan and José Feliciano, Rodriguez is not the most eloquent of subjects, but Bendjelloul still captures the man’s salt-of-the-earth goodness with gentle acuity. In our first glimpse of present-day Rodriguez, now 70, we stare from the outside as he opens a window and smiles at the camera for several seconds, still wearing those dark sunglasses.
Granted, Bendjelloul’s portrayal could have been more exhaustive. Sugar Man omits several key events in Rodriguez’s life, such as his Australian tour in the late seventies, and even though Bendjelloul does attempt to ascertain where all the money from his record sales went, we never get a clear answer as to what happened to all of it. (Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant bristles at Benjelloul when the filmmaker asks him that very question.)
What does come through is a sense of Rodriguez’s vindication, one driven, not by ego, but by an idealistic belief in having your artistic voice validated by a people that genuinely identify with what you have to say. Few sights in any nonfiction release this year are as satisfying as the home video footage of Rodriguez’s first performance in front of thousands of South African admirers. Searching for Sugar Man is inspirational in all the right places. It’s my kind of feel-good movie.