After the latest offering from the Bond series, one could be forgiven for disowning the franchise and pledging your allegiance to Bourne, or Jack Bauer, even Johnny English. After the gritty and punchy panache of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace soured the expectant faces of Bond fans with lightning-fast speed. A dull plot, an overwhelmed director and a rubbish theme song placed the Daniel Craig era in jeopardy. Another misstep by the filmmakers, and the blonde Bond could easily go the way of Dalton… or, God forbid, George Lazenby.
With the appointment of Sam Mendes as the man to direct the 23rd film, it was clear that Skyfall was an attempt at a statement – a return to traditional English directing stock. As Quantum’s Marc Forster scurried back to the Swiss mountains from whence he came, it was not too unreasonable to think that Mendes could offer the franchise the steady hand it needed. But not too steady.
From the off, this Bond film trumps its predecessor in almost every way. As Craig pops into frame with a blast of trumpets, Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins seem totally at home behind the camera. The third Bond in a row to feature a rooftop chase in the first ten minutes, any fears of a formulaic approach are quickly dashed. This pre-credits sequence is visually delicious, patting down the earth on the dull and lethargic style of Quantum. A sequence on a speeding train strains the suspension of disbelief almost to breaking point, but this is by no means a criticism of a series which pushed audience’s imaginations to the maximum in the past.
Adele’s Skyfall is no platnium-selling single, but is definitively Bond. While reaching for the heights of Shirley Bassey, Skyfall falls short, landing instead in the late 90s region of Sheryl Crowe’s Tomorrow Never Dies and Garbage’s The World is Not Enough. This is the first Bond song to reach the UK No. 1 slot, perhaps a reflection of Adele’s popularity more so than the quality of the song.
While burdened with much more dialogue than previous films, Skyfall powers along at the speed of a juggernaut, and with as much subtlety. From London, to Turkey, to Shanghai and back again, Bond is sent to retrieve a list of undercover agents who are being systematically outed on Youtube. The trail leads him to Macau, to a group of cyber-terrorists with a grudge against MI6, and Judi Dench’s M in particular.
Dench’s portrayal of Bond’s icy boss makes her the only Bond girl worth watching in Skyfall. Since the introduction of her character in Goldeneye, Dench has deftly developed into a surrogate mother figure for Bond. Increasingly harried and hassled by the men upstairs, this is M’s meatiest role to date, and thankfully allows Dench to display her acting chops to their full potential. Ralph Fiennes is included in a gem of a role, which leaves Bond fans salivating at the thought of more to come from him.
The star of the show, toppling even Craig, is Javier Bardem in the role of disenfranchised MI6 agent Raoul Silva. Silva is by far the creepiest Bond villains of the modern era, painting an ugly picture of a derangement and delusion man. Silva feels bitterly betrayed by M, blaming her for his fall from grace, and his wonderfully grotesque deformity (gasps all around!). Silva’s beautiful irony is his mockery of Bond and M’s relationship, referring to her as “Mummy” throughout the film. What is patently obvious is Silva’s longing for a filial relationship with her, he himself resents the closeness he can see between 007 and his boss – it was a closeness Silva believes he once experienced.
Caged in a scene reminiscent of the Lector/Clarice sequences in Silence of the Lambs, Bardem is superbly nuanced and understated. He balances with considerable skill the contradiction of the Bond villain – in control, yet a total maniac. He’s also awarded several great comic moments and quips, which are (in most cases) genuinely funny.
Craig performs well, ever the predictable scowler, but with quite a few more zingers thrown into his script. For the first time in a Craig film, we feel we can totally trust Bond, and have confidence in his abilities as the super-suave secret agent.
By no means is Skyfall a perfect film. A plot twist towards the end pits Bond, M and Albert Finney against a gang of nameless henchmen in a Scottish country home (the titular Skyfall). This feels like a lazy Wild West device, and is a far cry from the lavish and jaw-dropping visuals of previous films. Albert Finney’s role as the gun-toting old groundskeeper feels odd, as if we’ve just stumbled into a scene from Hot Fuzz. The same can be said for Ben Wishaw’s Q, who now sports wind-swept curls and retro spectacles. He spends most of his time looking hipster, tapping at keyboards and delivering smug one-liners. At one point he tells 007 “I suppose you were expecting an exploding pen. We don’t really go in for that stuff nowadays.” Boo hiss!
Despite the flaws, all in all this is a Bond film which impresses, chiefly because it feels like a Bond film. While Die Another Day littered the script with references to previous outings (Halle Berry’s bikini etc.) this film is infinitely more charming in its nods to the past. I’ll be honest, they had me at the ejector seat. There’s plenty of swashbuckle, but plenty to think about also.
Finally, it’s OK to like Bond again. And it’s easier too.