The Bond franchise returns stronger than ever this month with Skyfall, the third outing for Daniel Craig since taking over the role in 2006’s dramatic reinvention, Casino Royale. It’s been a long four years since the disappointing Quantum of Solace — during which MGM went bankrupt and pre-production stalled — and many understandably questioned the future of the series, but in the capable hands of director Sam Mendes and his many talented collaborators Bond is brought crashing into the paranoid world of modern terrorism in thrilling fashion, delivering a revitalising take on Ian Fleming’s iconic character whilst carefully never betraying his roots. 23 films and 50 years into the series, audiences are at last treated to a satisfying backstory that is emotionally complex and, for perhaps the first time, places the focus on character over spectacle. Gorgeously-shot, terrifically-acted, slyly humourous and uncharacteristically intelligent, Skyfall may be Bond’s best outing yet (nostalgia depending) and it certainly ensures a promising future for the series.
In typical 007 fashion, Skyfall kicks off with the biggest action setpiece of the film as MI6 agents Bond (Daniel Craig) and Eve (Naomie Harris) chase a mercenary (Ola Rapace) through the bazaars and rooftops of Istanbul, desperately trying to recover a hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents embedded in terrorist organisations worldwide. The ante is upped consistently as the elaborate pursuit moves onto a speeding train, and with M (Judi Dench) calling the shots in her ear, Eve takes a risky shot that sends Bond plummeting to his presumed death. Stylistically this gripping opening sequence is indebted to the landmark Bourne films, while its setting and use of train nods to what many consider to be the finest 007 film: 1963’s From Russia With Love. While not quite as spectacular as the parkour sequence in Casino Royale it is nonetheless a great setpiece, and what is immediately apparent is that revered cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) has given us the most beautifully-lensed film in the series’ long history. The unexpectedly dark and macabre title sequence that follows — made by Daniel Kleinman and set to Adele’s instant-classic, Shirley Bassey-esque theme song — further underscores Bond’s new mortality as he sinks to his doom underwater. Skulls and tombstones adorn the screen rather than suggestive women in silhouette, and it’s an impressively-realised and refreshing change of pace that effectively sets the tone of the film.
Mendes and his team of writers — Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade alongside John Logan — wisely choose to do away with the silly tradition of megalomaniacal villains with outlandish apocalyptic schemes here, instead placing MI6 in the more realistic and murky world of cyber terrorism. Not long after M has typed up Bond’s obituary, the names of six undercover agents are leaked online with the threat of more to come, and M — who plays a drastically more pivotal role here — is put under pressure to retire by Intelligence Chairman Mallory (an understated Ralph Fiennes). She receives a cryptic message when her laptop is hacked that reads “Think on your sins” — suggesting her unmined past will come in to play here — and immediately afterwards MI6’s London headquarters is shockingly blown up. This news cuts short Bond’s drunken enjoyment of death and he returns for duty rather worse for wear, forced to undergo a series of physical and psychological tests that reveal a much more damaged and vulnerable character than we’ve seen before. Ready or not, Bond soon re-enters the field in pursuit of the mercenary that got away and we are introduced to a dazzling, Blade Runner-meets-Wong Kar-wai nocturnal vision of Shanghai that is simply breathtaking. In a violent turn of events, Bond loses one lead but gains another in the striking yet nervy Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who first leads him to Macau and then reluctantly to the man behind the chaos.
Around the 70-minute mark we finally encounter Silva (Javier Bardem), an eccentric dyed-blond lunatic and mysterious cyber terrorist who makes a fabulously theatrical entrance, launching into a persuasive monologue from the other side of an empty warehouse about the ridiculously outdated nature of spying and the duplicitous history of M (“Mommy has been very naughty!”). Bardem’s portrayal is at turns hilarious, especially in the already infamous bisexual dialogue exchange (“There’s a first time for everything – eh, Mr. Bond?” / “What makes you think it’s my first time?”), and sadistic — most notably recalling Heath Ledger’s trailblazing Joker in The Dark Knight, but also a touch of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange — and his is easily the standout performance in a film bursting with excellent turns. The influence of Christopher Nolan and his landmark 2008 film is felt throughout Skyfall, from its elegiac tone and real-world concerns, to Bardem’s Joker-esque character and his story beats, to the Inception-esque abandoned island Silva inhabits (the fascinating Hashima Island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan), not to mention the fact that much like the Dark Knight trilogy this film is very much an ensemble, marking another refreshing first in Bond history. Nolan has long expressed his desire to make a Bond film — you can see the influence of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Inception‘s third act setpiece in the snow — but after seeing Skyfall one wonders if there’s any point now. As influential as Nolan and the Bourne films are on Mendes and co. this film is also deferential to its history, slyly paying tribute to fan-favourite Goldfinger with the appearance of the iconic Aston Martin DB5, From Russia With Love with its Turkish setting and blond villain, and bringing the entire franchise full circle with a clever coda. Whether these touches serve to enhance your enjoyment of the film or rather make it feel encumbered by its past will depend on your familiarity of and appreciation for the more miss than hit franchise, but at least Mendes is tasteful in which films he salutes.
Unlike the majority of 007 entries, Mendes’ film is not interested in gadgetry — despite the addition of an exciting new Q (Ben Whishaw) — nor in the camp quips and double entendres that have plagued the franchise’s lesser entries, and yet is still remarkably fun and thankfully never as dour as Marc Forster’s misguided Quantum of Solace. Another hallmark of the series has been the gratuitous casual sex and sexual objectification, and despite featuring one of the most stunning Bond girls ever in Marlohe, Skyfall contains what is surely the lowest number of conquests and sexist remarks. While it wouldn’t be a Bond film without a degree of sexism (one scene that takes place in a shower is particularly questionable), the characters portrayed by Dench, Harris and Marlohe continue the recent run of strong and somewhat complex female roles that began with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In her seventh and final appearance as M, Dench is finally given an opportunity to create a real character, and her dignified matriarch is allowed to be both authoritative and insecure which is a treat to watch. Fellow English veteran Albert Finney also turns up in the film’s final act to add some gravitas to Bond’s backstory, as the action moves to his remote childhood home in Scotland for a final confrontation that is oddly reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The role of Bond now fits Craig as snugly as those tailored suits, and his impressive work here certainly ensures the role is his for as long as he wants it (he recently signed on for two more films). Fiennes, Wishaw and Harris all do fine work in their respective supporting roles throughout, and I look forward to seeing more from each of them in future installments.
Skyfall comes apart at the seams a little in a long third act that diminishes the scope of the film to that of a predictable actioner — rather than the thrilling, globe-spanning and intelligent espionage story that preceded it — which is a recurrent problem in the franchise. The film is also guilty of leaning much too heavily on Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Paul Greengrass’ final two Bourne entries, and I would like to see a more unique take on the genre next time. Mendes gets plenty more right than he does wrong, however, building on the strong platform that Casino Royale provided and delivering a bold and invigorating new identity for Bond and MI6. Few would have guessed that the emotional resonance and artful approach of films such as American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road would gel with a Bond film as well as they do here, and this may well be Mendes’ best film. The director’s two secret weapons are Bardem — who gives us one of the most memorable and entertaining villains in Bond’s rogues gallery — and Deakins, whose spectacular, Oscar-worthy work elevates the film to a level of visual artistry not usually associated with this kind of tentpole fare. Whether or not Skyfall is the best Bond film yet will be the cause for much debate — certainly nostalgic fans will always cling to Sean Connery’s golden era — and I’m looking forward to seeing if for a second time to confirm my own opinion, but my first impression is that it exceeds the excellent (but overlong and convoluted) Casino Royale and rivals From Russia With Love for the title. More important than the semantics of Skyfall‘s ranking in the Bond canon though is the fact that I left the cinema with higher hopes for the next entry than I have ever had for the franchise; the potential is there for the next Bond outing to be the first truly great film in the series — their very own The Dark Knight or The Bourne Ultimatum — and I hope whoever they get on board to direct it is up to the task.
Skyfall is out now. Watch the latest trailer below.
As an added bonus, watch the opening title sequence — minus the actual credits — for Skyfall below.