NOTE: Wherever possible this review will avoid any spoilers about Skyfall
Ever since James Bond was rebooted in 2006 with Casino Royale the quintessentially British franchise has suffered something of an identity crisis. Royale was lauded for taking the character back to basics eschewing the more ridiculous elements of the Bond universe. It was gritty, realistic and edgy and ready to take its place in a cinematic world alongside the likes of the Bourne films. But when Quantum of Solace rolled around, something was clear: if audiences wanted see films in the vein of Bourne they’d, well, go see the Bourne films. Sure, it was great to have a hard edged 007. But we missed Q. Missed some of the humour. Missed the fantasy universe with a uniquely British feel. Bond just didn’t feel like Bond anymore. It’s appropriate that Skyfall is released as the character of Bond celebrates 50 years on the big screen as it’s a glorious distillation of the character’s past and a bold affirmation of Bond’s future. In short: Skyfall shows Bond is back. And he’s Britishly bloody brilliant.
The plot revolves around the theft of a hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents embedded in terrorist cells across the world. It soon becomes apparent that this is masterminded by someone whose agenda is not just to cause chaos: they want to humiliate MI6 and M (Judi Dench) in particular for their ‘sins’. But with 007 missing presumed dead and the government and ministers such as Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) breathing down the neck of MI6 for their perceived incompetence, the situation looks from going bad to worse: especially when a large section of the MI6 building is blown to smithereens. But, unsurprisingly, James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns (as countless Bond films promise). Training to be declared fit for active duty in MI6’s new headquarters deep in the London Underground, Bond meets the new quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) whilst discovering that M’s days may be numbered. Entering the field – to numerous exotic locations including Shanghai and Macau – he soon finds himself on the trail of the mysterious Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) whose motives will soon make the stakes much more personal for both Bond and M.
Everything about Skyfall seems so utterly right. Right from the outset – a breathtaking chase involving cars, motorcycles and trains – we’re given all the attributes that makes Bond and the films so enduring. There’s the over-the-top, the insouciant (Craig adjusting his tie as he lands in the carriage of a train whose back has been ripped off) and the purely exhilarating. And this is all in the first ten minutes. Much of the success of the film is down to director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins who manage to give each set-piece a unique look whilst making everything work together as a whole (a particular achievement when so many modern films dissolve into a mess of generic fight sequences). From a cool, Blade Runner-esque fight sequence shot almost entirely in silhouette to the stunning finale set against scorched Scottish skies the look of the film is something to behold. The numerous scenes set in the UK also lend a unique sense of ‘Britishness’ to proceedings that have been sorely lacking in Bond outings over the past few years (though it avoids much and the crass and overt jingoism that had sometimes become synonymous with the franchise).
The plot revolves around the theft of a hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents embedded in terrorist cells across the world. It soon becomes apparent that this is masterminded by someone whose agenda is not just to cause chaos.
The script and performances are also uniformly great. The script brings back much of the subtle humour that has been absent for the past few years. Yes, Bond is still hard edged and icy but there’s moments of levity that crack through the surface for him and other characters (one great moment has Q saying “You were expecting an exploding pen? We really don’t do that sort of thing anymore,”). There’s also a tangible sense of a story here as opposed to a series of tenuously linked set-pieces and everyone is given relatable motivations. Certainly both Bond and M are given interesting and productive character development while villain Silva is actually given something more than ‘I’m evil, so there’ to justify his actions. But – while probably more emotionally satisfying than previous Bond films - it doesn’t descend into soapy angst: this is a Bond film and it knows it.
Craig finally feels like he’s finally fully embraced the role of Bond with a cold and callous exterior covering that of a man of heroism and honour. Dench as well – probably given more to do than at any time before in the franchise – feels like a creditable match for Bond and there’s a wonderful dynamic between the two. But the star is Bardem who might have outdone himself in the villain stakes after giving his legendary performance as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. After a superb introduction (in which he letches over a tied up Bond) Silva is a bad guy who’s creepy, campy and – most importantly – a credible threat to Bond and his allies. His presence is both exhilarating and disturbing in equal measure. The supporting cast are all great with Ben Whishaw making a great debut as Q – a nerd with a dangerous undercurrent and some nice interplay with Bond – and Naomie Harris giving the audience their money’s worth. Unusually for a Bond film though there’s not really a ‘Bond girl’ per se – though 007 does manages to bag a couple during proceedings – but even this deviation from the formula seems to work in the film’s favour.
The only things really missing from the films are a stand out score (Thomas Newman’s work is fine but he’s no John Barry, or not even David Arnold and – to be fair – Adele’s Bond theme is a great piece of work, much better than that abomination presided over by Jack White in the previous film) and – while it would seem churlish to criticise a modern blockbuster for featuring product placement – there are some moments of such blatant advertising that you wish they’d just add ‘This scene payed for by Brand X’ instead of trying to shoehorn it in.
The real triumph of Skyfall is in its reinvention of the Bond character and franchise for the future.
The real triumph of Skyfall is in its reinvention of the Bond character and franchise for the future. There are plenty of homages to previous 007’s (amongst them a fight scene in a casino pit which sees Craig pull some positively Roger Moore-esque facial expressions and a very tangible one to the Connery era which is too good to spoil here) but – with the character development of Bond and allies – it also points to a future template on which the films can work. Oh, and it’s the first one ever to feature the use of the ‘F’ word. Times are changing indeed.
As a blockbuster film, Skyfall is a skilfully executed film that rightfully takes its place amongst the Avengers and Dark Knights of 2012 – and is arguably even better than those two cinematic behemoths. But as a Bond film, Skyfall is a glorious ode to Britishness and a character who has remained popular for 50 years for a good reason.
Commander Bond: it’s good to have you back. Now keep up the good work
Skyfall is released by Sony Pictures Releasing on 26th October
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