Skyfall, the 23rd official James Bond film, is only the third in the series (after Tomorrow Never Dies and Die Another Day) to have a title with no connection to the life or works of Ian Fleming. It will surprise viewers therefore that a wholly original Bond movie could be so steeped in the mythos and lore of Agent 007, so much so that it seems implausible that Skyfall is not somehow the direct product of the mind of Fleming.
As much concerned with the nature of Bond (and MI6) as was 2006’s barnstorming reboot Casino Royale, which launched Daniel Craig in the role, Skyfall creates with that film a superb double act concerning the how and why of Bond, while it both paints over and makes up for the problems of Bond’s last outing, the entirely wretched Quantum of Solace.
Tearing the reins from Marc Forster, director of that runt of the Bond litter, is Sam Mendes, the deservedly acclaimed auteur behind American Beauty and Road to Perdition. A filmmaker experienced in tension and quick shoot-outs rather than all-out action sequences, Mendes has brought all his experience to Skyfall and made it very much his own Bond movie. Here he has upped the character drama at the expense of some of the more no-holds-barred action of previous Bond films, but it makes for a far more appealing film experience, if perhaps, for some, a less adrenaline-pumped spy adventure.
However, there’s no shortage of action in Skyfall’s opening sequence, as Bond (Craig) chases a target through the streets of Istanbul, speeds a motorbike across its rooftops (where so recently Liam Neeson was seen limping along in Taken 2), before a classic punch-up atop a hurtling train. It’s the film’s most thrilling sequence, but that is not to say the film peaks early, given the intrigue that comes later.
After an early setback, Bond returns to duty when a cyber-terrorist with vengeance in mind for MI6 boss M (Judi Dench) rears his head. Encouraged by a fearful M and watched with caution by Ralph Fiennes’s somewhat slimy government liaison, Bond heads into the field to track down his enemy in Asia. Halfway through proceedings the villain is revealed to be Raoul Silva, played by a positively flaming Javier Bardem, in a scene that makes the homoerotic torture sequence from Casino Royale look like two men drinking beer and talking about football. In classic Bond style, 007 must stop Silva from extracting his revenge, but there are plenty of unexpected twists along the way.
On his third outing as Bond, Craig continues to revel in the role (even in the turgid Quantum of Solace he excused himself well), hitting all the right notes, while still managing to carry the repressed psychological damage that made him so endearing in Casino Royale. Judi Dench, having the biggest part she’s had since The World Is Not Enough, finds something new in the role, a mournful weariness that belies her administrative efficiency.
The expanded role for M comes at the expense of the Bond girls; Casino’s strongest suit. Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine could slot into any Bond adventure, despite a weak attempt to give her a tragic backstory. As MI6 field operative Eve, Naomie Harris carries herself with confidence, but the awkward flirty banter between her and Bond is largely forced, and has no pay-off until quite late in the game.
Bardem steals much of the film as Silva, one part Hannibal Lecter, the other part Buffalo Bill. A late appearance by the inimitable Albert Finney (Tom Jones, Big Fish) steals the rest of it, with Finney wielding both a shotgun and the film’s best one-liner.
As the new Q, Perfume star Ben Whishaw is passable, although the late Desmond Llewelyn’s snark is deeply missed. “You were expecting an exploding pen?” Q asks as he gives Bond some simpler, tamer gadgets. It’s hard not to feel Bond’s disappointment, especially given that the one gadget he is given has a very obvious use that plays out exactly as you imagine it will from the moment Bond receives it. Thinking back, was the invisible car all that bad?
Despite a running time of 143 minutes, Skyfall never loses its momentum, taking long pauses from the action that are full of rich character development. The script by Bond reboot pairing Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, teamed with regular Martin Scorsese colleague John Logan, bristles with energy in its scenes and dialogue. Only the classic Bond one-liners suffer, with the film’s most unique kill followed by a line so mishandled it doesn’t even deserve a groan. But the drama unfolds so brilliantly that such missteps soon fade from memory, and the film builds towards a climax more about Bond himself than any that has come before. The third act revelation of the meaning of “Skyfall” is perhaps the most exciting surprise in a Bond film since Rosa Klebb revealed a knife in her shoe.
There are plenty of references throughout Skyfall to classic Bond titles, while Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are only alluded to in Bond’s continued drinking of his Vesper cocktails, rather than his traditional vodka martinis. If it weren’t for that, we could almost forget Quantum of Solace ever happened. A charming reference to the events of Goldfinger does become problematic, as the question arises as to whether Craig’s Bond is somehow the same un-ageing character who battled SPECTRE in the 1960s. It doesn’t distract from the film, but it will become a major talking point amongst Bond fans in bars and internet chatrooms everywhere.
Shot in rich colours by the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, Skyfall looks better than any Bond film to date. Eschewing the frenetic Bourne-esque cutting of the two previous films, Skyfall is clear and bright throughout. One fierce, rapid, hand-to-hand scuffle between Bond and an assassin is shot from a withdrawn distance with the two characters in silhouette, backlit by an enormous video screen pulsating with colour. It conjures the opening credit sequences of Bond films while also showing off the filmmakers’ flair and originality within a franchise that many would accuse of having run out of ideas.
From Craig’s initial strut into focus, through Adele’s soulful title track right up to the film’s thrilling finale, Skyfall proves itself to be one of the finest films the franchise has seen. A fitting entry on the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, Skyfall does not beg a sequel, but its last scene will have fans sweating for one.