The third in a new era of Bond adventures that began with the divisive but bombastic Casino Royale - and stumbled with Quantum of Solace - has been a long time coming.
Four years in the making following financing and studio woes, Skyfall has the benefit of development time that its predecessor, the Marc Forster helmed Quantum of Solace, did not. Quantum had many criticisms leveled at it - notably that it didn’t ‘feel’ like a Bond film and that, arguably, you could have transplanted Bond with any one of a number of cinematic Bond-alikes and essentially had the same movie.
If quality was a reason to shoot Quantum down then that particular target would be a difficult one to paint on Skyfall.
In recent years, Bond movies have attracted the kind of director with a pedigree for ‘quality’, whether Casino Royale’s Martin Campbell - who returned for his second ‘Bond re-boot’ (Campbell helmed the first Pierce Brosnan outing, Goldeneye) - or Quantum of Solace’s director Marc Forster, the man who directed Halle Berry to an Oscar with Monsters Ball.
With Skyfall, we have Oscar winner Sam Mendes stepping into the unenviable role of raising the bar even higher for a series of films with 50 years of history, and a pedigree of setting standards for other productions to follow. Even though he's an Oscar winner, does Mendes direct 007 to success?
Skyfall beings in typical Bond fashion, and the opening train sequence doesn’t disappoint.
Proving one of the series' more thrilling pre-credits sequences, easily on a par with Casino’s free-running escapades, Daniel Craig (returning as Bond) is trying to retrieve a hard drive containing a list of undercover agents (couldn’t they think of a more original macguffin?) that has been stolen from a fellow British agent. As he races through Istanbul, Bond is joined by fellow MI6 agent Eve, played by Naomi Harris, a character who emerges as something of a sidekick for Bond.
As the chase to retrieve the drive threatens to put Bond in the losing position, Bond’s boss M, portrayed for the seventh time by Judi Dench, barks an order for Eve to shoot the thief - risking hitting Bond in turn. A wounded, presumed dead Bond falls from the top of the train as Adele’s theme tune strains its way into existence...thank god she’s no longer going on about the bloody break up.
Following such a triumphant opening, what remains of Skyfall is a rocky ride: visually arresting, always entertaining, but never quite as thrilling as you have come to expect from a Bond movie.
Bond, presumably miffed at having his boss order Eve take a shot that could end his life, decides to go along with the presumption of his death. Post credits - we find Bond sulking on a tropical beach side, playing Marion Ravenwood style drinking games, and generally moping about. This is a Bond we have never seen before - disheveled, vulnerable, and disenfranchised. However, you don’t really get a feeling or sense of Bond’s feeling betrayed - or why he decided not to return to MI6 after being shot. He simply plays along with his own death, until MI6 and M directly come under attack.
Upon Bond’s return from the grave, much is made of his having remained inactive and effectively abusing himself during his ‘death’. Returning to MI6 prompts a sequence of physical, psychometric and aptitude tests - it seems Bond has lost his edge, which in turn prompts a round of witticisms about Bond’s age and being washed up. I understand that, thematically, this links an over arching theme throughout the film of ‘old v new’ (a theme that echoes through Bond and M’s story lines) - but it feels forced, and not fully realized, particularly within Bond himself. Other themes running throughout the film include betrayal, the relationship with the parents and paternal figures, the old guard vs the new guard. This nature of storytelling is new to the Bond franchise, and takes some getting used to.
With Bond back in the fold, he heads off to find out exactly who is seeking to buy a computer drive full of the locations of deep cover British agents. The obligatory casino scene offers some classic Bond moments and an opportunity for Berenice Marlohe as Serverine to lure Bond towards his nemesis.
Skyfall revisits several of the iconic aspects of a Bond movie (the villains' island hideaway, and the classic Aston Martin to name but two) and it is on the aforementioned hideaway that Bond meets his and MI6’s nemesis, Silva.
My first thoughts on Silva’s opening scene was that Oscar winner Javier Bardem was channeling a character from Little Britain as played by David Walliams - so jarring and unusual was his performance. For the first time, Bond has a ‘laugh out loud’ moment in one of the films most memorable scenes as Silva toys with Bond. Silva echoes back to an era of Bond villain that we haven’t seen since, arguably, the Roger Moore era - outlandish and so over the top. But ,again, the performance and character don’t sit well with the era of Bond that we now inhabit - and the more grounded, 'real world' villain we have come to know since Casino Royale. Silva could easily have been battling Roger Moore, and there was a moment where I thought one of the film's ‘spoilers’ was that we were going to be introduced to a new Jaws - so outlandish was the character.
Bardem plays Silva as damaged goods, and a character with an ax to grind, particularly for MI6 and M. But believability goes out the window, not only in Bardem’s performance, but in whether this character would ever be in the employee of Her Majesty's Government. In Skyfall, Bardem’s Silva is as far away as you can get from the other turncoat spy to menace 007, Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye. To go further into Skyfall’s story is to go deep into spoiler territory, and there are plenty to be had in Skyfall with twists and turns aplenty.
Skyfall is a different kind of Bond film - arguably more so than any Bond before it, with the possible exception of Casino Royale. But where Royale subtly contemporised the classic ingredients required to make a Bond film, Skyfall is far more ‘in your face’. This lack of subtlety is exemplified by the fact that there is more than one laugh out loud moment in this film, a response to Daniel Craig’s request that the writers amp up the humor and a rarity in the modern era of Bond.
This is also the third deeply personal film for Bond. For the first time we gain glimpses into Bond’s childhood and upbringing, revisiting the ‘Bond Begins’ elements from Casino Royale and discovering what makes him tick - and its actually these aspect that I would have liked to see more of. Casino Royale started out to show us what made the Bond that we have come to know, and Skyfall offers an opportunity to get to know Bond’s origins but again - but doesn’t fully realize that opportunity.
Skyfall also introduces us to a host of new characters. Ralph Fiennes plays Mallory - M’s boss and a bureaucrat with teeth, while Ben Wishaw joins the cash as the new Quartermaster...or 'Q'.
I enjoyed the interaction and ‘gives as good as he gets’ banter between Q and Bond, who very quickly puts Q in his place, or at least tries to. As refreshing as this banter is, however, Wishaw’s Q is portrayed as an archetypal ‘know it all’ - and a nerd who wouldn't be out of place hanging with Sheldon Cooper. This portrayal of the techno-orientated, bespectacled geek cliche seems dated - surely we are capable of portraying ‘people who are good with technology’ in a way that they don’t look like Moss from the IT Crowd?
Skyfall spends a great deal of time in the UK, transplanting the usual exotic locations we take for granted in a Bond movie for the streets of London and the mist-swept moors of the Scottish highlands. While there's certainly a realization that a solid Bond movie doesn’t require the locations that have traditionally been a staple of a Bond movie - the sheer amount of time trudging around dreary old London town actually makes you yearn for the exotic locations that helped Bond stand out in the past. Whether the UK being in the world spotlight with this Summer's Olympic games made the film makers want to place much of the action in the UK, or whether simple budgetary concerns were the cause, there were points where the film felt like a low budget BBC spy drama.
The film's final act, set in Scotland, feels overly long, flat and anticlimactic. While this conclusion teases new horizons for Bond’s future outings, it lacks impact given the personal journey these characters have been on.
Sam Mendes clearly enjoys playing with Bond archetypes, and presenting them in refreshing ways that - while still ‘Bond’ - challenge what we have come to expect from the character and the films. In doing so, even for an incredibly long film by James Bond standards, Skyfall seems so eager to jump from moment to moment that we never really get to invest in the characters dealing with these moments in a way that I suspect its director and writers alike would like us to.
In his attempts to constructs a Bond for a new era, Mendes does succeed in reviving the franchise after Quantum of Solace - restoring the pace, and freshness that was ushered in so capably by Casino Royale. A likable movie, but far from the ‘greatest Bond ever’ tag that has been attached to the film, Skyfall leaves the viewer asking whether the foundations built in Daniel Craig’s previous two outings has been unwittingly undone. Begging the question: "When it comes to Bond, how far is too far?" - and whether Skyfall is a step backwards, or a positive step forward for the future adventures of 007.