Given the promise of Casino Royale and the subsequent disappointment of Quantum of Solace, it was clear the James Bond franchise – currently in its 50th year – needed a shot in the arm, and a filmmaker who could put things back on track. In Skyfall, Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, has delivered a thrilling addition to the 007 movie legacy, and a film that strikes just the right balance between familiarity and freshness.
So while Mendes doesn’t hold back on such Bond staples as exotic locales, long-winded chases and exhilarating stunts, even an appearance from that iconic silver Aston Martin, he also slyly adds poignant undertones and character depth to a brand of films that has seldom promised more than a series of smart thrills. Fortunately for us, this cocktail proves potent, and aside from the nauseatingly sentimental finale, Skyfall is a terrific ride.
The film opens with a killer pre-credits sequence in which Bond (Daniel Craig in his third outing as 007) and fellow MI6 operative Eve (Naomie Harris) are hot on the trail of a target in Istanbul who’s stolen a hard-drive that contains the identities of every Secret Service agent embedded in terrorist organizations across the world. Leaping off a jeep, Bond chases the target across rooftops on a motorcycle, before taking the fight to the top of a train…until a gunshot knocks 007 into a river.
With Bond presumed dead, M (Judi Dench) and MI6 suffer deadly attacks back home in London. When 007 resurfaces, he’s still rough around the edges from his wounds, but heads off to Shanghai and then to Macau, where the mysterious and sexy Severine (Berenice Marlohe) leads him to Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a campy, blond-haired bad guy who has an old axe to grind with M.
With a director bearing the credentials of Sam Mendes on board, Skyfall was always going to be more than just a mix of glamorous girls, gadgets, and grand spectacle. Although that’s not to say Mendes doesn’t tick those boxes. He just does those things differently.
Bond still beds at least three women in this film, but reveals his strongest ties to M, the surrogate mother to his orphan child. As far as gizmos go, fans will be happy to notice the reappearance of Q (now played by Ben Whishaw), who makes a joke that exploding pens are a thing of the past. The modern gadgetry includes tracking radios and hacking softwares, which, although more realistic, aren’t nearly as much fun. (As if to please the fans though, Mendes does throw in one joke involving M and the ejector seat in Bond’s Aston Martin DB5.) Meanwhile, any doubts about Mendes’ capability to shoot big action set pieces are quickly dispelled following that spectacular opening sequence in Istanbul, and one particularly ballsy London underground bombing scene.
But perhaps Mendes’ biggest achievement here is in creating a convincing human drama around all the action. He raises an important question about the relevance of field agents in the modern technological world, and asks you to consider the possibility that Bond might be too old for this job now. Skyfall is also the first film to take us all the way back into Bond’s past and offer us an insight into why he may be the way he is.
But more than Bond even, it’s Javier Bardem’s Silva, who takes centrestage with a deliciously chilling performance as the unhinged villain, whose pathological need to settle scores with M places him right up there on the list of cinema’s most creepy psychopaths. Bardem is the film’s trump card, and Mendes uses him superbly.
The film isn’t without its problems though. Gaping plot holes, a weak Bond girl in Severine, an over-long climax in the Scottish countryside, and an uncharacteristically teary ending all go to prove that there’s nothing quite like the perfect Bond film. Still, Skyfall gets so much right.
Like Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography for one – a fight in a darkened Shanghai office building, illuminated only from the neon signage outside is one of the film’s finest sequences. Adele’s full-throated belting of the theme song is a nice throwback to the Shirley Bassey years; and then there are all the clever one-liners that’ll leave you smiling. Bond himself is at his most human here, played solidly by Daniel Craig who balances the iciness of a super-spy and the vulnerability of a man unsure of his own future.
Hard-core franchise loyalists may argue this isn’t the Bond they grew up with. But it’s only fair that each new filmmaker who takes a stab at 007 be allowed to interpret it his own way. Mendes, for his part, does a bang-up job.
I’m going with four out of five for Skyfall. Don’t ask if you should see this film, ask when you should see it. The answer is right away!