The Bond series has had its ups and downs – from the greats of From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, to the lows of Diamonds are Forever, Octopussy and Die Another Day – the series was given a huge injection of energy with Daniel Craig Casino Royale, though sadly, things quickly fell apart with the damp Quantum of Solace. Casino’s good work seemed undone, which meant there was a lot of pressure riding on Skyfall, which also happened to coincide with Bond’s 50th. Luckily, Skyfall didn’t disappoint – the biggest Bond movie in years, it made MGM an absolute mountain of money (it’s in the Top 10 Highest Grossing Films list) and reassured audiences once again, that Bond was here to stay. The film opens with a blinding pre-credits sequence in which Bond (Craig) and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are on pursuit of a stolen hard-drive through the streets of Turkey. The drive contains details of every single MI6 operative stationed undercover throughout the world and cannot afford to be lost – unfortunately, one bad decision leaves Bond for dead and the list in enemy hands, and the audience fall into Adele’s fantastic and moody title tune to some of the best designed titles in the series’ history. The opening credit sequence is Top 5 in the series’ history, and Adele’s tune the best Bond song in forever; one of the few to become a breakaway pop hit.
When we return, Bond is drinking himself to death and Judi Dench’s M is under threat – both from a forced early retirement at the hands of Ralph Fiennes’s bureaucratic Mallory, and, more seriously, from Javier Bardem’s insane cyber terrorist Silva, a man out for revenge with a violent vendetta against the British Secret Service. A broken Bond must pull himself together and race to recover the lost drive if he’s to save M and MI6.After Quantum, it’s great to see a Bond movie with this much enthusiasm. Everyone involved in Skyfall clearly wanted to do something special for Bond’s birthday and the energy on screen is very apparent. Mendes is a good director capable of intense actions scenes – the opening Turkey chase is a solid opener, and one of most viseral in the franchise’s history, there’s a fun twist on the shark tank trope with some komodo dragons, and a blinding skyscraper battle in Shanghai. The climax is stripped down and different to all previous Bonds, and really provides Skyfall with its own identity. But on top of action, there are also quieter, character driven moments, heavy on well scripted interesting dialogue. Mendes is clearly a massive fan of the series and respects the material whilst trying to elevate it from its roots, in a move similar to Nolan’s The Dark Knight – and so, building on what was started in Goldeneye, with Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan asking Bond if his Martini’s silence the screams of his victims, and the question of whether Bond is still relevant post Cold War, we have a deeper film here, pulling apart what makes Bond tick. Casino Royale of course tore into the psychology of the character and Skyfall isn’t quite as essential as that film but feels like natural progression – if Casino was about Bond becoming Bond, Skyfall is about Bond losing himself and the struggle to get back together. The film questions the nature of the Bond movies themselves, with constant declarations of MI6 being old fashioned, and a look into whether these movies can still be relevant in today’s society – the villains say no, but Bond begs to differ, and there seems a conscious effort throughout to redefine Bond for the 21st Century. That doesn’t mean, like Quantum of Solace, that the film ignores its heritage to stay relevant. It’s really a film for fans, which like Casino Royale relies on the audience understanding the rules and what’s being done differently, as well as what’s being done exactly the same. The film is full of in-jokes and references to previous movies – exploding pens, ejector seats – and though it mocks the past, it does so in a loving way, with an ending that fans will go crazy for. And though Skyfall is heavier on character than most Bond movies, and in artistically loftier (there are references to Turner and Tennyson for example) it remains a fun film – Mendes finds the perfect balance between drama and typical Bond humour, giving Bond back his excellent dry wit. There are a lot of laughs in between excellent action scenes.
The film looks incredible too – the cinematography from Roger Deakins is top notch and Skyfall is easily, the best looking Bond movie. It’s all helped by some wonderful location shooting, from the neon streets of Shanghai to the floating, effulgent casino that follows, and Silva’s ruined island city, which contains all the grandeur of a volcano base whilst retaining its plausibility. The film primarily focuses on England, the Empire, and so we’re treated to some fantastic location work on Bond’s home soil – a tight chase through the District Underground line, the white-washed walls of London itself, and the stunning, gothic final which takes the audience back to Bond’s Scottish roots. Scotland looks beautiful here, atmospheric with its fog and grey skies and rolling moors and mountains – it’s a step away from what we’re usually given with Bond, and it works very well.And the cast are excellent too. Craig has really taken over the Bond role, balancing the character’s simmering rage and killer instincts with dead-pan humour and charm. Bond is a broken man post-death and Craig is wonderful, destroying the character at first with hollow, empty eyes and scorpion drinking games before rebuilding him into the machine we know and love. This is a Bond with much to prove, a relic of a system which may no longer need him. Craig never needed to warm up to Bond and was excellent from his first appearance, but what’s most interesting is that he’s the first actor to really step out of Connery’s shadow – in the future, the argument over the definitive Bond is always going to come down to the C’s. He’s simultaneously the most physical and most vulnerable Bond – the guy is built like a train and moves like a bullet, but always finds time to highlight Bond’s inner struggles.Craig is helped by Bardem playing the utterly mental cyber terrorist Silva, a real Lector-esque enigma of a character. A relic of MI6′s sordid history, he steps into the film after considerable build up, inching closer to Bond whilst reciting an insidious story about pest control. Bardem is a beast of man, but retains a comical, camp charm in the role, taking an almost perverse pleasure in the performance. It’s nice to have a flamboyant Bond villain and it’s nice to have a memorable bad guy again – there hasn’t been a great Bond villain since Goldeneye way back in 1995. It also helps that Silva has resonance with Bond beyond being the bad guy – they’re cut from the same cloth and work as two sides of the same coin – if circumstances had been different, the two could have had their roles reversed. Silva picks at Bond and what makes him tick, and his hateful, maddening anger at M and MI6 make him a more threatening monster than we’re used to. He strikes at home, at what the Bond movies are about, and that’s really unsettling. There’s also an interesting interrogation scene which plays off the homoerotic vibe of Casino Royale’s ball breaker, in which Silva seems to come onto Bond. This is a nice way to get under the skin of Bond and Bond audiences – as Bond has always been defined by his masculinity – and Bond’s reaction is refreshingly modern – and this is discussed in further detail on the LGBT Representation post. In terms of the rest of the cast, Fiennes is strong as Mallory, more complex than initially believed, he’s a character who really warms up as the film progresses, and it’s nice to see a big British actor move into the series. Ben Whishaw makes a geeky 21st Century Q, his youth a nice contrast to Bond’s jagged sourness, with the promise of great relationship between the two in future movies. In terms of girls, there’s two – Harris’s flirtatious Eve – a character who gets much interesting towards the end of the movie, and Marlohe as Sévérine, a slinky, Xenia Onatopp-inspired femme fatalé who is perfunctory without being stunning – though she looks gorgeous, she barely does anything and you could easily edit her out of the film. The lack of interest in standard Bond girls however is because Skyfall takes a slightly different approach – the real Bond girl here being Judi Dench’s M. Storming into the series as Bond’s undercutting, no-nonsense M back in the 90s, it’s taken seven movies for the film makers to finally harness both the actress and the character’s potential, and Dench really shines here. She’s a woman at the end of her rope but willing to make a stand, maternal and loving towards Bond, as well as hilarious and finally, tragic. The film uses M to peel back under the Bond movies, looking into her decisions, the big picture, and in the film’s most daring move, Bond’s childhood, taking the series to interesting new places. Dench does wonders and her and Craig spark off each other and really fill the screen with energy. She’s Bond’s mother, and there’s an odd psychological play between M, Bond and Silvia, who seem to be her competing children.
A fantastic addition to the Bond canon, and one which strengthens Craig’s reign – he’s up with two amazing entries and one weaker one, which already puts him ahead of Brosnan, Moore and Dalton. And with 2015’s Spectre promising great things (that name, the cast, Mendes’ return) things can only go up for James Bond.
All images owned by MGM Studios.