A measured and stylish Bond film that takes us back to the very roots of the character and the franchise.
In the first four decades of James Bond films, the various filmmakers have taken us on a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous, increasingly upping the ante on explosive mayhem and gadgetry. Indeed, it was at the point where the films had become a parody of themselves that 007 got a post-Bourne refresh and were brought back down to some semblance of reality with Casino Royale (2006) with the introduction of Daniel Craig to the role of Bond. Having now successfully carved out a niche for the series as serious action dramas once again, Skyfall aims it take it up a notch with Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes injecting unexpectedly dark drama into the twenty-third outing of the world’s most famous spy on his fiftieth anniversary.
On a mission in Turkey to retrieve a stolen data packet containing the details of all of the undercover NATO agents in terrorist organisations, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidentally shot by fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and goes missing, presumed dead. As a result of the leaks, MI6 head M (Judi Dench) comes under fire from the government, with Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) urging her to retire. However, when former MI6 agent Silva (Javier Bardem) attacks the very heart of MI6 in London, Bond comes in from the cold to fight once more as a solider of the British Empire. Yet like M, he begins to struggle with his place within a modern world, wondering if he still has what it takes to hunt in the shadows.
Thoroughly and unapologetically British, Skyfall mostly takes place within the borders of the Queen’s domain, apart from three particularly spectacular sequences in Turkey, Shanghai and Macau. It’s part of a broader approach of stripping Bond back to his most basic elements, from his love of Empire to his old-fashioned nature in a world of modern espionage. It’s not the first time that Bond’s relevance in the 21st century has been questioned, but it may be the first time since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) that somebody has asked what would happen if Bond was stripped elements at his core. More than this, it forcibly knocks out the rarefied air that the Bond films have breathed for the last fifty years, ensuring that not just Bond but the whole MI6 organisation has to become accountable to the real world. In the light of some very recent scandals in British and America spy politics, this firmly grounds Skyfall within reality, just as Casino Royale set out to do over half a decade ago. While the film skirts dangerously close to making it seem a little too procedural at times, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (two-thirds of whom co-wrote Craig’s first two Bond outings) keep the film above water by using this reality to heighten the dramatic tension.
On the opposite end of the scale is Bardem’s villain, delightfully scene-chewing and practically cat-stroking his way through one of the more outlandish Bond villains of the modern era, a deformed mix of Hannibal Lecter and allegedly Bond’s own historical villain Jaws (Richard Kiel). With a hairstyle only rivalled by his singular coif in No Country For Old Men (2007), his Silva gleefully tells Bond that “Mummy has been very bad” while making sexual advances on the captive 00 agent. Indeed, this is a well-rounded cast, where even the smallest of parts makes a significant contribution to the whole, and in some cases sets up future developments for the series. Fiennes’ minor antagonist makes several dramatic changes throughout the film, surprising. The new Q (Ben Whishaw) is ideally cast as a young tech-geek, making a clear break from the befuddled quartermasters before him. Bond girls come in the typically feisty (Harris) and fatale (Bérénice Marlohe) variety, and for once are there for the overall betterment of the narrative.
For long-time Bond fans, there are many rewards to be found in the deliberately delayed final act. In many ways, it is a distinct entity from the rest of the film, taking place almost entirely in Scotland and giving the film a clear line-of-sight to Sean Connery. The film characteristically lurches from high-concept to the slicker demands of suits and cocktail parties. Yet as Skyfall works its way to a DIY siege in the final reels, Mendes and his team prove that Bond still has a few surprises up his tuxedo sleeve after all these years.