Having first been introduced to Bond films at an early age by my dad, I like to think I have a relatively well-tuned ability to appreciate the franchise. It’s hard to describe the boyish thrill I felt when first seeing the updated Casino Royale, but it suffices to say it was an incredibly nostalgic experience. Quantum of Solace, however, didn’t have the same impact. Coming two years after the previous instalment, it felt rushed and this was reflected in the quality of the film (that heinous Jack White/Alicia Keys collaboration on the theme song didn’t help, hard to believe they passed over a Shirley Bassey contribution for it).
But four years seems like the perfect amount of time to wait for a new Bond. Like the four years between Die Another Day (ugh, I just remembered that Madonna song) and Casino Royale, it gave time for the franchise to breathe. It’s common belief that massive film franchise are subject to significantly diminishing returns, and usually this is the case – look at the precipitous drop from Iron Man to Iron Man 2. Skyfall has waited this long, and the hype has built and swirled around it for some time now – with no small thanks to the promise of Sam Mendes’ direction and Javier Bardem’s casting as the film’s villain. Mercifully, the wait was not for nothing.
Typically, the film opens with an action-packed set piece. Motorcycles, bazaars, trains, that sort of nonsense; it’s reminiscent of the excellent one that sets the stage for Casino Royale. In this case, the initial sequence segues beautifully into the mostly terrific title sequence, which is let down only by two things: bad CGI for Chinese dragons, and the slightly underwhelming nature of Adele’s titular theme song, which is good but never great. Even in a cinema with terrific sound, it lacks the punchiness of a classic theme. That said, it’s certainly the best of the three Craig films.
After a failed mission, Bond (Daniel Craig) disappears. Obviously, he’s not dead, and so we find “grief-banging the entire Pacific Rim”, to quote Archer. If you haven’t watched that phenomenal TV show, I suggest you do so either before or after Skyfall, there are an alarming number of parallels – appropriate since the show’s lead character is loosely based on Bond, but even moreso because several plot points in the film bear more than a passing resemblance to episodes of Archer. An attack on MI6 headquarters reveals that M (Judi Dench) is in danger, so Bond returns to help fight the threat.
The threat is revealed through Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe in an excellent appearance) to be Silva (Javier Bardem), whose past connection to M proves him to be a considerably menacing threat. Skyfall is very preoccupied with the idea of new versus old. Bond is seen to be part of the old guard, a parallel pushed by the introduction of the new Quartermaster, or Q, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw’s role has been talked up a lot by some but I didn’t feel his presence was a particularly significant one. The whole thing seems very much like the franchise wrestling with itself to separate it from the Bond of old and the Bond of new.
And distinct categories they are. Those who rush to proclaim this the “best Bond ever!!!!!!” are wildly off the mark. This is a distinctly different Bond, clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s game-changing take on the Batman franchise. The Bond films of old were coloured – and I use that word deliberately – by a sense of the fantastical. Camp, if we’re being honest. These days, however, grittiness is what it demanded, and grittiness is given; this is not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but I think a line definitely has to be drawn somewhere. And I draw that line just before Skyfall being babbled about as the best Bond film of all time. It is excellent and deserves inclusion in the Bond canon, but newness lends itself to hyperbole.
Craig is solid as ever as the tortured Bond. He has the perfectly expressive face to portray this incarnation’s tortured self, tough but sad in equal measure. Performances and casting are great all round, with Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes giving good turns, and a terrific Albert Finney bringing light and depth in a relatively brief role. Bardem as the villain Silva is, typically, fantastic. Intimidating, menacing, and just a touch of the flamboyant, he feels like a nod to the Bond of old both literally and metaphorically. A brief scene of “sexual intimidation” that Silva initiates is clever for the way it directly addresses the inherent and often overwhelming homoeroticism of the Bond character and films.
Judi Dench also gives a notable performance as M, a character she has played since 1995, and it’s nice to see the character explored in a little more depth. The film is photographed beautifully by Roger Deakins, proving that cinematography is hugely key to the modern action film. Deakins’ use of space and colour hugely enhances Skyfall as viewing experience, and helps give John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script both lightness and weight where required. The set pieces are uniformly great, fight sequences well-choreographed and photographed, and the seemingly daunting two hour and twenty-three minute runtime flies by.
Realism in Bond is something I can now appreciate but still struggle with to some degree, solely because part of the fun of films like Goldfinger and so on are their sheer silliness. Realism in a film like this also raises intriguing moral conundrums – mostly about innocent casualties, in the case of Skyfall. I’d like to see one of the future films explore the impact of terrorism on a larger scale. Presently, Craig’s Bond is extremely bogged down in the personal, and it almost makes the character come off as selfish despite the film’s insistence otherwise. There are many roads down which they can take 007 beyond his 50th year, so hopefully the 24th and 25th movies are willing to think a little bigger. So no, not the best Bond ever, but a damn good one all the same.