[Note: Although this review does not contain any major spoilers - at least none that aren't obvious from the trailer - it's still best read after you've seen the movie. Which you really should have by now.]
“Everybody needs a hobby, I suppose”, muses Daniel Craig in Skyfall.
“Hm.*giggle* What’s yours?” asks Javier Bardem archly, mincing up to Bond.
Truer words were never spoken. Bond has been resurrected more times than any icon in popular culture (with the possible exception of Madonna), and with every resurrection he has returned slightly changed: sometimes stronger, sometimes stranger. Each actor to play Bond has remade the character in his own image. From Connery’s ruthless, graceful, bottom-slapping killer to Lazenby’s self-satisfied, arse-chinned Casanova; from Moore’s charming village idiot to Dalton’s brooding anti-hero; from Brosnan’s diminutive, dandy-haired toothpaste model to Craig’s snarling gorilla of a hitman.
It was Craig’s Bond that was the least recognisable, when Casino Royale came out in 2006. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade had reimagined Bond in the post-Bourne world as a freerunning, trigger-happy bruiser; a grouchy killer with a heart that could be broken. Gone was the handsome, silver tongued charmer, gone the dizzy dames with ridiculous names, the bad puns, the invisible cars with rocket launchers and all of Q branch.
And yet, despite this distinct break from tradition, Royale succeeded. Audiences accepted Craig’s grittier, stripped down version of Bond in Royale – and even old school Bond loyalists grudgingly conceded that Craig’s physical charisma rivaled Connery’s – but drew the line at the next Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Solace alienated and baffled Bond fans with its glum, relentless exploration of obsession and vengeance. It stared too long into the abyss, and the abyss asked for a ticket refund.
Four years later, director Sam Mendes and the Purvis/Wade writing team have brought us a Bond movie that has learnt from Royale’s strengths and Solace’s flaws (not to mention Nolan’s Batman movies). Skyfall is a remarkable film, possibly the best Bond movie ever made, because in addition to being a compelling, dramatic film in its own right, it modernizes the Bond franchise, pays homage to the legacy it continues, and gives us Javier Bardem in the worst hair and creepiest role since No Country for Old Men.
While on a mission to recover a stolen disc containing the identities of undercover NATO agents, Bond is shot and left for dead. In London, M (Judi Dench) is targeted by someone from her past who’s using the information on the disc against her. The new Minister for Intelligence and Anal Retention, Gareth Malllory (Ralph Fiennes), threatens M with dire career consequences and promises to stick around and be a douchebag for the rest of the movie. Bond, meanwhile, is alive and enjoying the life of a movie star on a Mediterranean vacation, fornicating and bonding with the locals over alarming drinking games involving scorpions. But alas, retirement isn’t for everyone, and Bond returns to M in her hour of need, sporting the latest in Greek espionage wear: havaianas, beach shirt and one month stubble.
Despite looking like a homeless alcoholic, Bond is handed his trusty Walther PPK (coded to his fingerprints alone, which you just know is going to trip up an expendable henchman later in the movie) and given the most important job MI6 can think of – find the disc and the sonofabitch who’s YouTubing our agents’ secret identities to the world.
Bond then cunningly employs his unique twin talents – killing henchmen and bedding exotic women – to track the stolen disc to a giggly, blonde haired Julian Assange type, Silva (Javier Bardem), who has a private island (naturally) and a massive bone to pick with M. The rest of the movie is about the whos and whys, which I won’t go into, except to say that if I had a private island, I’d sure as hell have big ass anti-aircraft guns on the roofs.
Let’s break down everything Mendes manages to get right in Skyfall. First, this is a gorgeous film. Every frame, beautifully composed and shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins (a nine-time oscar nominee, he’s shot 11 films with the Coen brothers and 3 with Mendes), is a joy to behold. Severine (Berenice Marlohe), hair billowing, framed in neon light against the Shanghai skyline. Bond in a tuxedo, being borne down a boulevard of floating candles through a giant dragon’s mouth. A hand to hand combat sequence seen only in silhouette against a blue neon display.
Mendes even takes a cue from the Soderbergh school of filmmaking and gives each location its own visual palette – London, all metallic blues and greys; Shanghai, neon and glitz; Macau, candlelight and shadows; Istanbul, ochre and gritty orange; Scotland, grey darkness and firelight.
Second, Skyfall is a very effective modernization/reboot of the franchise. It roots Bond and his job firmly in the modern world, a world of Islamic terrorists, freelance mercenaries, hackers, Wikileaks and government inquiries. There are no deranged evil geniuses or shadowy organisations scheming to take over the world, the villain here is motivated by something that the old Bond villains would’ve dismissed as positively petty – revenge, Oedipus style. No bimbos with outrageous names, no fancy gadgets, no larger than life henchmen. Bond actually gets shot by his own colleague by mistake, and there are frequent questions about his age and fitness for duty (“you’ve been doing this long enough”, “old dog, new tricks”, “this is a young man’s game”).
Next, dramatic heft. Before Casino Royale (which had drama, but in a pulpy, Mills & Boon kind of way), it had been decades since a Bond movie held any emotional resonance. Bond drama is usually “oh the moon will be colonised by Russians, woe is us” and “crap, now where do I park this nuclear submarine I just stole?” kind of stuff. Skyfall, on the other hand, has at its core, the most interesting dynamic/love triangle ever seen in a Bond movie, and in Bardem’s Silva, the most three-dimensional villain since Sean Bean’s 006.
Unlike Quantum of Solace’s Mathieu Amalric, also an accomplished international actor, Bardem is able to bring his Bond villain alive without the benefit of extravagant flourishes or obvious physical deformities. Bardem’s introductory monologue about rats on an island is mesmerising and, for my money, ranks among the best Bond villain quotes, up there with Moonraker’s “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.”
Which brings us to the cast. Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Bardem. Mendes has assembled a lineup of actors who have between them more awards than you could carry around in an Aston Martin. The sort of distinguished cast you’d associate with a Shakespearean drama, not an action blockbuster. Throw in Craig, who’s already established his acting chops (at least when it comes to sulking darkly) and you can see why the movie sometimes feels like Hamlet meets Oedipus on the sets of Macbeth, not Bond. Hell, the entire last act is about the assassination of a parental figure and takes place in Scotland.
In general, like Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Skyfall is a very personal film, focussed on themes of identity and regeneration, which makes it the most self-reflective Bond movie ever. I liked it, but I can see how that might not be for everyone, and the producers will probably scale back the soul-searching a bit in future instalments.
While Skyfall may appear darker than your average Bond movie, it actually has a far lighter tone than Craig’s last two outings as Bond. What exactly was funny about Royale, the bit where Bond falls in love and has his heart broken (are you kidding me?) or the bit where he has his balls bashed in with a knotted rope? As for Solace – a Bond who teams up with an orphan (who’s sexually abused by her parents’ killer) to seek vengeance for his lover’s death, and a villain without a single deformity (unless you count his being French) who wants to control the world’s freshwater supplies? Yeah, that was a regular laugh riot.
Part of the problem is Craig, of course. The man is immensely convincing as a professional killer, but appears to be in acute pain when called upon to deliver a pun (watch out for his agonised expression when he informs M he “got into some deep water” after surviving a frozen lake). Despite this, Mendes manages to coax a few good lines out of him, including a “Just changing carriages, ma’am” after Bond has used a crane to rip the tail end of a train off and jumped into it. And M, Mallory, Q (Ben Whishaw), Bardem and Eve (Naomie Harris) all pitch in with the funny to break the tension every once in a while.
What’s truly remarkable is, Mendes has crafted a smart reboot while remaining generally faithful to the defining elements of the franchise. Skyfall’s plot (if you ignore the final act) actually ticks all the boxes of the classic Bond formula, subtly altering each of them to make them more contemporary: spectacular pre-credit sequence, Villain’s first move, flirtatious office banter, Bond’s mission briefing, Q weapons meeting, Bond’s first encounter with Villain via henchman/female accomplice, followed by sexual encounter with female accomplice, Bond’s second encounter with Villain …. I could go on but that might involve spoilers, and besides, you get the point. Despite the high-brow drama and existential questions, this is a Bond movie.
Bond remains the “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” he has always been – he disses his female partner’s driving and shooting skills, and slips uninvited into showers with women. And there are exotic locales and beautiful women with berettas, bike chases through the rooftops of Istanbul (wait, didn’t I just see this in Taken 2), fights on moving trains, cars with machine guns, campy villains with memorable disfigurements, and henchmen being eaten alive by animals! And finally, the return of (a younger) Q, and another beloved character, written out years ago. The franchise has turned full circle on its 50th anniversary and James Bond is back. Not Bourne, but Bond.