Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney and Javier Bardem.
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan.
Director: Sam Mendes
The traditional pre-credit action sequence that lets the audience know that latest Bond adventure has begun also lets the audience know exactly what they can expect from Skyfall, the 23rd instalment chronicling the adventures of Agent 007.
Walking into focus through the speckled darkness of an Istanbul apartment block, Daniel Craig’s MI6 super-agent stalks the killers of his colleagues, their corpses littering an apartment fragmented by light and splattered with blood. It is a scene that brings real world violence into the action-figure realm; Bond movies have been mostly bloodless affairs, despite much twisted villainy. The opening to Skyfall feels real; the last gasp of a dying agent called Ronson is burned into both Bond’s and the audience’s psyche.
Soon, though, Bond is out into the harsh light of the Turkish day and hurtling along its streets in a car/motorcycle chase that at different intervals skims along rooftops, involves a grader and ends in a fistfight atop a speeding train. The sequence is preposterous but wholly involving and carries with it a vengeful, purposeful mean streak. Welcome to Bond 2012.
Director Sam Mendes brings a great deal of thematically dark psychology to his first foray into Bond-age. The plot spins on a computer hard-drive MacGuffin but rarely has a film-maker seemed so clearly disinterested in his film’s central device. Instead, Mendes and scripters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan ruminate on the ageing relevance, mental struggle and physical decrepitude of their central character and the doddering image of the organisation for whom he provides secret service.
The film’s exploration of the value of wisdom over muscle is further enhanced by the central role that Dame Judi Dench’s ‘M’ and, late in film, Albert Finney’s ‘Kincade’ contribute; if the film hits the box-office heights expected of it, two septuagenarians may emerge as the year’s biggest action heroes. As Bond, Craig is literally reborn onscreen as a damaged-model 007 yet one who must face a world of futuristic wonder (as captured in an incredibly vivid sequence set in Shanghai) and a villain steeped in technological wizardry.
Ah, the villain. His name is Silva and he is played by Javier Bardem (only the second Oscar winner to do play a Bond baddie, A View to a Kill’s similarly blonde-coiffed Christopher Walken being the other). Like Bond’s first-reel entrance, Silva is brought into focus from deep in the frame but, unlike 007’s silent but deadly prowling, he does so while mouthing one of the great bad-guy monologues. Bardem has created a truly seething and repulsive adversary (something missing from the Craig-era instalments to date), his motivations and methods pathological and convincingly frightening.
Mendes has crafted a Bond film that succeeds on a fullness of fresh detail and vision while still honouring the mythology and chronology of the series. The reinvention of the iconic ‘Q’ character as Ben Whishaw’s hipster-nerd tech-geek could have gone very bad; of course the producers are pandering to the next generation of Bond fans by skewing this character younger, but it is done with wit and balance.
So too the staging of the action sequences, which pulsate with modern-movie energy yet take their inspiration from classic-movie set-ups; a teeth-rattling shoot-out at a parliamentary hearing in the middle of London could have come from any number of great bar-room gunfights from the cinema of the wild west. A bulky mid-section and a what seems like a few too many endings means that Skyfall probably isn’t The Greatest Bond Film Ever, but it is certainly the pick of the modern era incarnations (Goldeneye onwards).
Where it does excel is in the deepening of the man behind the myth. The plot leads to a confrontation back where it all began; not the legend of Bond the agent but the emotional complexity of James the boy. If Skyfall takes its action cues from the Bourne movies and the last Mission Impossible film, it mirrors that other great Brit-lit hero, Harry Potter, in it’s lead character’s arc. Parental figures and familial legacy are central to the importance and impact of Sam Mendes’ story and Ian Fleming’s stylish protagonist becomes a more real but no less exciting figure because of it.