Well, that took a while, but after four years of languishing in MGM’s cash-strapped development rooms, James Bond is finally back on the big screen, just in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. The question is whether ‘Skyfall’, directed by auteur Sam Mendes, is a worthy showcase for half a century of martini-swilling, Aston-driving, megalomaniac-stopping, not-returning-gadgets-even-though-specifically-asked-to-by-Q-Branch-ing “spy craft”.
The answer: Of course it is.
After the controversial instalment that was the dour Quantum of Solace, Mendes and his team inject a well-needed vein of humor into the proceedings, and take Bond closer back to his roots than since Daniel Craig first donned the tux.
For one thing, ‘Skyfall’ sees the return of the classic Bond villain in the form of Javier Bardem’s Silva. After ‘Embittered Frenchman’ in QoS and Casino Royale’s somewhat colourless Le Chiffre (despite beating our hero’s knackers with a knotted rope), Silva may be the most out-there threat that Bond’s faced since… Blimey, a long while. A fey (see: camp), almost prissy sociopath, Bardem doesn’t quite go No Country on us, but his magnetic portrayal of the former MI6 agent hints at (and in one memorably gruesome moment reveals) the scarred monster beneath the surface. A monster created in part by Judi Dench’s frosty M.
In the pre-title sequence released in the build-up to the film’s premiere, M orders operative Eve (Naomie Harris), one of the film’s two “Bond girls”, to “Take the shot”, which, gone awry, sends Bond plummeting off a moving train to his presumed death. Yeah, right. When Bond is drawn out of “retirement” by events in the capital, he’s no longer the smoothly working machine he once was, and Bardem’s Silva is waiting.
As in the previous two films, Craig’s performance is mesmerising. Unlike the good old days when one arguably had to simply look good in formal wear and be able to utter the occasional bon mot without losing at baccarat (I’m being dismissive here, but Roger Moore in A View to A Kill, for instance), Craig hints at the depths of emotion, of humanity, that lie beneath all the stylish provocation. It's difficult not to like Bond, but it's rare as a viewer, for me at least, to find yourself actually caring about him, which in 'Skyfall' is a surprisingly easy proposition.
Shortly enough, Bond’s back on his customary tour of exotic locales, from Shanghai to Macau, bedding the local beauties in the form of Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine (or should that be Silva’s Sévérine?), during which the film carries itself beautifully through the usual motions. From the opening bike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to a neon backlit fistfight atop a skyscraper, Mendes proves he knows how to shoot action and, in the latter case, bring his more arthouse sensibilities to bear. With Roger Deakin as a cinematographer, who worked previously with Bardem on No Country For Old Men, this should come as no surprise.
Some familiar faces also make an appearance, the most notable perhaps being the aforementioned Q, who makes himself known to a Bond in a scene that takes place at the National Gallery. To which I made an immediate visit the minute I stepped out of the West End Odeon at around quarter to four on Saturday, 27th October, 2012, though in my defence it is only just around the corner.
This new hyper-articulate, albeit slightly prickly Q, played by Ben Whishaw, never quite steps entirely out of the shadow of his predecessor, the late Desmond Llewellyn, but with about five minutes in the role that’s perhaps to be expected. He is nevertheless a geeky delight, plus he does get to deliver that old standard about expecting his equipment back in one piece (ha!).
As ‘Skyfall’ takes a turn reminiscent of The Dark Knight (one of Mende’s proclaimed influences), M finds herself having to account for past mistakes. From reciting Tennyson at a board of enquiry to dealing with the resurrected Bond’s announced appearance in her apartment (“Well, you’re not staying here”), Dench is magnificent. It’s easy to forget that she’s been involved in the franchise since Goldeneye in 1995, seventeen years, and, with seven films under her belt, she’s as much a part of Bond’s history as any of the men who have inhabited the title role.
Speaking of Bond’s history, ‘Skyfall’ takes us further back than we’ve ever been before and gives us a tantalizing glimpse at the world – “When he came out, he wasn’t a boy anymore.” To say more would be to spoil it, suffice to say it features an appearance from one of Britain’s best-loved thesps (brushing neatly over my failure to even mention Ralph’s Fiennes’ Mallory, the big boss to whom M must answer for her sins). It won’t be to everyone’s tastes: This constitutes arguably the biggest step towards demystifying the film franchise Bond since… well, forever.
Maybe it’s a cheap way to drum up some emotion.
In any case, the third act, whatever you think of it, is a brave venture forth from the standard formula, and - with it's mist-shrouded moors and ancestral manse - my god, it's beautiful. Bond is on his back foot, haunted, hunted, and personally, I’m more excited about the future of the franchise than I have been in a long while. If this is Craig’s last appearance in the role, it’s a worthy one. So, bring on the old-new Bond, put another auteur in the director’s chair, and let’s get back to work.
So, all together: 'JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN...'