The challenge for any filmmaker tackling a character as ingrained in the public consciousness as James Bond is to negotiate the line between producing a film consistent with the positive characteristics of its predecessors, without rehashing them in a monotonous fashion. Given the length of time that Bond, described by Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass as a “cruel misogynist… imperialist right-wing f-ckface”, has been depicted on screen, many audiences feel familiar enough with the character to instinctively detect if a work passes the litmus test of ‘Bond movie’ or not. It will be interesting to note how Skyfall ranks with fans in years to come, after its enormous hype has died down, having grossed over $1 billion world worldwide (the first Bond film to do so). While it offers the prerequisite beautiful women, exotic locales and spectacular action, Skyfall dispenses with the megalomaniacal schemes we have come to expect from Bond in favour of much simpler, revenge-driven narrative.
The Bond series have never been the most cohesive in terms of plot, long before last entry Quantum of Solace confused most of the moviegoers who contributed to its $590 million box office draw. Skyfall deliberates counters this; its plot is so straightforward that new character Mallory (Ralph Feinnes) surmises it in the theatrical trailer: “Three months ago, you lost the drive containing the identity of every agent embedded in terrorist organizations across the globe.” Mallory is speaking to M (Judy Dench) now facing adverse consequences, not just from the Ministry of Intelligence calling for her resignation, but from the cyber-terrorist into whose hands the aforementioned drive has falling, Raoul Silva (Javier Barden). Compelled to protect M, a presumed-dead James Bond (Daniel Craig) resurfaces.
Remarkably, for such a lucrative franchise, Skyfall marks the first occasion a Bond film has been helmed by an Oscar-winning director. Sam Mendes’ career appeared to arrive fully-formed when his 1999 debut American Beauty swept the Academy Awards, earning him a Best Director trophy. Skyfall is also the second time Mendes has worked with Daniel Craig, after sombre gangster movie Road to Perdition. However, those expecting Skyfall to abide by the auteur theory more than the constraints of its genre will be disappointed. There are little directorial flourishes one could pinpoint as the sole responsibility of Mendes, though his frequent collaborator Roger Deakins captures the film in typically beautiful Oscar-nominated cinematography.
Bond has never been a character with much heart, so the attempt to instil him with more emotional depth, an extension of what occurred in Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale, may perturb audiences. George Lazenby was famously made to reshoot the tragic climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on the grounds that Bond should never cry. Considering Daniel Craig is ostensibly the toughest embodiment of Bond yet, the decision to have him shed tears in Skyfall jars slightly with his thuggish persona. Craig’s Bond films, as well as updating the franchise for the 21st Century, are also prequels of sorts, and references abound to M’s trusted secretary Moneypenny, Bond’s Aston Martin and Q’s proclivity for increasingly ridiculous gadgets. Here Q is played by Ben Wishaw, doe-eyed and with more than touch of Richard Ayoade about his appearance.
Sam Mendes proved in Road to Perdition that he knows how to present cinematic violence in visually arresting way (witness that films’ silent rain-swept shootout), and thus he delivers the many set-pieces in Skyfall with aplomb. One brawl between Bond and an assassin is illuminated entirely by silhouette, while the Istanbul-set pre-credit sequence easily surpasses its immediate predecessors, with some of the most jaw-dropping stunts of recent years. Nor does Mendes snub his nose as thrillers of the past: an on-foot chase between Bond and Silva through London’s Underground evokes William Friedkin’s The French Connection by-way-of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Mendes seldom puts a foot wrong with the action, bar one moment featuring egregiously artificial Komodo dragons and an encounter under-ice which stretches credulity.
The climax of Skyfall may prove its most divisive element. Decamping to Scotland, Bond and his allies hole up in an isolated mansion, preparing for siege in a manner that invites equal comparisons with Straw Dogs and Home Alone. Some may long for the more outlandish settings of previous films, such as Blofield’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice, but Skyfall still packs an enormous punch in its third act. Expect profundity, and Skyfall will disappoint, but for sheer explosive eye-candy, it is on a par with anything else released in 2012. And given 2012 was the year of Gareth Evans The Raid and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, that is high praise indeed.
Skyfall is available to rent or buy from February 12th.