According to Carly Simon “Nobody does it better,” than Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s finest, James Bond. But over the last decade 007 has had to deal with all manner of rivals to the spy throne with Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and even George Smiley proving you need something special to be considered the world’s best spy. Casino Royale may have brought Bond back to the fore but Daniel Craig’s second outing as the super spy, Quantum Of Solace was, let’s be honest, an unquantifiable mess. So anxious were the producers to capture the Bourne magic they even hired Bourne’s Second Unit Director, Dan Bradley, to handle the action and much of Bond’s quips, wit and charm had long since departed.
So does Skyfall, Bond’s 23rd cinematic outing, fly or fall in the potentially over-saturated spy market? With 2012 marking Bond’s 50th Anniversary now is as good a time as any to prove he is not just a “relic of the Cold War.”
When James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) latest mission goes horribly wrong, a list containing the names of all MI6’s undercover operatives is stolen. With Bond presumed dead, M (Judi Dench) comes under increasing scrutiny fromgovernment official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to find the list before the operatives are exposed and killed. When MI6 is subject to a devastating terrorist attack, with M maneuvered like a pawn to watch the horror unfold, Bond is forced to emerge from his alcohol-induced sabbatical. M has no one to turn to but him and he’s not about to abandon her. Travelling to Shanghai, 007 discovers the man behind it all is the mysterious Silva (Javier Bardem) who, along with being an expert hacker, is connected to M’s past. With time running out, Bond and M must work together to bring down Silva before he sees to it M is nothing more than a name in an obituary column.
For non-Bond fans, Skyfall might just be a gateway back into the franchise, for aficionados it is likely to be up among the favourites. Hiring Sam Mendes as director was a smart move. As a filmmaker he has always been more interested in character driven stories than crash-bang-wallop action and this is exactly what Bond needed to set him apart from the spy crowd. Yes, there are still the breathtaking set pieces. Yes, Bond still fights, shoots and jumps his way through the mission. But it’s done with an emotional investment in not just Bond but the other characters and, in particular, M.
For the first time in the franchise, Bond has an onscreen equal in his iron lady superior. She’s pivotal to the story, more than just a mechanism who doles out a mission brief. Her past is key to Skyfall’s storyline but crucially so is Bond’s. The scars he sustains in the opening sequence mean the ever-invincible spy has to go through all manner of psychological screenings to ensure he’s ready to return to the field. Suddenly Bond is laid bare, not in the forced ‘fall in love with Eva Green in five minutes flat’ manner of Casino Royale, but in a genuine, believable way. With the character’s being actual characters we are able to invest in them, will them to succeed and live their thrills more so than previous Bond’s have dared.
Of course Bond wouldn’t be Bond without a few staples. Q, played with youthful gusto by Ben Whishaw, is back for the first time since 2002’s Die Another Day, to assist Bond in the way the character was always intended. Gadget-wise, all he does is add a radio transmitter to Bond’s trusty Walther PPK but, as a computer expert to rival even Silva, the new Q is a sly, yet welcome way, to bring Bond firmly into the 21st Century. The relic of the Cold War is keeping up with the Internet age without the need of invisible cars.
What sets Skyfall apart though is the energy with which it hurtles along. At over two hours running time the film never drags. Mendes and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have constructed a story that rivets you with plot, grips you with action and invests you with character. The set pieces are not there merely to fill a quota but instead to fuel-inject the story, driving it to the next level. The action is no longer the shaky, hand-held stuff of Bourne but fluid, engaging and always spectacular with the final showdown arguably one of the most intimate and original Bond set pieces of all time, drawing on the likes of Home Alone and Straw Dogs. And all of it basks in the sumptuous cinematography of nine-times Oscar-nominated Director of Photography Roger Deakins. Remember how gloriously Deakins lit the train robbery sequence of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford? Skyfall’s climax is its equal, eerie spectral orange flames against haunting fog.
By now Craig is firmly rooted in Bond but for the first time since donning the tux you feel he’s nailed the character. Gone is much of the pouting and posturing, worrying more about his watch than his life. Here he’s raw, almost broken, but rising like a phoenix from the ashes. His sparring with Dench’s M has always been a highlight and now you get it for almost the full running time. Dench is on ever-reliable form, a constant hard-nose, spitting her lines with contempt until the tables are turned on her, even then managing poise and grace under fire. If there is a weak link it is the over-the-top antics of Bardem as Silva. Perhaps paying too much attention to another bleached-blond Bond villain inChristopher Walken’s Zorin, he’s too much of a pantomime bad guy in Bond’s most grounded film to date even if he’s clearly relishing playing the part, camping it up to the point of practically blowing kisses at a bound Bond.
Skyfall is Bond at his best; the dry sense of humour is back, the action is exciting and most of all the characters have moved on from the cardboard cutouts of previous incarnations. Every Bond film ends with the credit stating “James Bond Will Return.” On this basis he is well and truly back.
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