Four years is a long time for James Bond to be away from cinema screens. He’s only had such a prolonged absence 2 times previously, the first, between ‘The Living Daylights’ and ‘GoldenEye’, was the result of legal trouble securing character rights, and ended up with Timothy Dalton’s resignation. The second, following ‘Die Another Day’ was accompanied by the decision to reboot the entire series. So, when MGM’s financial problems led to what was then called ‘Bond 23’ being put on indefinite hold a couple of years ago it seemed quite possible that we’d seen the last of Daniel Craig’s James Bond.
Within the opening seconds of ‘Skyfall’ (sadly not the iconic gun barrel sequence), they want to make one thing perfectly clear; James Bond is Back!
Sam Mendes’s announcement as director was an unusual choice for the series, which tends to employ lesser known directors. Not only does he have an established background in theatre and film, but an Oscar to boot. However none of this made him necessarily a sensible choice for a Bond film, as he’d never helmed any big action sequences or stunt work.
Any fears that Mendes might not be up to the job and well and truly laid to rest in ‘Skyfall’s breathless opening minutes, as Bond peruses a target over the rooftops of Istanbul, first on foot, then via motorbike, to a moving train. It’s an outstanding sequence that establishes the tone of the whole film excellently, this is still a serious James Bond, but not too serious. It also offers quite a bit surprise, one thing that Bond films’ plots have not been known for in recent years, and that’s something that ‘Skyfall’ pulls off several times.
This is not the same Bond who wowed us back in ‘Casino Royale’ mind, Daniel Craig now plays him as a highly experienced field agent, showing more of the confidence and swagger the character is known for than he has previously. And with this, he has also aged. Many references are made to the fact that Bond may be too old to work anymore. An obvious parallel can be seen between this and the series itself. The glorious answer both the character, and the audience will find by its third act, is to make the ideal 50th anniversary Bond, one must look forward and work in the modern world, while simultaneously embracing the legacy of what came before.
Javier Bardem, a high-profile hiring for the villain, has already given us one of the more memorable screen villains of recent years (complete with a bizarre haircut), and does a similarly sterling job here as a flamboyant cyber-terrorist. His introduction, a single shot as he slowly walks toward Bond while recounting a parable about pest control, is a highlight. His plan, while not obvious at first, is an unusual one too.
This brings us to the first possible issue one could have with ‘Skyfall’, and that is, well, Batman. The central episode of the film, involving a key part of Silva’s master plan, bears something of a resemblance to ‘The Dark Knight’. Silva himself, while a pretty unique creation, also has elements of The Joker (and Hannibal Lecter) to him. Here it is from the horses’ mouth: ‘what Nolan proved was that you can make a huge movie that is thrilling and entertaining and has a lot to say about the world we live in, even if, in the case with ‘The Dark Knight,’ it’s not even set in our world. If felt like a movie that was about our world post-9/11 and played on our fears and discussed our fears and why they existed and I thought that was incredibly brave and interesting. That did help give me the confidence to take this movie in directions that, without ‘The Dark Knight,’ might not have been possible.’ – Sam Mendes
It doesn’t feel at all like any sort of rip-off though, and leads to another tremendous action sequence. Anyway, the possible homage shot of Bond overlooking the London skyline is just as great as the way Batman did the Gotham one.
It’s not all action though, as one would have hoped, a great deal, if not more effort is put into the important dramatic elements of the story too, and the climax presents a scenario that’s a twist on several predecessors.
Another new prestigious addition to the crew this time round is famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the sheer class of his work really does show. One wouldn’t really expect to come out of this raving about the visuals but they are gorgeous, particularly during the China-set scenes.
While several contributors can be singled out, there is no weak link here, from the excellent supporting cast, to Thomas Newman’s John Barry-esque score, and of course a great foundational script (for which ‘The Aviator’/’Gladiator’ writer John Logan was brought on). It ticks pretty much every box and more.
Lastly, we have to talk about Judi Dench. She’s been playing M since 1995 and in her introduction gave Bond the dressing down many felt he had coming. Her prickly relationship with her rebellious star pupil has continued to develop over the course of all the subsequent films – there’s a reason she was the only cast member kept on for the reboot. Here, she gets undoubtedly her best and biggest role. Showing many aspects of the character, the usually desk-bound M moves all over the place, and gets justifiably billed second in the end credits. Plus her first meeting with Bond post-opening titles provides a priceless moment. When it comes to the end, well, she might just be the greatest Bond girl of all.
It’s too soon now to really say where this would stand in the pecking order of Bond films but it’s certainly toward the higher end of the scale. As the film ends, a title card informs us; ‘James Bond Will Return’, and even 50 years on, he’ll still be very welcome.