"Some men are coming to kill us. We're going to kill them first."
A contender for the best Bond film in over three decades; the seventh highest-grossing film of all-time - having comfortably crossed the billion-dollar mark; and almost certainly the best action-film of the 2012, Skyfall is a magnificent conclusion to what could easily be described as Daniel Craig's Bond reboot trilogy. After all, by the end of this film, Bond is finally established as the man who walked on-screen, ready-made, in all those classic older chapters.
Through Craig's three movies, we have at last been given some true depth and insight into the legendary icon that was created some 60 years ago and immortalised on screen half a Century ago. By providing us with this depth, Craig has arguably also catapulted himself into pole position to be classed as the definitive Bond.
Fans may love Connery for being the one who started it all; they may enjoy Moore's alternative take - providing grander, more entertaining spectacles over his long 12-year tenure; purists may even prefer Dalton or Lazenby for their attempts to bring forth more elements from Fleming's original character and his grittier written exploits, but Craig has given us something hitherto unseen: the birth of James Bond, 007.
When a mission goes awry – and two top agents are lost – M finds herself in the firing line as an enquiry is set up to see what went wrong. A global terrorist now has his hands on a list of all the NATO agents operating undercover in terrorist cells, and is using them to make several very calculated – very personal – strikes against MI6 and against M in particular. For the first time she needs Bond’s help, but is he in any shape to pull off this mission?
“She sent you after me, knowing you’re not ready, knowing you would likely die.”
It’s strange to think that it has been over seven years since Casino Royale. When Brosnan’s Bond jumped the shark (in an invisible car, no less), he was unceremoniously dismissed, and a replacement was sought. However, for the first time in the franchise, they sought not just to find a successor to the mantle, but an actor who could show us how Bond became 007; how it all started. For the first time, they were going to properly reboot the franchise.
With the success of both Nolan’s Batman Begins and the Bourne films, we saw Bond Begins, and it was everything fans could have possibly hoped for – and more. Sure, it may not have been a traditional Bond outing, but there was promise that that would follow later; Casino Royale was just establishing the character we knew so well, and explaining his love for beautiful women, gambling, fast cars, exotic locations and vodka martinis, shaken not stirred.
Unfortunately, two years later, Quantum of Solace was not quite the follow-up that fans had been eagerly anticipating. Heavy on action, thin on character, it had the momentum of a Bourne film – a crescendo of increasingly loud and elaborate action sequences frenetically edited together into one big blur – however it felt more like the extended conclusion to Quantum, than a new story in its own right. It was the first direct sequel in the entire franchise and certainly the most enjoyable way to watch it is by viewing the two films back-to-back, where the action in Quantum is given greater significance by the plotting carried over from Casino Royale.
Still, by the end of Quantum, it was thought that the character was finally at the stage where, in the next instalment, we could finally get a classic Bond outing. When the gun-barrel sequence appeared and that classic Bond theme kicked-in – just before the closing titles – it felt like this was what the future had in store.
Of course, events would conspire against a third Craig/Bond outing, with MGM suffering serious financial trouble and many fans wondering when we would see another film. Four long years passed, and in that time the script evolved, passing from an original idea by Peter Morgan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) to a final script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the writers who have worked on every single Bond script since Brosnan’s The World is Not Enough. At all times director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) remained involved, supervising the project even during its lull while MGM was waiting to exit bankruptcy, and he brought with him screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo) to further throw some ideas into the mix.
“007 reporting for duty.”
“Where the hell have you been?”
The long-gestating end result would be much more than many fans could have ever hoped for – taking Bond on another globe-trotting journey to face-off against an equally-matched adversary, this time with the UK itself under threat, and some very personal elements at stake – and would cleverly balance stunning action sequences with welcome character development. But it wasn’t quite the film that many were expecting.
Bond actors tend to go through cycles when they take up the role: Connery would be introduced in a fairly down-to-earth Dr. No, would face a more personal threat from a dangerous equally-matched opponent in From Russia with Love, and would reach pure classic Bond perfection with Goldfinger; Moore would go back-to-basics for Live and Let Die, face the more personal threat of the world’s greatest assassin in The Man with the Golden Gun, and reach pure classic Bond perfection with The Spy Who Loved Me. Lazenby didn’t really get past the back-to-basics introduction; Dalton never got to make it to his pure classic Bond triple; and Brosnan followed the pattern in a more haphazard fashion – taking on an equally-matched opponent in Goldeneye, but with personal stakes involved in Tomorrow Never Dies before his slightly more classic third entry, The World Is Not Enough.
Basically it takes a couple of movies before each actor fully finds his groove in the role; before all of those familiar Bond elements are blended to perfection. So people were expecting Skyfall to be Craig’s Goldfinger, or The Spy Who Loved Me – they were expecting pure classic Bond. It isn’t. Probably more classic Bond than Casino Royale (a stunning debut, and a great movie, but a long way away from having all the ingredients balanced for a perfect classic Bond), the best way to regard Skyfall is as Craig’s second outing as Bond. Pretend Quantum of Solace was more of an extended action-addendum to Casino Royale (which it arguably was), and view Skyfall as Craig’s fight against an equally matched adversary, with personal stakes thrown into the mix.
With that in mind you should expect the next movie to be Craig’s perfect pure classic Bond instalment. Just don’t expect it from Skyfall. Expectations reeled-in and realigned, and you should find this to be a superb Bond movie, which boasts excellent performances, standout stunts and action sequences, and a great story which allows the characters to develop in ways we had previously never seen (even in Casino Royale).
“Why not stay dead? There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step.”
Even Roger Moore – who, as a close friend of Connery, has always had the humility to admit that the Scotsman was the better Bond (even if I disagree – see my Moore Bond reviews to find out why) – would remark about Skyfall that it finally showed us an actor, Daniel Craig, who has surpassed Connery to become the definitive Bond. I find it hard to disagree.
Daniel Craig is Bond. His commitment to depicting the dark underbelly to this suave super-spy icon is commendable – Craig has always commented that there is a fine line between Bond being a good guy, and being a bad guy, who just happens to work for the good guys. He’s an assassin, after all, an important element which has been distorted across the last five decades (six since the creation of the character) normally to conform with shifting public tastes and the corresponding political climate. Just as Bond hit full-throttle, Vietnam kicked in, and the ensuing public mistrust of the Government forced the filmmakers to temper the whole Government assassin angle (Bond became more of a debonair playboy who went on outlandish, exotic adventures directly as a result of this).
These days audiences demand intelligent action thrillers. They demand clever, realistic characterisations; more depth than ever before. To that end, Craig has provided more insight into this icon than anybody could have possibly expected, or hoped for. Driven and determined – we’ve never seen Bond take a bullet and keep on going like this before; flawed and vulnerable beneath the surface – the tremor in his hands is subtly done; yet still the top action-hero that he has evolved the character into, Craig’s Bond has everything: punch and presence; cunning and courage; wit and wisdom. And, by the end of Skyfall, you will witness the ultimate classic James Bond, 007 walk on-screen, reporting ready for duty.
Does Craig have another two Bond movies in him? Well, I sure hope so. Rumours have it that they’re grooming Idris Elba to replace him in a few years’ time – certainly I’d be intrigued to see what Elba did with the role (I love Luther and even The Losers, but he was made famous by Thor and Prometheus) – but it’s going to be a testing four years until a replacement is needed and, in that time, anything can happen. Besides, Craig is already looking his age, and this film even takes steps in this direction, noting that he may already be past it. He may have the perfectly-honed body of a much younger man, but he’s put through the ringer on this outing and, more importantly, his craggy facial looks don’t do him any favours – he’s still younger than Moore was even before he took up the mantle, but he looks much older; much more worn. Contracting him for two more films is certainly optimistic (he’ll be pushing fifty come the fifth film). That said, I hope we get the chance to finally see a classic Bond entry from him and, if we do, it’ll no doubt make a fifth chapter with him still in the role much more desirable.
Pitting Bond against a worthy adversary is always a good way to guarantee a memorable entry, and Award Winner (No Country for Old Me, Biutiful) Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is certainly a memorable villain. Although he takes a bit of getting used to – his ambiguous sexuality pushes the character in unusual, unexpected directions, intruding in your personal space and getting right under your skin – he is every bit a worthy opponent for Bond, both physically and mentally. His character is dark and well-developed, a fantastic dip into M’s past which offers insight into Bond’s potential future; Silva is a Bond villain in the style of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now: at once admirable, pitiable, and irredeemable. He may not have the grand plans required of your classic Bond megalomaniac, but he’s one of the best personal opponents Bond has ever faced.
Indeed his character gives way to one of the best elements of the entire story – the parallels between Bond and Silva: you see Bond is just a hair’s breadth away from taking the path that Silva chose; giving up the spy mantle, retiring and becoming twisted and corrupt as the years passed. The mirror-image relationship with M is superbly realised: Silva was M’s finest; now Bond is, but they both know the unreasonable expectations of their maternally-inflicted boss. Whilst it’s easy to see how they are both her ‘children’, it’s also easy to forget that this makes them siblings – brothers – one turned to the dark side; one skating on the edge of it.
“How much do you know about fear?”
“All there is.”
“Not like this. Not like him.”
In terms of Bond girls, Brit actress Naomie Harris (Miami Vice, Street Kings) and French newcomer Berenice Marlohe make up the numbers – the former playing a considerably more competent equivalent to The Man with the Golden Gun’s Agent Goodnight (the character in the original Fleming novels was written to be more like this; a field-trained agent who offered decent backup for Bond), whilst the latter takes on a more classic Bond femme fatale role. Whilst I didn’t always buy Harris’s chemistry with Craig, the final twist for her character – which was rumoured long ago – works well with this depiction of their relationship. Marlohe’s Severine is much more classically elegant but not given anywhere near the room required to breathe complete life into the role, as her predecessors the stunning Eva Green (Casino Royale) and the gorgeous Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) had previously.
As it is, this is fairly forgivable because the story requires considerably more focus to be placed upon Judi Dench’s M, who gets her biggest, meatiest work she’s ever had in her 17-year tenure in the role (which puts her in equal-running with the original M, Bernard Lee, even though Lee featured in several more movies). It’s one of the film’s strongest points: giving us much-needed insight into the relationship between Bond and M and finally showing us the flaws beneath her cold veneer.
Ian Fleming experts have often commented on how the characterisation of M in his novels was reflective of the relationship between the author and his own mother, who he also called ‘M’. Regarding her as a stern, omnipotent figure who made unexplained demands of him and had a remorseless insistence on success, it is easy to see how the novel’s character came into being. Thus casting a woman in the role previously portrayed only by men was a stroke of genius, and, here, we finally get to see more of those motherly bonds coming to the fore. Here, Dench is perfect in the role – something which I don’t think could always be said of her, particularly in her early characterisations, where they were still playing with the character.
Whilst this chapter – with its focus on M’s fall from grace and Bond’s resurrection – requires, by implication, more time to be spent exploring the characters and the way they think, that certainly does not mean that we lose out on the action front.
Mendes may not have been the first name to come to mind when you think of a classic Bond action adventure, but he has certainly gone all-out to provide a memorable outing which at once respects the year-long Bond 50 celebrations by throwing in numerous references to classic Bond entries along the way (the stepping-over-a-dangerous-reptile Live and Let Die touch; the Goldfinger Aston Martin, complete with ejector seat; the classic Bond theme; the introduction of Q and return of gadgets) whilst also forging forward along the reboot path already established by the two preceding films. This Bond is still becoming Bond, even if he is paying his respects to his predecessors along the way.
“The Walther PPK/S nine-millimetre short. It’s been coded to your palm-print, so only you can fire it. Less of a random killing machine; more of a personal statement.”
The pulse-pounding pre-credits sequence is amidst the absolute best in the franchise, with a car, bike and foot chase down the streets and across the rooftops of Istanbul (recently used far more frivolously in Taken 2) before landing atop a train for a fantastic stunt involving a crane and Bond calmly adjusting his cuffs. Superb. Indeed the only disappointment with this scene will come for those who have made the mistake of watching the trailer – the impact of that final shot that leads into the title sequence would have been far more powerful had they kept it out of the previews.
Whilst not quite as exotic as its predecessors in terms of globe-trotting exploits (perhaps partly as a result of a decrease in budget from that allocated to the action-heavy Quantum of Solace – itself no doubt a side-effect of MGM’s financial difficulties), Skyfall more than makes up for its brief but eventful trips to Istanbul, Shanghai and some odd island which looks like a set-reject from Inception’s derelict limbo dream-world, by bringing its UK locations to the fore. You could argue that it is one of the biggest action movies ever staged in the UK, with central London playing important focus during the second act; action taking us below the streets of London and into the underground; before we take a trip up to atmospheric Scotland for the epic denouement.
There are some brilliant surprises along the way, from the tricks that the villain has in store for Bond, M and MI6 to the unexpectedly hands-on involvement of Ralph Fiennes’s shady head of Intelligence; from the cyber-hijinks of Ben Whishaw’s reasonably effective reinvention of Bond’s classic old quartermaster, Q, to Albert Finney’s tough-and-gruff old gamekeeper, who mistakenly – and charmingly – calls M ‘Emma’. The Scotland siege is an absolute high point, but the rest of the film is also littered with them.
Although Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace largely eschewed the classic Bond theme, Skyfall finally starts to introduce it good and proper into the main proceedings. Whilst the theme starts, but doesn’t quite reach its climax at several points during the first half of the movie, they choose a wonderful moment for it to go full-throttle, paying the ultimate compliment to the character and the franchise. Perhaps they don’t use the theme perfectly, but, again, this is not quite that Bond film – it’s still Bond in the making, and the theme is thus still, quite rightly, being tested out.
Regular Mendes collaborator, Thomas Newman, replaces David Arnold, who has been behind the scores of the last six entries. For the most part, he does an excellent job. At times the modern stylisation and ethnic influences seem at odds with the franchise, but it does give it a breath of fresh air to much of the proceedings, and it throws in those Bond tones more prominently than has been the case over the last two reboot entries. Even Adele’s theme song didn’t cause me any distress, although it was a shame that the radio stations played it to death in the run-up to Bond.
Despite the almost-universal praise for the film, I can also understand why some have struggled with the length and depth of this Bond feature. As noted, perhaps expectations were that it would be a more classic outing. What happened to classic Bond spectacle? What happened to overthrowing eccentric megalomaniacs determined to destroy the globe? What happened to elaborate sets in exotic locales? What happened to the classic Bond girls?
Personally, I think that Skyfall would have been far better received as a second outing for Craig; better received had it been released back in 2008 instead of Quantum, or even back in 2010 when it was supposed to have been released. If you can get past the fact that it is not quite classic Bond – that it is still building towards that, and ends with the final nod towards the start of classic Bond – then it may be better appreciated. It may be easier to see it in its true light; see that it stands as one of the best movies of the year (besting Looper, Dredd, Avengers and, easily, Dark Knight Rises), probably the best action movie of the year, and certainly one of the best Bond movies we have seen in a long time (arguably further towards classic Bond than even the great Casino Royale).
“Everyone needs a hobby.”
“So what’s yours?”
In time it will hopefully be remembered for fully rounding out the classic icon of James Bond, 007; for finally rounding him out as the flawed anti-hero that he was always meant to be; for offering up hitherto unseen depth into the previous enigma of M; for establishing all of the key characters and components ready, in place, to form the perfect Bond mixture in future chapters; for pitting Bond against a worthy and memorable adversary and for delivering a salvo of blisteringly good action sequences which are amidst the best-staged in the franchise – from one of the best pre-credits scenes of all time to a beautifully tense stealth attack; from the lightning-quick taking out of a cadre of armed bodyguards to the Central London ambush; from a frantic chase through the underground to a beautifully improvisational defensive action in the Scottish countryside, finally bringing the character – and the franchise, full-circle. A fitting tribute to the Bond 50 celebrations, Skyfall has earned its place as one of the best Bond films of all time.