5 November 2012
Carrying a legacy is no mean feat, by any stretch of the imagination - and it's more difficult than one might be able to conceive if that legacy is the James Bond film franchise, in it's 50th anniversary year. Couple this with a Bond whose appearance has divided critics and audiences alike, along with it being a follow-up to the relatively lacklustre Quantum of Solace, and you'll begin to get a sense of just how much was riding on Skyfall.
It's a relief to report, then, that Sam Mendes has absolutely nailed it. There are a couple of snags at script level, but ultimately, this is an absolute return to form for the franchise - an ensemble cast that's never been finer, a story that neatly subverts a few stale tropes as it establishes a new status quo, whilst at the same time acknowledging the 50-year-old legacy that preceded it with a degree of subtlety that's almost unprecedented.
It may have initially seemed like an odd choice for director, given his previous films - but Mendes is a genuine revelation as an action director. From the initial chase sequence that ticks every box you could imagine - cars, motorbikes, parkour and trains - to guerilla warfare in an abandoned old house, every beat of action is exciting, entertaining and above all, gloriously captured by Roger Deakins. The film's crowning moment - at least in my not-so-esteemed opinion - is the set piece involving Bond trailing and ultimately confronting an assassin in a glass office. A masterstroke of effectively setting tension before an action sequence, and then properly framing it - there's some cat-and-mouse play as Bond hides in the reflections in the glass, and the subsequent fist-fight between the two is done in a single slow zoom, silhouetted by the blue neon sign on the building behind them. It's one of those 'wow' moments unique to cinema, and I challenge you to sit through this scene without your jaw knocking out the person sitting in front of you.
What's great about the direction is that there's an effort to connect Craig's newer, grittier Bond with the suave aloofness of Brosnan, Connery and Moore. Little details abound in each scene and set-piece that link the four portrayals together. There's also some interesting questions raised about just how useful an individual like Bond is in the age of digital intelligence. As Ben Wishaw's new incarnation of Q puts it: "I can do more damage on my laptop, sitting in my pajamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do a year in the field. But sometimes, a trigger needs to be pulled". The conclusion it draws? Very useful indeed - but that's the rub of the piece, and you should see it yourself for just how it comes to this.
Performance-wise, Daniel Craig continues to do his best to become everyone's new favourite Bond, and as said, there's a real effort, both from Mendes and from Craig himself to connect the blunt instrument of Casino Royale to the sophisticated, dapper agent that we were used to before he rocked up. Javier Bardem is deliciously unsettling as Silva, the villain of the piece - he's a nod to the slightly camper days of old, but coupled with a disturbing twist that creates a genuinely memorable villain. Judi Dench provides no evidence against the ostensible fact that she can't put in a bad performance as M, and welcome additions to the cast in the form of Naomi Harris and Ralph Fiennes help round out what is a fantastic ensemble.
It's perhaps a bit of a disappointment that the story sags a little in the middle, but this is mainly due to an unreasonable number of intriguing plot threads being juggled rather deftly, and physics dictates that there's going to be some form of inevitable downward motion, so it's easy to overlook this when taking the film in in its entirety. Less forgiveable is the glossed-over motivation of Silva, which feels a little too-quickly explained and poorly emphasised. It would've perhaps been more interesting to make him a Joker-like character - "Some men just want to watch the world burn" - rather than try to hastily cram an explanation into expositionary dialogue. Still, Bardem's interpretation of the character is so strong, so beautifully off-putting, that you'll simply be glad he gets to clash with Bond at all.
Ultimately, these two minor hiccups do prevent the film from taking its place alongside the likes of Goldeneye and Goldfinger - but the gap isn't exactly what one might refer to as large. It's exciting, it's engaging, it's thoughtful, and it's iconic, with a best-yet performance from Mr Craig. See it, and - if you're like me - see it again shortly afterwards.