Skyfall (12A/PG-13, 143 mins)
Director: Sam Mendes
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Bond 23, as it was once known, the first James Bond adventure for four years due to legal wrangles, finally arrives with the rather more evocative title of Skyfall, alongside what’s sure to be a collective sigh of relief from audiences that it was worth the wait.
Like its predecessor, Quantum of Solace, it begins with a rip-roaring chase, as Bond (Daniel Craig) and his colleague (Naomie Harris) pursue a suspect through Istanbul. He’s in possession of a file containing the names of MI6 moles, something that M (Judi Dench), controlling operations from London, is desperate not to lose. Unsuccessful in his mission, the pre-titles sequence ends with Bond being accidently shot and presumed dead.
Back in London, Ralph Fiennes is the government lackey who wants to fire M for the loss of the file. Meanwhile, having been off the grid for months, Bond returns when MI6 comes under attack from former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who is waging a personal vendetta against the agency, and M in particular.
From that opening sequence, one that reveals the ruthlessness of M (Judi Dench) while suggesting Bond has some humanity, it’s clear that this is a film with more on its mind than simple action. It’s the kicking off point for a drama that actually has its characters at its heart and isn’t just an excuse for exoticism and mayhem.
As we travel to China and back, it retains the glamour of a Bond film while sending up their inherent silliness, managing the extremely difficult task of being both knowing and deadly serious about its plot machinations, even while providing some huge laughs.
It’s the most introspective of Bonds, one that dares to consider the possibility that maybe everything about it is getting a little long in the tooth, from M to Bond to the spy game itself. But there’s also humour, with touches that nod to the 50 years of Bond without falling into the cartoonish self-parody that blighted Die Another Day on the occasion of Bond’s 40th.
It’s also a triumph for Craig, who in his third outing has truly made the role his own. He was allowed some room to breathe in Casino Royale but in Quantum of Solace, which looks more and more of a dud with every viewing, he was basically the Terminator, rampaging through action scenes with an unstoppable dourness. Here he’s human, real and flawed, and when he returns from his extended absence, he’s even lost much of his physical ability and lethal skills.
On top of that there are a couple of true masterstrokes. One aspect that’s going to get a lot of attention (and hopefully an Oscar) is the work of Roger Deakins, long-time director of photography for the Coen brothers, and more recently for the director here, Sam Mendes. Whether it’s the neon skyscrapers of Shanghai or a rainy London street, Skyfall is just gorgeous.
Then, in a dream piece of casting, there’s Bardem. In the role of a flamboyant villain once again, you might have expected something of a rerun of his Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, when what he actually serves up is so unexpected, so delicious, that you can’t takes your eyes off him from the moment he makes his sensational entrance.
Too many times recently we’ve heard characters in Bond movies talking up the bad guy, only for the reality to be a bit of a letdown. But Silva lives up to the billing, and though his scheme seems simple, he’s always a step ahead. In that respect he’s very much a successor to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, an agent of chaos rather than a supervillain who’s a physical match for Bond.
Fights are choreographed, not edited into existence, and thankfully any pretence to be being a Bourne film, with jittery hand-to-hand combat and all that free running guff, is jettisoned. Though it may not be on the scale of some previous adventures, the action sequences still have ambition and audacity while never losing sight of the characters.
It’s a complicated juggling act for Mendes, and he and everyone involved in Skyfall has risen to the challenge.