A major change* occurred in the Bond films when Daniel Craig took over and the impact of that change has been felt more and more in each subsequent film. As of “Casino Royale”, the films were no longer about Bond’s adventures and his mission, they were about Bond himself. Although each film contained the requisite action and intrigue, they were essentially the backdrop against which his character was examined and tested: a deliberate deconstruction of the witty, über-confident, martini-swilling womanising superhero of movies past. With the Teflon coating removed, Bond’s vices brought consequences; the scene in “Quantum Of Solace” aboard the plane with Mathis is the first time we’ve ever seen Bond drunk. The brutal fights hurt, leaving him bruised and bloody. And the women…well, through three whole films, there’s really only been one woman and she left him devastated and damaged. Vesper Lynd is the only main Bond girl that Daniel Craig has taken as a lover throughout the course of his first three films. There have been dalliances, of course, but the relationship with the leading lady in each of his subsequent films has not been a sexual one: Olga Kurylenko’s Camille in “Quantum Of Solace” and Judi Dench’s M in “Skyfall”.
Whether through serendipity or sagacity, the delays caused to the production by the financial difficulties of parent studio MGM was used wisely by the writers, producers and Director Sam Mendes to really polish and fine tune the screenplay, conscious of how badly the underdeveloped narrative had hurt its predecessor. The Quantum plotline was abruptly dropped in favour of a dramatic storyline which would bring two characters to the foreground in a way that the movies had never done before.
When M comes under attack from a seemingly unstoppable force with links to her past, Bond’s loyalty is put to the test as he is tasked with tracking down and destroying the threat by the very woman who left him for dead. With MI6 under siege from enemies both foreign and domestic, Bond is forced to take unprecedented steps to protect everything he stands for, no matter what the personal cost.
The film begins with Bond and a fellow agent in pursuit of a stolen hard drive. This disk, it turns out, contains a list of every single MI6 agent in deep cover. By now, you have to wonder why security services continue to keep their deep cover operatives’ names and aliases on discs given the frequency with which these discs fall into enemy hands. Just ask Ethan Hunt or, indeed, Charlie’s Angels. In any event, the mission does not go well, showcasing again this Bond’s inability to put his opponent down swiftly and effectively. Thankfully that allows the fight/ chase to stretch out over an impressive action sequence involving cars, motorbikes and, memorably, a train and an excavator. Unfortunately, the rookie agent Bond is partnered with is forced by M into taking an ill-timed sniper shot and Bond plummets from a bridge into the icy waters of the opening credits.
Adele’s sultry theme song seems to have roused the opening credits from the stupor “Another Way To Die” drove them into, or maybe it’s the return of Daniel Kleinman that makes the real difference. His opening titles this time out are a thing of beauty, slyly reflecting and foreshadowing the whole movie without spoiling a single aspect of it.
Among the many admirable qualities Daniel Craig has brought to Bond, he has also given Britain’s finest secret agent an unappealing petulant streak and “Skyfall” gets his trademark ‘disappear off and sulk for a bit’ out of the way pretty quickly as Bond takes a holiday. Nothing fancy, mind just the usual: sun, sea, shots with scorpions. He is roused from his melancholy by a news report of an attack on MI6 headquarters and returns to London. Although it’s not particularly clear how long Bond’s vacation lasts (all Bond’s assets have been liquidated and his obituary published yet Moneypenny is still temporarily suspended over the bungled shooting) his return from the dead is hardly a miraculous resurrection. The evaluation sequences (a world away from the cosy spa atmosphere of Shrublands) and tests are a careful and deliberate deconstruction of everything we’ve come to expect of Bond. He misses his target, gets tired and out of breath, unable to quip his way through the fitness test. The dismantling of the legend of Bond would actually border on the offensively heavy handed if it weren’t merely a prelude to the comprehensive rebuilding and redefining of the character through the rest of the movie.
As they carefully bring Bond back, they include some of the elements which have been missing from Craig’s Bond so far: the dry humour finally reappears and Daniel Craig seems comfortable in delivering the odd joke amidst the earnest character driven drama. The Aston Martin DB5 is back too, tricked out with the exact gadgets it had in “Goldfinger” (although given he won it from a bad guy in the Bahamas in “Casino Royale” there’s no indication of how or why he had it pimped). Even Q makes a welcome return after a three movie absence, although his initial offering of gadgets is miserly to say the least.
Apart from the brief detour to Shanghai and Macau, “Skyfall” is the most domestically rooted Bond film in the entire series although it never feels anything less than exotic. Conveniently glossing over the fact MI6 aren’t legally allowed to operate within the United Kingdom (that’s MI5’s job), “Skyfall” sees Bond sparring with Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) under, over and through London (someone really needs to make a film that features a foot race between Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise) all the way to the Scottish highlands.
The reason the film doesn’t suffer from its largely familiar setting is that it looks stunning. Whether it’s the neon vistas of high rise shanghai, the subterranean environs of the London Underground or the big country vistas of Skyfall, Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins conspire to make this the most visually opulent Bond film of all time. Mendes – an admitted sceptic when Daniel Craig was first cast as Bond – not only subtly restores the character but surrounds him with a note perfect cast of characters. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris and Ben Wishaw are excellent additions to the Bond cast, each of them placed with an eye to the future rather than a one-shot guest role. Albert Finney is wonderfully cantankerous as Skyfall’s caretaker Kincaid (and it’s a marvellously realistic touch that he mishears M’s name as ‘Emma’). On the villainous side of the scales, Bérénice Marlohe is sensational as the doomed and fragile secondary ‘Bond girl’ Severine but it Javier Bardem’s Silva who gives “Skyfall” its sense of gravity and magnitude.
After a fairly long run of lacklustre or insubstantial opponents, Bardem’s Silva is a fascinating villain for Bond to deal with. His almost playful introduction is a slick piece of misdirection, making his later ruthlessness all the more shocking. The tale of rat cannibalism and coconuts is chilling, despite his almost CBeebies bedtime hour sing song delivery of it. What makes him so special is that he’s not the equal of Bond: he is the superior. The ease with which Silva puppeteers everyone and everything (for all Q’s millennial smugness, he’s the one stupid enough to plug Silva’s laptop directly into the MI6 mainframe) casts Bond in the unfamiliar role of the underdog. Silva is smarter than Bond, stronger than Bond, more ruthless than Bond. He’s even blonder than Bond. Giving him the cyanide damaged face feels like overkill, a pointless gimmick that gilds the lily. Silva is Bond, only through a glass darkly.
The filmmaking and character work is so good; it covers a multitude of plot sins. Bond’s inability to keep his targets alive rears its head again and it’s only through some luck that he happens on another clue to keep his investigation alive. There’s also the moment when Bond is remonstrating with M about her order that saw him shot off the train where he angrily declares she should have ‘trusted him to finish the job’. Bless you James, but finishing things off quickly and efficiently is precisely the opposite of what this incarnation of the character can be relied on to do.
There’s also the fact that, when you look at the ease with which Silva and his accomplices compromise and control MI6 together with the placement of Quantum agents close to M, it’s hard not to agree with Helen McCrory’s strident government minister that MI6 isn’t fit for purpose. Bond’s plan also isn’t terribly good in the end – he strands himself in a place with no weapons, miles from civilisation. Admittedly it’s compounded by Mallory, Tanner and Q monitoring Silva using road cams and being aware of the plan to lure him out yet they send no backup or support for Bond, leaving him isolated. With Dench as the de facto Bond girl of “Skyfall”, this marks the third film in the entire series – and the second for Daniel Craig – where Bond fails to keep the Bond girl alive. And given that M’s death was the entirety of Silva’s plan, this may also be the only Bond film where the bad guy wins. Dench is tremendous throughout and manages to give M’s death real emotional heft despite the fact it represents Bond’s ultimate failure and Silva’s triumph.
It’s testament to the profound feeling of quality and class that pervades the film that these heresies pass almost unnoticed, especially on the first watch. Having torn the character down in the first hour and re-forged him in the fires of Skyfall, the film ends on a confident high note. It’s a cunningly unexpected pressing of the ‘reset button’, taking Bond back to the beginning while retaining its modern sensibilities. Moneypenny is in place and M awaits Bond in an oak panelled office behind the studded red leather door. An annoyance in “Quantum Of Solace”, the use of the gun barrel sequence at the end of the film doesn’t feel like an ending, it feels like a fresh start for the series – no mean feat at the venerable ago of 50.
Craggus’ Bond Voyage will return with SPECTRE…
* Actually two things: the poster art has become incredibly dull too.