You British beauty! Reaches for the sky and delivers
Bond fans can relax. Despite director Sam Mendes being best known for his Oscar-winning film American Beauty and his previous film (Away We Go) being a gentle, conflict-free affair about a 30-something couple looking for a place to start their family, his first (and hopefully not last) foray into Bond is remarkably assured. From the off this reviewer had giddy man-tears sitting in his eyes from the excitement of feeling 12 again. The action set-pieces are dynamic, solid − and while it’s certain there are some, any computer-generated effects are largely invisible. Exotic ladies and locations are all pleasantly present, but do not occupy the foreground: a moody grey London and the breathtaking melancholy of the Scottish Highlands provide most of the scenery.
All this creates the impression of a return home for Bond, both literally and metaphorically. At first glance he’s still the same old Bond, drinking Martinis and spouting an infinite number of one-liner quips primed for all occasions. It’s the same old Aston Martin you love, but under the hood he’s packing horse power, the likes of which you’ve never seen. At one point a fellow operative, Eve (Harris), talks about Bond having the look of an old dog with new tricks. In fact, he resembles a prize-winning bull with eyes of blue ice: he’s muscular, unstoppable and genuinely dangerous-looking. The latter is Craig’s trump card: it’s a quality that creator Ian Fleming attributed to the character, but one that only Craig has convincingly embodied.
The opening pre-title sequence is a nod to the history of action cinema: a breakneck foot chase that segues into trucks vs cars vs motorcycles that culminates on top of a fast moving train carriage. Then Bond is shot dead. At this point I became worried as to whether it would be possible to maintain this energy throughout. Mendes and the Coen Brothers’ regular director of photography, Roger Deakins, deliver in every conceivable department. Mendes’s strong suit is his ability to extract great performances from his cast, and here we find universally strong work from everyone. Craig’s Bond has never been better, Harris is wonderfully charming and in the case of Javier Bardem, he takes what might have been standard Bond fare on paper and turns it into high camp, Blofeld-beating villainy par excellence. Utterly magnetic, Bardem fuses Hannibal Lector with The Rocky Horror Show’s Dr Frankenfurter. An ex-agent, he’s one of M’s prodigal sons, returning to pick a bone with Mother. Having destroyed the old MI6 building, he’s now gradually releasing the top secret names of all the MI6 operatives.
Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have been scripting the franchise since the Brosnan era (including the abominable Die Another Day), so one suspects that it is newcomer John Langdon, perhaps with guidance from Mendes, who deserves praise for the script. Despite the heavyweight talent elsewhere, it is the writing that elevates this Bond, giving new depth to characters that could so easily become one-dimensional caricatures of themselves.
Skyfall revolves around a theme that imparts the perils of replacing old with new. It is, in essence, a cautionary tale about retiring our dinosaurs before their time. Considering the theme then, Skyfall appropriately gives relative whippersnappers like Bourne, XXX, and other contenders for the Bond throne, a right royal dust off. Forget the latter Brosnan follies, the much maligned Quantum of Solace and even fan-favourite Casino Royale because, for the first time in nearly two decades, nobody is doing it better.
Dir: Sam Mendes; UK/US action/thriller, 2012, 143 mins; Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Bérénice Marlohe, Helen McCrory
Premieres October 26