Since Daniel Craig took on the iconic role of the world’s most famous spy back in 2006 there have been some notable ups and downs. Casino Royale, to my mind at least, is one of the best Bond films of all time. Just as with Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, it introduced us to a completely new interpretation of the character, and with a healthy nod to the immortal traditions of the past, updated the franchise for a new decade and a whole new generation of fans. In it Craig had managed to sculpt the most brooding and rough-around-the-edges Bond yet. Following this came Quantum of Solace, which despite being a pretty decent action blockbuster, gets repeatedly slated because it ventured too far from the traditional Bond mould. Director Marc Forster seemed to draw more inspiration from the fast cuts and man-on-the-run pacing of the Bourne saga, than he did from the sophistication and tradition of 007.
And so we find ourselves facing Craig’s third outing in the famed tuxedo. Skyfall has already become the cinematic event of the year here in the UK, and this week will aim to make a dent in the US box office. But will it see our most modern Bond rise triumphant or fall from our graces for good?
On the 30-minute journey from my apartment to the central London cinema where I watched Skyfall, I counted a total of 22 separate adverts for the film. From giant billboards to posters on the sides of buses, moving ads at tube stations to product posters featuring characters from the film in shop windows. Promo for Skyfall is at saturation point, and the excitement surrounding Bond 23, in his 50th anniversary year no less, has reached fever pitch.
Thank goodness then that Daniel Craig, Sam Mendes and the rest of the dream team they put together for this film do not disappoint. Skyfall is an undisputed hit. How could it not be when the talent behind this movie ranks amongst the highest of any Bond film? Starting with Mendes at the helm as one of the most prolific directors ever to lend his hand to the franchise, it trickles down through the likes of award winning screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator; Hugo), ten-time Oscar nominated composer Thomas Newman, genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, and even pop-diva Adele singing the all-important theme song. There isn’t a weak link among them.
The cast list is just as impressive. Of course Craig and Judi Dench return as Bond and M, and their chemistry couldn’t be stronger, these two really feel like they’ve lived a life together. Javier Bardem is a spectacular foil for Craig’s more serious Bond, and new additions Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Berenice Marlohe and Naomie Harris round out what is surely one of the best ensemble casts 007 has seen in decades.
One of the biggest strengths of the film is its plot. Where Quantum of Solace struggled to find a coherent narrative to follow, Skyfall glides smoothly through an intricately planned yet ultimately simple story that for the first time ventures into the shadows of Bond’s past. It seems ridiculous that this is the first time in fifty years that we’ve been allowed a glimpse into what made 007 the man he is today. Purists may moan that it clashes with the great enigma surrounding the character, but this is a tactic that undoubtedly pays off, especially when balanced so beautifully with the increased attention given to M, who really comes to the fore here. Of course Dench is nothing short of fantastic in the role (when is she not?) and visibly relishes the chance to play a bigger part of the action.
The true scene-stealer however is Javier Bardem as eccentric villain Silva. Although his screen time is perhaps less prominent than previous Bond villains, he certainly makes his presence felt. The opening encounter between himself and Bond is a highlight that will not only send shivers down the spine, but also shows our infamous hero in a completely new light. For once his plight as a villain feels almost justified, and Bardem’s performance is as good as you would expect from one of the finest actors working today.
As with any Bond film, the locations play as important a role as any character. Skyfall takes us seamlessly from Turkey to Shanghai, Macau to the Scottish Highlands, with Deakins’ cinematography bringing out the exotic and sublime in each of them. We’ve all seen the stunning shot of Bond sailing into the dragon casino in Macau, but it’s the neon infused scenes in Shanghai that prove just how Oscar-worthy Deakins’ work is. It’s aspects like this that take Skyfall well beyond the standard action flick, and in some respects beyond anywhere the franchise has ever been before. The visuals here are truly world class. Meanwhile the grey London skies have never so successfully reflected the mood at MI6, with spectacular set pieces in the London Underground forming a major highlight in the film.
However Skyfall is not entirely without flaws. Though the action is solid, it fades from the mind far too quickly. This is in part due to the added weight given to the storyline, but compared to the great spectacle found in Casino Royale, for example the opening parkour fight sequence, the central airport set piece, and the boat chase in Venice, Skyfall never manages to push the big moments quite big enough. Likewise the writing of the female characters is underwhelming to say the least. It’s sad that after all these years we still aren’t guaranteed a true femme fatale Bond girl. Is it too much to ask for a woman who not only has the looks, but also the brains and enough screen time to prove it? Marlohe as sultry Severine is just as disposable as every Bond girl who never makes it into the final act, and while Harris displays great promise, her character comes and goes with barely the slightest baring on the film at large. Of course the increased role of M goes some way to discount this issue, but it will still be a sticking point for many.
Despite these issues Skyfall is still an overwhelming success. It continues to take the gritty modern edge of Craig’s Bond to new heights, with intelligent direction and dazzling visuals. At the same time there are endless nods to the past fifty years of 007 history that even the biggest fans of the series will need multiple viewings to spot. It all adds up to what is one of the finest films of the year; dramatic, thrilling and authentically Bond to the core.