Saturday, 3 November 2012
Bond is back. Again.
After the spy series had descended into outright silliness for the umpteenth time with the invisible cars of Die Another Day, 2006’s Casino Royale rebooted the series with a newer, grittier aesthetic inspired by The Bourne Identity. Daniel Craig was the twenty-first century embodiment of Ian Fleming’s gruff man of action, replacing the campness of previous Bonds with a hard stare, a moral complexity, and an intimidating amount of muscles, soon becoming many people’s favourite Bond, including my own. What was remarkable was that, as well as rejuvenating the series stylistically, Casino Royale had a story in which Bond actually became emotionally invested; a story which changed him as a person. Surely, this is essential for good storytelling, but it’s an element that previous Bond films had been sorely lacking (except for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but everything else about that film was awful).
Two years later, Quantum of Solace tried to replicate this success. It failed. Quantum had Casino Royale’s visceral action, and Craig continued to be a great Bond, but its attempts to develop Bond felt like more of a coda to Casino Royale than a film in itself, and the film took Casino Royale’s realism out of ‘gritty excitement’ and into ‘tedium’. The villain’s plan was to steal a lake. Yawn.
In 2012, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the twenty-third Bond film, being released to coincide with and celebrate the series’ fiftieth anniversary, aims to merge this style with a tribute to classic Bonds – and it pulls this off excellently.
Jason Bourne's influences feel less noticeable than in the earlier Daniel Craig Bonds. Rather, the film has a style that brings to mind the BBC’s Sherlock – there’s a real love for a classic British hero and his back catalogue. This is expressed through a plethora of references to classic Bond films, some subtler than others. One major plot point feels reminiscent of You Only Live Twice, the Goldfinger car shows up, and Bond jumps over a Komodo dragon in a manner that must have been thought up of as a less off-the-wall version of Live and Let Die’s crocodile stepping stones. Craig’s Bond is very much the chiseled, gruff hero of Casino Royale, though we do see many hints of Connery or Moore’s wit and stylistic flourish seeping in, such as the moment when Bond straightens his cuffs mid-action, immediately after attacking a train with a digger. Unfortunately, not all of this works – there’s a one-liner after a tragic event which, coming from Daniel Craig's mouth, seems offensive and distasteful, whereas Roger Moore could have got away with it. Nevertheless, Skyfall has a distinct nostalgic feel and appropriately celebrates the series’ history without ever descending into the campness that Casino Royale aimed to get rid of.
The story itself is, in ways, very James Bond. It’s an international espionage adventure beginning with the most outrageous and fun action sequence of the Craig era so far - it has a car, a motorbike, a digger, a train, and a digger on a train. We join 007 as he chases the twenty-first century MacGuffin that is a lost hard drive, but the film’s story soon becomes a very deep and personal affair. Skyfall manages to pull off the same level of emotional investment as Casino Royale, and not just with Bond; Judi Dench’s M is, for the first time, explored as an interesting and conflicted character. When Javier Bardem’s villain Silva turns out to be an agent from M’s past, her position as both a mother figure and as a cold, calculating boss is brought to the fore. It’s this contrast that has turned Silva into a vengeful psychopath determined to humiliate the woman he sees as a mother, and which also leads us to a surprising insight into Bond’s past. I never thought I’d say this regarding a James Bond film, but I’ll be disappointed if, come awards season, Dench doesn’t get at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Other additions to the MI6 team are Naomie Harris' Eve and Ben Whishaw's Q. Harris has a smaller part than I expected, as Dench is the real Bond girl here, but she's a tough character who has a real chemistry with Bond, and is sexy but not sexualised - a role it's clear Harris is enjoying. Whishaw brings the quartermaster role generally associated with a much older actor into the youthful internet-saturated world; his take on Q as a nerdy kid is funny, very modern, and, for those of us who don't go for Daniel Craig, sexy. MI6 are sexy again.
Bardem is excellent too; his Silva deserves to go right to the top of any list of great Bond villains. Casino Royale and Quantum’s villains never really made themselves memorable, with the threat of a Spectre-esque organization not quite living up to its potential. Skyfall ditches this arc, for now at least, and gives us a man who is very evil, very physical, and very powerful. A former agent up to Bond’s standards and a computer hacker extraordinaire, Silva’s presence is constantly threatening and engaging, right from his first appearance, in a shot so drawn out and tense that even Bond does a little wee. Probably.
Which brings me on to Sam Mendes’ direction, which, along with Roger Deakins’ photography, gives the film a great visual style. With fast-paced action that knows how to make way for slow-paced tension, Mendes was an inspired choice to make a film as exciting as Bond can be. The film is shot with a rich colour palette, bringing to life both the exotic settings of Shanghai and Istanbul and the labyrinthine underworld of London.
Does Skyfall feel like a James Bond film? In many ways, yes. The action is perfect, Daniel Craig is a brilliant Bond, Javier Bardem is a brilliant villain. There are however, some narrative elements that make it much more interesting than the average Bond film - it has a thematic heart, and interesting, deeply developed supporting characters. It is, successfully, both a continuation of the twenty-first century Bond introduced to us six years ago, and a celebration of the Bond introduced fifty years ago. Whether or not it’s a better film than the revolutionary Casino Royale is hard to judge; this certainly has a much more vibrant and nostalgic feel, which I really like. Perhaps the hype has got to me, but, for 007’s fiftieth birthday, Skyfall is the perfect Bond film.
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