Dir. Sam Mendes, UK/USA, 143 mins, rated 12A
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judy Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
Arriving on a tidal wave of advertising and hype, Skyfall sees the return of James Bond, the world’s least-secret secret agent, for another big-screen adventure (his twenty-third if you toe the party line and discount 1967’s spoof version of Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again).
The film opens in Istanbul where James Bond (Craig) is hot on the trail of a stolen computer drive containing the identities of undercover agents. A rather perfunctory car and motorbike chase leads to Bond and the thief, later identified as mercenary Patrice (played by Ola Rapace, until recently husband of Dragon Tattoo actress Noomi), grappling on top of a train over a high bridge. Orders from M (Dench) lead to Bond being shot off the train by his own team and plunging into the water below. With Bond missing and declared dead, someone starts releasing the names of the agents in an attempt to discredit MI6, following up this cyber attack with a physical attack on MI6 HQ. News of the attack leads to Bond’s return, and despite concerns over his readiness for duty, M dispatches OO7 to track down the man behind the attacks, revealed as embittered ex-MI6 agent Raul Silva (Bardem). Silva is on a mission of revenge to take down his former employers and in particular take out his old boss, M. Note: Almost all of this story (and plenty more) is depicted in the film’s trailer.
Skyfall marks the third time that Daniel Craig has buttoned up a tuxedo over his straining frame and is, in the large part, another modern gritty thriller in the vein of Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. In Craig’s first two outings, as we followed Bond’s development from rookie Double-O assassin, through love and loss, to experienced cold-blooded killer, we were given tantalizing hints to the existence of a larger conspiracy, with a mysterious organization – eventually identified as Quantum – who were pulling global strings and getting up to all kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. For better or worse, Skyfall disregards all this and introduces a much tighter story focused almost exclusively on M and the vengeful Silva. (Admittedly there is a kind of running subplot about whether 007 is suitable for active duty, but considering only two films ago we were watching him on his first assignment doesn’t it seem a bit premature to start positioning Bond as over-the-hill?)
I’ve never been a huge fan of (Neal) Purvis and (Robert) Wade, the writing partners who took over script duties on the Bond series with The World Is Not Enough. I thought they’d redeemed themselves with the Casino Royale reboot, or at the very least managed to tame some of their worst habits, but in Skyfall – co-written with John Logan – the weaknesses are evident. Admittedly, some of my disappointment stems from the fact there are very few sequences in Skyfall that are not represented in the film’s trailer. What additional plot-points there are turn out to be obvious or easily predictable from the outset – and the revelation of what ‘Skyfall’ actually means elicits little more than a shrug – and despite all the globetrotting, the focus on MI6 means that the story seems oddly small in scale. There are also several moments in the action that are so idiotic that I was reminded of how I felt watching Prometheus: such as Silva going to great lengths to escape custody, disguising himself as a police office (again, in the trailer) and losing Bond in the crowded Tube, only to go and leave an ‘employees-only’ door obviously ajar. There’s a similar moment towards the end of the film when the story can only advance because Silva spots a torchbeam in the darkness.
Purvis and Wade have always been fans of referencing earlier Bond adventures but here the references feel more like recycling (the palm signature gun from Licence To Kill, an explosion at MI6 from the scriptwriting duo’s own The World Is Not Enough, the drive containing a list of agents from Mission: Impossible); other references make no sense at all in this new post-Casino Royale rebooted continuity (the Goldfinger-era tooled-up Aston Martin for example, where did that come from?). Even the locations – Istanbul, Macau and Scotland – are places we’ve been before in the franchise.
Dialogue-wise, with the exception of a great word-association scene (shown almost in its entirety in the trailer) and some promising banter between Bond and the newly introduced Q, there are few other memorable exchanges, and mention has to be made of the few ‘comedic’ lines during what should be a pulse-racing chase through the London Underground that are just toe-curlingly awful.
Despite the material the film is helped by the fantastic cast: Bardem gives a wonderfully flamboyant performance that helps him avoid becoming another Dominic Greene (remember him?) while Ben Whishaw oozes geek-chic as Q. Bérénice Marlohe, who plays Sévérine, the film’s sacrificial lamb (a standard Bond film trope), looks stunning but is not given much to do, and her tacked-on sex slave background makes a subsequent shower love scene with OO7 unintentionally creepy. But the real savior of Skyfall is director of photographer Roger Deakins, a regular Mendes (and Coen brothers) collaborator. Skyfall is nowhere near the best Bond film ever, but it is easily the best looking. There is one particular scene with Bond and the mercenary Patrice engaged in a fight to the death that is filmed entirely in silhouette against a spectacular neon backdrop in a wide and largely single shot that is (perhaps deliberately) worlds away from the hyperkinetic, over-edited Bourne-style combat in the previous outing Quantum Of Solace.
Skyfall was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the first in Eon’s wildly successful James Bond series. It’s perhaps appropriate then, that by the end of the latest Bond adventure we end up right back where we started.