James Bond 007: Looking Back At Skyfall

A peroxide Terminator, a magnificent M, and stunning set-pieces. We revisit Sam Mendes' first Bond film, Skyfall...

The film: Brilliant first half, problematic second. But even the second half is still pretty good. Manages to celebrate the traditions/clichés of the franchise without ever descending into parody. Stunning set-pieces in Istanbul, Shanghai and Macau showcase the globetrotting and glamor that has served the franchise so well (naturally, we end in Scotland). The plot disappears halfway through and finale is again underwhelming, although less so than the previous Craigs. Ultimately Skyfall is a great Bond film on first watch, a very good one thereafter.  

The Villain:  A fine antagonist, although certainly not the best ever. The first camp baddie since Wint and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever (and they were only henchmen). Silva is a heap of fun. His deep, sexy voice charms you, but those cold eyes and that physical presence never let you relax. Javier Bardem doesn’t have a ball so much as a week-long house party of such glorious hedonism Jay Gatsby would blanch. Becomes less interesting at the film’s climax when he is reduced to little more than a peroxide Terminator, implacably tracking M across the moor.

The Girl: M, naturally. Okay “girl” may be a little disrespectful to Dame Judi Dench but there’s no denying M’s position as main female character of the film – and she shares more erotic charge with Bond than Camille in Quantum Of Solace. Obviously M is as magnificent in Skyfall as in her six previous films. Sharp, funny, and utters the first F-bomb of the series to date (Listen closely at the climax). A fitting swansong for a totemic character.  

Of all these retrospectives Skyfall is the hardest. Partly because it’s the most recent film, and partly because of its phenomenon. Skyfall is the highest grossing UK film of all-time, and the seventh highest worldwide. All aspects of the film – the hits, the misses, the plot-holes, the finale – have already been chewed over and digested into pop culture lore. Finding something new and interesting to say about Skyfall would make the task list of a modern Hercules. And I am no modern Hercules (I say that on all my dates).

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Still, let’s give it a go. The pre-credits sequence is brilliant. Fast, ridiculous, played utterly straight but willing to give the viewer an occasional wink out of the corner of its eye. The readjusted cufflink, the brilliant commentary by Eve (“They’re on top of a train!”) is pure Bond: stylish, silly and, crucially, fun. If Craig was in danger of turning into Jason Bourne the opening of Skyfall instantly reverses that transformation. Fight atop a speeding train? No problem. Survive a bullet and 300 ft plunge into a river? Easy. I remember watching in the cinema as Bond hit the water, the screen darkened, a piano began to tinkle, and a great wave of euphoria hit me – we’re back, baby! We’re back.

Actually one of my favorite things about Skyfall is the fact it offers no explanation for how Bond survived his fall other than being James Bond. It’s emblematic of the confidence the film has in itself. Let’s blow up MI6! Let’s make Q twelve! Let’s keep the villain hidden for half the runtime! Let’s give Bond a beard! Director Sam Mendes isn’t afraid to make bold decisions, and the vast majority pay off. Sadly his boldest decision of all – that final act – doesn’t quite work…but we’ll get to that later.

A word on the beard. Less magnificent than Pierce Brosnan’s in Die Another Day but sticks around longer. Remains exactly the same stubbly length as he travels from South America, to London, to Shanghai, to Macau. As he clearly isn’t shaving the only possible inference is James Bond has the testosterone levels of a seventeen-year-old boy.

Skyfall gifts the franchise a new Q, a new Moneypenny, and ultimately a new M – all slightly subverted in their own way. Making Q a young boffin works remarkably well, and in hindsight was probably the only way of satisfactorily resurrecting the character. Desmond Llewelyn was Q: he appeared in 17 films, more than any other actor, ever. Ben Whishaw gives a reinterpretation rather than an impossible imitation (to quote my Mum: “Funny having a Q who’s hotter than Bond.”). Moneypenny is finally given the history with Bond the franchise coyly alluded to. (‘They almost certainly shagged’ has just the right note of ambiguity.) And a younger M, basically Bond’s contemporary, should allow for an interesting dynamic in future films. My only worry is whether three such established actors as Whishaw, Naomi Harris and Ralph Fiennes will be happy to stick around for twenty years making what could be cameo appearances. Fingers crossed.   

But before Fiennes takes the big chair, Dame Judi must depart it. Her final hour is also her finest: back against the wall, taking on a mysterious attacker, bureaucratic interference and her own past mistakes. Her early insistence that Eve “takes the bloody shot” despite the risk to Bond (nice going, Eve) demonstrates M’s bloody-mindedness. The utterly guiltless reaction to Bond’s reappearance is another entry to the extremely long list of “Great Judi Dench Moments.” “Well you’re bloody well not sleeping here” is just wonderfully dismissive.

Judi Dench led MI6 for seventeen years and seven films. That other great M Bernard Lee served the same amount of time but managed eleven films; back in the day they churned them out pretty quick. The casting of Dench was arguably the first step on the road to Skyfall; a hugely respected actor taking a role in a James Bond utterly seriously, while also extending the limits of what the series could be. Now Oscar winners such as Fiennes, Bardem and Christoph Waltz pop up and nobody bats an eyelid. Now we can enjoy a youthful Q, a black Moneypenny, an actual M transition rather than a new face behind the desk pretending to have sat there forever. Dame Judi is responsible for all that – but her biggest contribution is on-screen, not off it. Throughout her time I can’t remember a scene she didn’t steal. M: the Matriarch. Rest in peace, Ma’am.    

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The middle of the film – Shanghai, Macau, the island – is pure Bond porn. A fight, a fall, a casino, a tux, a mysterious femme fatale, deadly animals, an implausible lair, a villainous monologue, the long-awaited confrontation – Mendes seems determined to ensure anyone playing the Bond drinking-game gets absolutely legless. The introduction of Silva is the film’s highpoint, and also the moment when its gambles start to backfire.

The Shanghai apartment fight is brilliantly shot: two silhouettes clashing against the cold blue light. I do question Bond’s decision to grab onto the elevator – for a man recently shot in the shoulder that’s a big call. After making such a fuss of Bond’s dilapidated state, it would have been nice to show some evidence of this dilapidation. Instead the man is swinging from the bottom of lifts with an insouciance to make Tarzan queasy.    

Poor old Séverine. Life wasn’t good to her by any stretch. Plenty of women have been dealt some rough hands by the series, but being killed off in order to let a septuagenarian become the heroine is a real stinker. At least she provides us with one beautiful encounter: Bond, a mysterious femme fatale, a casino. What more could anyone ask? Actually, “James, you remember that woman was a child prostitute?” would be a pretty valid question. “Get out of her shower!”    

That rat monologue, though. What makes Silva’s appearance so potent is the build-up; the boat approaching the island, the captured Bond, and  Séverine’s slow walk through it. By the time the lift descends the audience is on the edge of their seats. Has there ever been a more atmospheric introduction than Silva’s slow walk into focus while waxing lyrical on rat infestation?

The ensuing conversation is a true joy; Bond’s “What makes you think this is my first time?” is both a brilliant line and a remarkably plausible hint at a sexually liberated past. The lad went to boarding school after all.   

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Strangely I feel Silva is a missed opportunity. The character is introduced wonderfully and Bardem is brilliant in the role. Like Scaramanga or Alec Trevelyan, he is a dark inversion of Bond; but the flamboyance and flirtation mark Silva as unique.

Unfortunately the potentially fascinating conflict between Bond and Silva – imagine a villain sexually attracted to 007! – is ignored completely in the finale. Silva’s verbal switch from ‘James’ to the more conventional ‘Mr Bond’/ ‘Bond’ shows the lost connection between the two characters. The knife-in-back is also a slightly anticlimactic demise. At last Craig’s Bond is given a physical equal – and yet the two of them aren’t allowed to fight! Bad form.  

Once the action returns to London things start to unravel. You know the plot-holes. Why must Silva be captured if he’s a master of espionage and could infiltrate England whenever he wanted? Why doesn’t Q check the laptop before merrily plugging it into the MI6 mainframe? Why is shooting M at a public inquiry a safer bet than waiting outside her house? How does Silva even know the public inquiry exists? Why, since Silva is clearly a wizard – how else could he predict the exact moment Bond would require a tube to be thrown at him – doesn’t he use his magical powers to kill M from afar. Posers all – and too complicated for me to answer. Let’s focus on a different mistake, a narrative misstep that pushes the film into the wrong final act. Silva should kill M at the public inquiry.

Think about it. After seven films we know all about the relationship between this M and Bond: there is no need for further exploration. M’s death is more impactful two-thirds through the film than at the climax. The final act could instead be a guilt-ridden Bond tracking down Silva to some exotic and dangerous hideout. For revenge, and also to recover the stolen hard drive (remember that?) before Silva exposes every intelligence agent on the planet. Now Silva’s plot-hole of an assassination plan is less noticeable (as it worked) and the stakes are raised emotionally and in scale. Plus the whole hard drive plot-strand doesn’t, you know, disappear.

Ah well. Instead we have Scotland and the booby-trapped house. And yet a whole other plot-hole as to why Bond thinks re-enacting the Alamo in the Highlands is safer for M than having the entire secret service protect her. The novelty of the finale actually makes it pretty gripping on first watch. Mendes has taken Bond out of its comfort zone and the rules are unclear.

Unfortunately novelty is a one shot deal. Once you know what happens – shoot the first wave of faceless mercenaries, explode the second – the climactic battle simply isn’t very interesting. Skyfall misses what Casino and Quantum missed: the ticking clock, the countdown to disaster for Bond to avert. This disaster isn’t necessarily nuclear; merely a plan that must be thwarted, a framework for the action to be built around. Skyfall is the best Craig finale, as unlike in his first two films we are at least aware of the stakes. But it is a shame that so cinematic a film ends with what is, in essence, a computer game level.

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I also dislike how the previously brilliant Silva suddenly goes ker-razy in the church. Personally I think it relieves rather than heightens the tension: once we realise Silva is out of control we’re just waiting for Bond to kill him. And why doesn’t Silva shoot Kincade dead? The old man still had a shotgun! As previously mentioned, I feel a great villain got ultimately sold a little short.

Still – you gotta love that ending. Everybody knew the Moneypenny reveal but it still works. Outside the iconic red door the final piece slots into place and MI6 is complete, the story Casino Royale started is finally at an end. James Bond is back.

Speaking of endings…  It’s been a long old journey but here we are, 24 films and nine months later. Eeesh. Somewhat amusingly this retrospective will be published the day Spectre is released; no sooner is the finish line reached than it recedes. Of course a Spectre retrospective shall be written, once people have had the chance to watch it – I’m thinking perhaps a month? And perhaps a little something on the future of the series if I can find enough to say. But these can only be epilogues: to all intents and purposes we’re done here.

So I just want to say thank you. It sounds trite but it’s true: without your comments, interaction and enthusiasm this series would never have reached Skyfall. Between us we’ve accomplished something pretty impressive; I must have written over 60,000 words (!), you guys several times that number. You made writing these articles so easy; Monday became a good day because I got to read your fair-minded, eloquent, witty and perceptive responses to both my piece and each other.

The Treen, Timothy, Jailor, Chinofilm and all you others, far too numerous to mention: thank you all. Thank you to Simon Brew for commissioning this series and providing the most encouraging of feedback. And shoutout to my dad, who always reads, never comments (doesn’t have an account), but takes great pleasure in finding the various threads and arguments below the line. Like most people, I suspect, Dad comes for the article and stays for the comments; and that’s how it should be. Otherwise it’s just me shouting into cyberspace. Mine is merely the opening statement of a lengthy conversation – and you have been great company.

Right then. Holster the Walther, down the Martini, tighten the tie of the tuxedo. Somebody start the Aston because I’m outta here. Ideally I’d tarry a little longer but as a wise man once said: always have an escape plan.    

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It’s funny. I spent nearly a year working to complete these retrospectives. And now the end has finally arrived, I suddenly don’t want to go.         

Best Bit: The rat monologue as Silva descends the lift and slowly prowls into focus. Spine-tingling.

Worst Bit: The “death-by-flying-tube” attempt. Did nobody point out the implausibility?   

Final Thought: Kincade was nearly played by Sean Connery. I still can’t decide if this would have been the best thing ever or totally ruined the film.