By now, we all have a good idea of what to expect from a Bond movie. Cars. Ladies. A Walther PPK. Pithy one liners. The elements have all become so familiar, it’s easy to forget that it was James Bond who defined the modern action hero. Without Bond, there’d be no Jack Bauer. No Jason Bourne. No Bryan Mills. And with 007 celebrating his 50th year in the movies, what better time than to bring forth a Bond movie that looks back as well as forward?
Ever since Casino Royale landed in 2006, Eon has sought to reconcile Bond with the modern age. We’ve seen less reliance on gadgets, and more emphasis on immediate, physical action. Yet while Daniel Craig’s first outing was a confident, streamlined affair, the general consensus was that Quantum Of Solace took the rough editing and shaking cameras a little too far.
From Skyfall’s opening shot, it’s clear director Sam Mendes has taken us into different territory. The movie opens not with a bang but with an ominous murmur. Bond’s in Istanbul, and on the trail of a missing hard drive. We’re not sure what’s going on or why this piece of hardware is so important, but there’s an anxiety in James’ eyes that’s troubling, perhaps even unfamiliar. But we get little time to ponder this; with an angry bark from M in his earpiece, Bond’s off on a high-octane chase through Turkey’s ancient city, in pursuit of the villains and the vital tech.
It’s a bold opening sequence, and one thing immediately stands out: the camera is rock solid. There are no needlessly rapid cuts or jolting cameras. The suggestion of speed and peril is instead suggested through expert framing, an aggressive use of sound and superb stunt work.
Although this opening sequence is only brief, it tells us everything we need to know about Skyfall: this is a Bond movie establishing its own style of action again, rather than riding along in the slipstream of the immensely influential Bourne movies, as Quantum Of Solace arguably did.
Needless to say, the stolen hard drive will prove to be pivotal to the rest of the movie’s events, though we won’t spoil things by giving away the details here. It’s sufficient to say that screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have brought the villainous threat closer to home this time – something you may have gleaned from the various Skyfall trailers.
Daniel Craig has long since placed his own stamp on Bond, and he once again brings an engaging, human dimension to this most iconic of spies. This is a Bond who’s variously tense, vulnerable, tipsy, embittered and as promiscuous as we’ve come to expect. It’s also pleasing to see Bond the detective as well as the man of action, as he uses his Sherlockian skills to entertaining effect in one small yet memorable moment.
It’s a 007 movie confident enough in its writing to dial back the action sequences when it needs to, and instead rely on suspense and wonderfully dry dialogue to carry large chunks of the film. Judy Dench is once again wonderfully icy as M; newcomer Naomie Harris is effervescent as Bond’s occasional sidekick and new verbal sparring partner, Eve, while Ben Whishaw is quietly charismatic as the new, computer-savvy Q.
Skyfall keeps its action sequences well spaced out, and its manner of gradually building up to its set-pieces is more akin to Dr No or Goldfinger than, say, the more outlandish action of Die Another Day or Moonraker. And because those build-ups are so measured, the action sequences, when they arrive, sparkle all the more.
Skyfall’s so well paced, in fact, that it’s easy to miss that all the things we’d expect are still in place – there are exotic locations, glamorous women in expensive dresses, explosions and car chases, but all presented in a manner which feels surprisingly fresh.
Once again, the way Skyfall is shot plays a key role in this – Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unusual and striking, adding drama and artistry to familiar action sequences. One scene in particular, a moment of suspense silhouetted against the surreal, acid colours of a neon sign, is quite breathtaking.
Perhaps influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Skyfall has a sweeping, Wagnerian sense of epic scale and foreboding. Thomas Newman’s sublime score underlines the sense of apocalyptic events, and the movie’s at its best when it’s contrasting violence and quiet suspense, the old and the new, the grand and the intimate.
Skyfall, perhaps better than any of Bond’s modern adventures, manages to reconcile the wood panelling and Cold War scheming of the character’s origins, and the high-tech, post-Internet requirements of a modern spy movie. It draws on the iconography of the classic adventures from the 60s, but it’s also, at times, bravely iconoclastic.
Regrettably, not everything in Skyfall works, as decisive as its makers’ choices often are. Although the sense of drama and foreboding hints that Bond may have met his physical and psychological match, that notion is undercut by several events which diminish the tension somewhat. Javier Bardem’s villain is oddly uneven, and in spite of the actor’s gamely animated performance, his menace wanes rather than builds – a disappointing misstep in an otherwise solidly written script.
If all this sounds rather vague, that’s because there’s so much that deserves to be kept under wraps. More than any other 007 movie of the last few decades, Skyfall has unexpected and dramatic moments to savour. It’s not perfect, but it feels complete, satisfying, and equally eager to cater to those hoping for some classic Bond action, and those who’ve never seen a 007 movie in their lives.
“We’re going back in time,” Bond says in one scene, providing what is possibly the film’s key line. Skyfall takes stock of 007’s heritage, while also pointing the way forward. And if Skyfall’s the future of Bond, then the franchise is undoubtedly secure for another half a century.
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