"Bah, I was hoping for the Lotus Esprit."
Release Date: 26 October 2012
12A | 142 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris
“Is there any of the old 007 left?” asks Raoul Silva, the pansexual supervillain of Skyfall, brought to the screen in a masterclass of bug-eyed camp by Javier Bardem.
It’s a question that stalks the superspy’s 50th anniversary adventure. For all the pre-release chatter of this being “Bond with a capital B”, steeped in “a magical Goldfinger feel”, it’s a film that fights surprisingly shy of the franchise’s time-honoured rites. There’s no world-throttling masterplan, no monstrously memorable henchman, no final-reel tumble with the leading lady. The immortal gadgets are now nostalgic museum pieces, our unshakable hero a man haunted by “unresolved childhood trauma”. Tellingly, it’s another Bond film that refuses to open with the crowd-baiting promise of the gunbarrel walk and its attendant swaggering fanfare. Always a sacred part of the Bond ritual, its absence declares this to be one birthday bash that refuses to be caged by the past.
The plot is achingly 2012, propelled by a stolen hard-drive holding the identities of every undercover agent embedded in terrorist cells around the globe. MI6, we’re told, is on a war footing, and for once this war is a cyber-war. Yes, Goldfinger’s laser has been superceded by an asymmetrical algorithm, Blofeld’s deadly Omega virus trumped by the dark power of YouTube. “We can’t keep working in the shadows,” argues Ralph Fiennes’s Whitehall kingpin, Mallory. “There are no more shadows.” It’s a clear nod to Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks phenomenon.
But this security-skewering hard-drive is ultimately just a MacGuffin. Skyfall’s true narrative thrust is sharp, clean and simple: a personal vendetta against M by betrayed Hong Kong agent Silva (Bardem). He’s introduced to us in longshot, a disco-jacketed figure talking the finer points of pest control, his every step weighted with threat. Captured in a single, impeccably ominous take, it’s one of the great supervillain entrances, and Bardem feasts on the camp potential of the part (“Hello, James. Welcome. Do you like the island?”). For all his peroxide pomp, Silva is far from Ernst Stavro Fabulous – Bardem knows when to temper the flamboyance with a genuine sense of menace, stripping the suave mask to reveal the beast beneath.
If there’s an echo of the Joker in Silva’s role as a laughing agent of chaos it’s no surprise. While Quantum Of Solace chased the frenetic urgency of the Bourne flicks, Skyfall is clearly in thrall to Christopher Nolan’s psychologically-tethered Batman trilogy. It digs knuckle-deep into Bond’s skull, unearthing the boyhood tragedy that shaped the protagonist of the Fleming novels. And it’s a film that’s unafraid to dismantle its hero. Returning to London after a disastrous pre-titles mission, Bond is boozy, grizzled and appears to have stolen Indiana Jones’s jacket. If Casino and Quantum gave us a hungry rookie then Skyfall brings us an altogether different take – a broken veteran afraid that he’s lost his touch. Daniel Craig remains as relentless as his cobalt gaze but he leavens his Eton First Fifteen thuggishness with dry understatement. “Just changing carriages,” he declares, caught in the epicentre of some spectacular train-based mayhem.
Widescreen carnage may lie beyond helmer Sam Mendes’s usual wheelhouse but he knows how to command his second unit. There’s a white-knuckling motorbike chase over the roofs of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and an impressively staged serving of havoc in the Underground. These set-piece sequences are agreeably muscular but somehow they never quite make the Union Jack parachute open in your heart. Mendes lacks the silkily ironic touch of a Lewis Gilbert or a Guy Hamilton, and there’s a dour vibe to parts of Skyfall: much of the movie showcases a grey, sleet-stained London, complete with grimy subterranean hideaways. When the film returns to glamorous atlas-thumbing mode Roger Deakins’s cinematography ensures that it sings. Shanghai is an unearthly shimmer of neon, while Silva’s island stronghold is a haunting kingdom of decay, all ruined buildings and abandoned bicycles, as if he’s claimed a post-blast Hiroshima as his personal playground.
It’s in the final act that Skyfall makes its most significant departure from the trusted Bond template. Beginning as a John Buchanesque escape across remote country, it ends as an explosive siege situation with shades of Straw Dogs – or maybe Home Alone, if Macaulay Culkin was ever allowed to play with nail bombs. Most radically of all, it casts Judi Dench’s garrulous M as the de facto Bond girl (a move that sadly sidelines Naomie Harris’s flirty, charismatic MI6 agent Eve). It’s James Bond on the run with his mum, essentially.
This Highlands climax also finds Bond at the wheel of the Aston Martin from Goldfinger. It feels like Christian Bale’s Dark Knight commandeering Adam West’s Batmobile – and just as improbably thrilling. Strikingly, it’s the moment Skyfall finally soars, a welcome injection of vintage magic in a film that often spurns the classic sugar rushes of big-screen Bond. “You were expecting an exploding pen?” asks Ben Whishaw’s tech-nerd incarnation of Q. “We don’t really go in for that anymore.”
Nick Setchfield twitter.com/NickSetchfield
Watch the Skyfall trailer.
Watch a 22-minute Skyfall Making Of featurette.
Get the recent Skyfall-flavoured edition of the print magazine celebrating 50 years of James Bond.
Watch a video blog on the recording of the Skyfall music.
Follow SFX’s marathon rewatch of every Bond film.