Review: Skyfall

Sam Mendes’ last film was my favourite of his by far; 2009’s small, simple and altogether beautiful Away We Go. It was a delightful little film that saw the A-list director scaling back and reaching for the heart. Who could’ve predicted his next project would be taking the helm of one of mainstream cinema’s biggest action behemoths. It sounded like an extremely unnatural leap, albeit an intriguing one.

The tangled and difficult journey that Skyfall has taken to be with us is not something I have interest in retelling. It is here now, and I have to admit I sat down in my cinema seat not with nail-biting anticipation, but with my cynical cinemagoer hat firmly in place (it’s a metaphorical hat; I’m not that much of a dick to wear a hat in the cinema. Not yet anyway). Whilst many others had loved Casio Royale for drawing a line under the dumb, explosion-heavy Brosnan years, I had found Daniel Craig’s Bond too much of a push in the other direction. The joy had been squeezed out. What’s more, that movie’s oppressive product placement made it feel rather like an issue of GQ that’d come to life.

I didn’t even bother with Quantum Of Solace.

But Mendes’ involvement is a big part of what brought me back to 007. Heavyweight directing talent has never been part of Bond, and Mendes has brought another heavyweight with him. Roger Deakins has photographed some of the most beautiful films of the past 20+ years. Just check out his resumé on imdb. It’s another big name that suggests that this time we’ll be treated to something a little bit… more.

It begins breathtakingly. The cold-open to a Bond movie has become something of a gauntlet to run. What impressive combination of stunts can be strung together to make the audience coo the most this time? Mendes doesn’t shy away in this regard, and this opening quarter of an hour presents one of the most involving and satisfying starts to a Bond outing I can recall.

But savour it, because it is pretty much the only piece of its kind you’re going to get. This Bond is different. One of the core questions addressed in Skyfall is whether secret agent espionage is a relic of a by-gone time. Aren’t all the dames and car chases just a little old-hat? Is any of it necessary? And following a credit sequence that feels like a cut sequence from an (admittedly-impressive) video game, the first hour allows us exotic detours to Shanghai and Macau, but the ‘action’ here is eschewed in favour of suspense as Bond searches out the villain of the piece, Mr Silva (Javier Bardem).

Following this, Skyfall hunkers down here in the UK for an altogether smaller adventure than we’re accustomed to, yet it’s all the better for it. No volcano bases or super-powered submarines this time. Instead – and it’s in these late stages that Skyfall really excels – we’re presented with a rather gripping little revenge plot that evokes Straw Dogs of all films, albeit relocated to remote Scotland, and with mercenaries in place of drunken locals. In this highly unusual showdown, Deakins’ photography proves its worth gloriously.

Quite how the film gets there is not my place to say, but this break from the anticipated is part of what makes Skyfall such an unexpected success, and marks it as one of the most distinctive entries in a catalogue spanning fifty years. It helps no end that Mendes has cast wisely. Javier Bardem’s Mr Silva is one of the series’ most interesting villains; a sexually ambivalent and flamboyant yet deeply chilling creation. It’s a far cry from the cold calculations of his Anton Chigurh persona, but no less deadly.

Judi Dench has already proven herself in the role of M, and here gets more to do than ever before. This time round, she really is the Bond girl. So it goes that Daniel Craig remains the only weak link. As previously, his Bond is a little too thuggish, too humourless, with little in the way of personality or growth to get us to sympathise with aside from the old “is he past it now?” question. By the way, the answer turns out to be ‘no’. Spoiler!

There are flaws – two hours twenty is a big ask for what is, ultimately, one of the least convoluted Bond stories in quite some time (that first hour is rather baggy), and a major plot point is completely forgotten once the final showdown closes in. That last point is less of a niggle, however, because that final stretch is so entertaining. Tonally, Mendes missteps a couple of times also. Skyfall succeeds in no small part by defying past glories, so when they’re thrown in our face it feels counter-intuitive. But I suppose you have to provide some fan-service, after all. There was also one line in particular which dredged up the tired misogyny of the Moore era, and in quite poor taste.

Nevertheless, Skyfall proved to be a welcome surprise, not least of which for being – as far as I can recall – the only instalment to drop an F-bomb (and you might be surprised who drops it). I seem to have mislaid my cynical cinemagoer’s hat somewhere. This is genuinely one of the best of the series. Mendes and his team haven’t exactly given an old dog new tricks, just allowed them to play in a different park for a while. It’s refreshing, and one hopes that this signifies a way forward for the franchise.  Christopher Nolan’s obviously been dying to make one of these since his teenage years. On that note, Skyfall’s final moments share a little DNA with The Dark Knight Rises. See if you can see it coming.

James Bond will return. For the first time in a while, I’m quite looking forward to that.

Score:  4

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