Properly hits the reset button on the Bond franchise and firmly cements Daniel Craig as 007.
Though I’ve admired Daniel Craig’s work as an actor over many years, his interpretation of James Bond never fully clicked with me. I understood why producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson needed to get back to basics with the character after kicking the phenomenally successful Pierce Brosnan to the curb – who let’s face it, was a great Bond, just never given the material he lobbied for and deserved – but Craig in my opinion, lacked that perfect balance of strength, menace and romance. Bond was once described as a “charming, sophisticated secret agent”, and only the latter quality I could agree that Craig possessed. Yes, his Bond was supposed to rough around the edges, I rather liked that. But he came across as too cold and shallow, especially if you’re going to explore an emotionally wounded Bond for his first outing.
Casino Royale is an entertaining film, despite its flaws which included a plot I didn’t give a damn about, villains who felt beneath Bond and the fact that he was willing to throw his career away for a bland romance with a woman he shared no chemistry with. Craig was supposed to be a young Bond starting out, yet he looked older than his 38 years and by the film’s conclusion felt more like Bond 0.5 than a fully formed 007. The appalling Quantum of Solace was more of an epilogue to that story than a sequel, playing as if it was made from scraps of unused ideas and action set-pieces; trying to one-up the Bourne franchise by hiring its stunt co-ordinator. Broccoli and Wilson had a decent Bond in Craig and knew what they wanted to do with him. They just went about it the wrong way.
Craig feels very much like James Bond at the beginning of Skyfall. I’m not saying he’s the best Bond to date, but he does fully resemble the original literary version of the character more than any previous actor. Though the story appears to be set years after his initial outings as a Double-O agent, it feels like Craig’s first true Bond film. Leftover from the Brosnan era is Dame Judi Dench, once again returning as M. Where Dench was a commanding officer and boss to Brosnan, as M should be, she’s been more like a mother figure to Craig’s Bond, which never sat well with me. That notion is actually surprisingly appropriate for this film and weaved rather intricately into the story, which happens to revolve around a revenge plot. M herself is under fire, not just from a new unseen enemy, but her employers, who hold her responsible for losing vital information and feel her tactics are relics of the cold war.
After a spectacular opening sequence, a chase through Istanbul, M not only loses a hard drive containing the names of undercover agents throughout the world, but Bond himself, when out of desperation she makes a bad judgment call. As we already know from these films, James Bond can never be physically killed, but something within 007 does die when he returns from his unscheduled absence. Already plagued by person demons, Bond is addicted to booze and pain killers and even worse, a bad shot, placing his license to kill in jeopardy. Facing “voluntary retirement” herself, M sends Bond back out into the field, against the advice of Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, a brilliant new addition and a man who could have been Bond), who may or may not be out for her job. Mallory makes a good point to both M and Bond that the spy business is a young man’s game, suggesting that Craig’s 007 is already over-the-hill and closer to being irrelevant. However, M defends that our enemies of today are no longer known to them and a man like Bond is a necessary evil because he too operates within the shadows. For the first time ever, Dench is given some real meaty material, making her M a true supporting player in the story, while Fiennes is so good in a role I believe he was meant for, that I wish he appeared in previous installments.
Bond’s new allies include wet-behind-the ears field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and new Quartermaster “Q” (Ben Wishaw), who matches 007′s comic remarks concerning his youth, measure for measure. “I can do more damage from my laptop, than you can do around the world in the field for a year.” When Bond’s enemy does finally step out from the shadows, it is revealed to be cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), M’s former protege who has come looking for revenge. Craig’s Bond is finally given the antagonist he deserves in Bardem’s Silva, who very much could represent 007′s future. Both men have unknowingly had their lives shaped by the same mother figure and under the right circumstances, Bond could have ended up like Silva had M made certain choices during previous incidents when he went rogue to protect her. Silva makes quite a case for his actions and thirst for revenge, making him the first sympathetic Bond villain in many, many years. His attempted seduction of 007 is of the mind, even though his tactics sometimes call for the physical. “I’ll bet all your years of training hasn’t prepared you for this. First time for everything”, Silva tells Bond during one rather well written face off where he places his hands on 007′s thighs, opens his jacket and lightly brushes his chest. “What makes you think it’s my first time”, Bond casually responds.
Like your typical Bond film, Skyfall features a number of exciting and elaborately designed action set-pieces in exotic locales that range from Shanghai to Macau, Turkey and London. What puts it above most of the previous outings is that it acknowledges both the past and present. “Where are we going”, M asks Bond, late in the film. “Back in time” he responds and he’s not kidding. It’s not just Skyfall’s nod to classic Bond elements, like the reappearance of his Aston Martin DB5 or Q’s little quip about gadgets – “What were you expecting, an exploding pen? We don’t go for that sort of thing anymore.” It’s the fact that unlike any Bond film before, Skyfall questions whether Bond himself is still relevant. We live in a post 9/11 world and though the technology and tools Bond uses and often faces are updated with each new film, has the idea of a secret agent like him become outdated? The Jason Bourne movies were successful, because they created a sympathetic “Frankenstein’s monster” out of a secret agent you identified with. Bond is very much a blank page, a stone cold killer who has changed very little over the course of fifty years. “Chasing spies. So old-fashioned”, Silva laughs, making a brilliant case for his cause.
Skyfall answers the question that Bond is still relevant, with its rather simple third act, one that fans may find unconventional because it doesn’t involve 007 blowing up half a country just to bring down a villain. The basics of Bond himself and the adventures he finds himself on are stripped down, even adding a brilliant old school element to the mix in the form of Albert Finney as Kincaid, a man from Bond’s childhood. Rather than go for your typical “Die Hard” type of ending, Skyfall sticks with character development, focusing on the conflict within the “maternal” triangle that is Bond, M and Silva.
For a former stage director who has never helmed an action film before, Sam Mendes reinvigorates not just the Bond franchise, but Bond himself. He’s formed a brilliant partnership, not just with the film’s producers and writers, but cinematography Roger Deakins, who shot the picture on the Arri Alexa, making this the first digitally photographed Bond film. This is the best Bond has ever looked and Deakins works wonders with action scenes at low light levels that would not have been possible on film. It is perhaps the most romantic looking Bond film in decades, where often the imagery alone tells the story.
At Skyfall’s conclusion, Craig very much feels like Bond 1.0 to me. In fact the finale resembles the beginning of one of Connery’s classic Bonds, leaving 007 in a place where he can go just about anywhere. Fiennes, Harris and Wishaw are three brilliant new additions that not only serve as a nod to classic Bond, but look to help steer the world of 007 in a bold new direction. For the first time, I’m excited to see where the producers will take him and am ready to follow Craig to hell and back.