Review: “Skyfall”

As much a refresh of the franchise as “Casino Royale” was, Daniel Craig’s third time out as James Bond is his best so far. Akin to the denser and more drama-driven Bond entries like “From Russia with Love” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, what “Skyfall” lacks in breezy watch-ability it more than makes up for in every other aspect and steers the franchise back on course towards a bright future both comfortably familiar and excitingly revitalised.

I’ve found the divide amongst Bond fans over the good and bad entries in this series has often been a disagreement of tonal absolutism. It’s something we saw earlier this year with arguments over the differing approaches of “The Avengers” & “The Dark Knight Rises”. Some vehemently insist a gritty, grounded, bleak spy thriller interpretation of Bond is the only way that works. Others like the hyper-real, big spectacle, fun first approach and can’t tolerate a dark and grim Bond.

Most understand that the best Bond films usually find that perfect balance between said approaches, and by and large they enjoy all but the most extreme entries in either direction. The franchise’s longevity has always been due to its ability to adapt and change course whenever it drifts off too far in one direction. Films like “For Your Eyes Only” and “Casino Royale” are welcome injections of serious reality into the series after an entry so ridiculous and camp it was essentially pure farce.

“Goldeneye” and now “Skyfall” reflect the other side of that equation, reincorporating and updating the Bond signature attributes and sense of fun after the previous entry turned the character into a poor man’s Rambo – a bland, mindless, violent thug mowing down anything that moves in repetitive and tedious fashion. The new film demonstrates one can still keep the grounded reality of the Daniel Craig-era, but also embrace everything that makes Bond who he is rather than running away from it like the two previous films have.

What makes “Skyfall” work though is that it gets so much more than just the tone right. The story is character-driven and often surprising, the pace is speedy but never out of control, the humor is well-timed and playful, the action is driven by the plot rather than the other way around, the visuals are absolutely stunning and handsomely framed, the score is both gorgeously retro and inventively new, the sets are incredible and practical, the editing is smart and controlled, the direction is tight and efficient, and the performances are excellent across the board.

Having ditched the obvious “Bourne” influence of the last film, director Sam Mendes and crew borrow to some extent from “The Dark Knight”. Here they’ve cribbed the best elements of Chris Nolan’s filmmaking style whilst cannily avoiding his key weaknesses such as some awkwardly framed action scenes, and his unrelentingly sterile and self-serious approach which lacks warmth and sensuality. The result is that line of Bond tonal balance is waltzed across with the skill of a professional tightrope walker, aptly demonstrating you can have a blockbuster of thematic depth and emotional significance that is still loads of fun.

Another obvious influence is the BBC’s “Spooks”, specifically almost all the London-set scenes showing how the intelligence service operates within the British Government. The various bits with Ralph Fiennes’ minister, Helen McCrory’s official and even Ben Whishaw’s new take on Q bare a lot of similarities to moments in the latter seasons of the now finished spy thriller series. It’s a welcome addition though, the bureaucracy and accountability of everyday Governmental oversight adds a sense of realism to a film which spends much of its early scenes making full use of postcard exotic locales like Istanbul, Shanghai and Macau.

The script, worked on by several people but mostly driven along by John Logan, smartly combines some familiar Bond movie structural beats and franchise in-jokes with some fascinating theme explorations and a more personal than usual story which takes precedence over the action. Rather than continuing directly on from “Quantum of Solace,” the film jumps a few years down the line and takes actor Daniel Craig’s age very much into account. Injured in a botched operation and having dropped off the map to spend months swilling booze and pumping tropical bimbos, Bond returns to the UK when MI6 comes under attack.

As a result Bond spends much of the film off his game – his body is failing him, his aim is off, his temper shorter and his instincts blunted. Bond has rarely ever been portrayed this physically human on film before, but it adds a welcome bit of suspense such as an elevator scene where you catch yourself briefly fearing for his life. Bond’s confidence has been rocked, but the film does the smart move of never dwelling on it too long or ever letting things get dour. Bond’s a professional and like any true professional he can acknowledge his problems whilst doing his best not to let it interfere with his job.

“Skyfall” also sees the return of elements to the character that have been missing for a while – the spy who actually investigates and follows leads rather than breaks bones left and right, the man ready to slip into a well-cut tuxedo or inside a well-built woman at a moment’s notice. Even the casual misogyny is back (albeit toned down) such as his playful banter about Eve’s competence, to a tense scene involving a shot glass of scotch which ends with Craig delivering one of the outright coldest line deliveries of the series.

Craig is up to the task and does his best work yet as the character. His body is as fit and hot as it ever was, but his face is a tad more lined and his stubble going quite grey. This more visible aging makes his various dramatic scenes that extra bit more potent, yet he’s still fit enough to be convincing in all his action sequences. Even though this entry boasts a substantial ensemble cast with some colorful supporting turns, Craig still delivers and doesn’t disappear or play second fiddle to anyone else in the film.

The one who comes closest to topping him is Judi Dench. The film itself is all about M, her relationship with Bond and the consequences of her past choices coming back to destroy her. Dench gets a lot more screen time and far more depth to her character here than ever before. The film doesn’t hold back on her character flaws, most notably the manipulation and psychological dependency she creates on those who serve under her, particularly young male loners. This only adds weight to the way the film shines a light on Bond himself to an extent rarely trodden by this franchise before.

I won’t spoil the nature of Javier Bardem’s villain, but the actor delivers exceptional work. The role could have been ridiculously flamboyant and over the top in the wrong hands, but Bardem knows how to temper himself – letting out just enough crazy to make Silva colourful and fascinating, but also keeping him a credible threat. The character is an intriguing counter point to Bond, and importantly he and Craig have an excellent chemistry on screen together which makes for some highly charged scenes including a memorable sexuality-laced bit of interrogation.

Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw have great fun with their scenes as M’s ministerial superior Gareth Mallory, and the new look Q respectively. Both are central to the larger themes of the movie, and while “Goldeneye” also dealt with the idea of old spies fitting into a new world order, this goes much further. “Skyfall” explores not just Bond himself, but the intelligence services as a whole and how useful these old warhorses are in an era when the threat of nation states and military conflict has been eclipsed by the danger of tech-savvy anarchists and terrorism by contract. Yet the film also hammers home the message that even in this digital age, the oldest and simplest methods are still often the most effective and efficient.

While M is the real Bond girl of the film, this one includes two others – Naomie Harris’ MI6 agent Eve and Berenice Marlohe’s Severine. Both leave impressions, Harris spends her time engaging in delightfully playful banter with Craig and is a warm and welcome presence. Marlohe is a surprise, a hostess and Silva underling with an exotic look whose outward confidence barely masks a haunted and tortured victim underneath.

The cinematography is stunning. The Shanghai sequence alone with its fusion of glass, neon, shadows and reflections is worthy of an Oscar. The real shock though is that D.P. Roger Deakins shot the entire movie on digital – there isn’t a single instant here that you can’t tell the difference between this and high quality film. This is a film alive and rich with colour, deep blacks and amazing clarity as to be near IMAX quality. Deakins also knows how to frame his scenes with wide shots, long takes and action that never ever gets too confined or confusing. It really is stunning to look at and worth seeing via the best presentation possible (I saw a 4K projection screening, I’d advise you to do the same if one is in your area).

He’s helped by excellent production design and art direction which makes fine use of some beautiful locales including a floating Chinese casino complete with a pit of Komodo dragons, an abandoned and dilapidated island city, underground Churchill-era war bunker facilities turned offices, and a rundown manor house on an icy moor. Thomas Newman makes a very impressive debut with his score that heavily interweaves classic Bond riffs with some atmospheric “Drive”-esque instrumentals (the ‘Jellyfish’ number on the soundtrack is genius). Adele’s old school ballad is one of the best Bond songs in a long time, and the opening credits match it with stunning imagery of tombstones, skulls, blood, and moving Rorschach style animations of daggers and women.

There is action, but it is less than you might expect. The opening is the only true out-and-out set piece, a sequence that smartly builds and builds in scope and excitement as Bond and Eve pursue a thief on foot, then on motorbike across Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, then on top of a train. A sequence in Shanghai involving Bond’s pursuit of an assassin is remarkably filmed and tense, while some exciting action takes place on the streets and in the subways of London. The last act includes an extended siege situation and plenty of explosions and gunfights, but these are the most generic scenes of the film and drag on a bit too long.

Though excellent, “Skyfall” certainly isn’t faultless. Like Nolan’s Batman films, the villain here has been planning an elaborate scheme that relies on a few too many conveniences and too much coincidence. Some of the characters, including Q & Bond, will make an oddly dumb decision at one point or another – yet are otherwise perfectly competent for the rest of the film. Silva’s motive is personal and understandable, but I wonder if the way he goes about his scheme holds up under any serious scrutiny.

There’s a couple of fan service moments that are fun, but take it just that tad too far over the line. These include a scene reminiscent of “Live and Let Die,” a joke involving a gearstick, and the film’s sole clunky CG shot involving a disfigurement (a great idea ruined by bad graphics). Continuity freaks will be a little confused about how Bond has gone from being a spry young recruit just a few years ago to being the butt of old and washed up jokes already.

After such a bracing first two acts, the final section of the film shifts to Scotland and slows down. A warm and game Albert Finney shows up to share in some fun character moments, but it’s here where the film feels like it could have used a little tightening. It isn’t really a specific scene that needs cutting, rather some judicious minor trimming overall. At the same time, this segment ends too abruptly and the self-contained epilogue, though astutely setting up the franchise’s future, is such a sudden change of tone it is a bit jarring.

These are all minor complaints, the kind of thing that one more polish on an already solid script could have fixed. The film is so slickly made, smart, inventive and laced with charm that it’s very easy to become swept up in the narrative and thus ignore or forgive its few quibbles. While “Casino Royale” showed us how James Bond became 007, “Skyfall” shows us how James Bond became the spy we love. Both contemporary and classically old school, the extra time taken and carefully assembled team of talent hired to deliver this latest outing has paid off far more than we could have expected. Though certainly not the best Bond film to date as some have been quick to proclaim, it’s definitely one of the better entries in the series and unquestionably one of the best films of the year.