Most ardent cinema fans have an allergic reaction to the dreaded “R” word, but I’m here to tell you that Skyfall, the latest cinematic adventure featuring everybody’s favourite
martini beer swilling British spy, is easily one of the best reboots of a classic franchise.
“But Kervyn,” I hear you say, “Skyfall isn’t a reboot. Have you gone off your meds again?” And while my medical condition is a subject for another day, I can say right now that you’d be right: Skyfall is not a reboot. But it kind of also is.
Let’s backtrack a bit to Casino Royale, where the Bond franchise gets it’s official reboot with Daniel Craig in the superspy shoes. Not only a thrill a minute action fest, it weaved in a love story that gave us the first attempts since Her Majesty’s Secret Service to flesh out the character of James Bond from a death- and quip-dealing caricature to a fully realized person. Who just so happens to still kill people and make snarky remarks about it afterwards.
That film was so good that it left Bond fans dancing in the streets. Unfortunately, they were so busy reveling that they didn’t watch where they were going and stepped right into a giant, steaming pile of Quantum of Solace. Dour, incomprehensibly shot and featuring a lame duck villain that’s barely equipped to terrorize a kindergarten much less the world’s greatest spy, most fans simply like to pretend that Quantum doesn’t exist.
Apparently Sam Mendes feels the same way. The Academy Award winning director has produced a film in Skyfall that – barring some Casino story elements that were wrapped up in the beginning of Quantum – feels like it could have been the natural successor to Craig’s first outing as 007. Together, the two films only tell a combined and compelling rebooted origin story for the world’s most well known, spy.
This time around we find Bond on the trail of a stolen computer hard drive that contains the names of every NATO deep-cover agent in the world. Naturally, whomever’s stolen the hard disk is out for a little chaos by releasing these names to the public but he also appears to have a very special interest in MI6 and its boss, M, played wonderfully once again with a motherly, steely resolution by Dame Judi Dench. She’s become the heart of the franchise, and it’s only fitting that in its 50th Anniversary year, that it’s her story that takes centre stage.
The film kicks off with a breathless chase through and on top of the streets of Istanbul that has it’s foot firmly planted on the accelerator from the word go, and promptly smashes any lingering doubts about the usually more dramatically inclined Mendes’ capabilities as an action director. The sequence culminates in a train top battle that ends with a botched mission, a broken Bond and M having to “please explain” to the powers that be. It also introduces a new field agent in the form of Eve ( Naomie Harris), a character who is not only one of the few females in Bond’s pantheon to hold her own against the legendary 007, but who also presents a very sly twist that I certainly won’t spoil here.
With a Bond that’s definitely not at the top of his game and needing to pick up the sometimes very real and physical pieces, Craig once again turns in an admirable performance as we see all these layers of superspydom peeled back to reveal the man beneath; a process that began back in Casino Royale with his romance with Vesper Lynd. It would seem that humanity really is a sexually transmitted disease.
And when M is dragged “into the stocks” by bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to defend her actions, the film also has her character offer up a meta-commentary on the necessity of the type of heroes like James Bond, and how the old ways can still work very well today, with just a little bit of tweaking here and there. And that is the basic philosophy behind this film.
If you were one of those decrying the Bourne-ification of James Bond with Casino Royale, then this movie is for you. This is easily feels the most like a classic James Bond since Daniel Craig first took over, and that’s no accident. Mendes fills it with (often rather humurous) homages and throwbacks to the franchise’s history, but does it in such a way that you don’t feel like it’s just 2.5 hours of fan service. Instead it proved that certain classic Bond tropes can still work very well, even when combined with modern sensibilities.
And there are very few classic Bond tropes as memorable as a good villain. It may take more than an hour before we first meet him, but Raul Silva (Javier Bardiem) certainly makes an entrance. Pulling a page out the SPECTRE Handbook for Great Villains, Silva shows up complete with a secret base, a maniacal laugh and a bad haircut. Bardiem is most famous for his sphincter clenching turn as the hitman Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but whereas that was all seriousness and tension, here he knows full well that he is in a James Bond film and just runs with it. Slightly ridiculous, sometimes homoerotic, he is nevertheless always terrifying, especially when a peculiar physical deformity is revealed during his origin story. Trust me, this is way scarier than just having a third nipple.
Blofeld, Scaramanga, Goldfinger, Red Grant, Jaws, Oddjob; Silva now easily takes his place in the upper echelons of these most iconic of Bond villains.
The return of great villains is also matched by the return of great allies in the form of Q (Ben Wishaw). Look, lets just get straight to it: There will never be another Desmond Llewellyn. This is something that Skyfall realizes, so it doesn’t even try to replicate him. Instead we get the 32-year old Wishaw, who plays a far more in-the-field, hands on role than Llewellyn ever did, and except for the sharing of a name (well, title really) and doling out of gadgets (yes gadgets are back! though still kept very small and realistic), it is a completely different character and a welcome addition to the cast at that.
Bérénice Marlohe also turns in a surprisingly engaging performance as the curvaceous and duplicitous Sévérine. Her character appears to have a lot more to it than the basic sexual conquest Bond girl we normally see, so it’s a bit of a shame that we don’t see more of her. Well, we actually see quite a lot of her, but that’s not what I mean. And talking of things that are easy on the eye…
Let’s not beat around the bush here, Skyfall is simply the most beautiful looking Bond film ever. From the terracota rooftops of Istanbul, to the glass and steel neon skyscrapers of Shangai, to a fantastical casino of light and sound in Macau and eventually to the mist-shrouded highlands of Scotland, Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins manipulates colour and shadow to turn every setting into a cinematic work of art. Art which, in one case, they then blow up in the most spectacular of fashions (Michael Bay must be proud).
And that same eye for aesthetics is also applied to the film’s several hand-to-hand fight scenes. Which is a major boon, as not only are they visually spectacular (especially one in Shanghai which is shot completely in silhouette) but the fight choreography is easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in the franchise. I noticed this choreography because Mendes also employed this rather revolutionary technique called “not letting the cameraman have a seizure” when filming. It’s a novel idea that I hope catches on.
For all the amazing things that Mendes and his cast and crew have done though, the film does unfortunately have a few missteps. For one, like any other 50-year old the pacing gets rather glacial in places and it feels a bit bloated around the middle. Also, for all of Silva’s insane brilliance, his “great plan” is not only shockingly small minded, but actually – given his apparent skill with all things technological -rather dumb in it’s execution. The final act of the film, where Silva and his henchmen face off against Bond and M, may also be a bit too “Home Alone” as some have proclaimed it on the internet, but I appreciated it especially as a homage to famous last stands in movies. In the case it actually reminded me the most of Outland (a sci-fi homage to the classic western High Noon) which starred none other than the very first cinematic Bond, Sean Connery.
But even with that, what Skyfall has done is amazingly finish off what Casino Royale started. Whereas Casino began the process of rebooting James Bond the character for a modern era, Skyfall not only completes that task, but also revitalizes Bond’s environment and supporting cast by reintroducing some classic elements with a fresh new spin. By the end of it, the world of Bond looks far more familiar to longtime fans since Craig first took over the role, but with a fresh faced vigour to it that leaves me excited for what’s to come.
Is it the very best Bond film ever made, as some have proclaimed? Not quite, I’d say, there are just a few niggles that keeps it from that title. But when Bond’s 100 year anniversary eventually rolls around (hopefully I’m still be here to see that), I expect you’ll find it quite high up on the inevitable lists of Bond’s greatest cinematic adventures.