The ever-impressive Daniel Craig is certainly put through the wringer in his third appearance as 007, in a story that boldly delves into his past to offer a tantalising glimpse at what makes him tick and where his loyalties lie.
Bond begins the story as a boozy beach bum after a mission backfires and he’s left for dead by M. When British national security is seriously compromised, 007 reports back for duty, but things have changed in his time away, and it’s questionable whether this bestubbled and battered wreck of a man can cut it any more. Likewise, the relevance of M and MI6 is called into question by a parliamentary committee eager to see her made accountable for its failings.
This set-up allows for the usual international wanderings, taking in Turkey and China (brilliantly captured in night-time neon), but there remains a significant British focus, with London featuring prominently.
Bringing Bond back home is just one of the aces played by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), whose pedigree always promised something more than just the usual mix of girls, gadgets and grand spectacle.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t tick those boxes. They’re just handled differently. Bond may have a variety of women in his life, but in addition to the usual sexual conquests, he shares an easy camaraderie with fellow agent Eve (a dynamic Naomie Harris) and, most interestingly, strong ties to M (Judi Dench, never better), the surrogate mother to his orphan child.
Tech-heads maybe won’t get the kick out of this film that they’re used to, but the reintroduction of Q branch is a welcome one. Q himself, played by the personable Ben Whishaw, even jokes that they’re no longer about lab coats and exploding pens. Cue lots of keyboard tapping and hacking, which, although more realistic, clearly isn’t as much fun.
A breathless pre-credits sequence through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar quickly puts the question of Mendes delivering on the thrills front beyond any doubt. But perhaps the biggest stunt the director pulls off is creating a convincing human drama around all the action. His job is helped by an intelligent script that’s rich in dry wit (no cheap double entendres here), delivered by one of the most high-calibre casts assembled to date: Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney appear in major roles.
But it’s Javier Bardem as Silva, the villain of the piece, who gets all the best lines. Coming across like a weird hybrid of Larry Grayson and Hannibal Lecter, he combines mince and menace like no baddie before, and his pathological need to settle old scores with M pushes him to the top of the psychopath league table.
The Lecter similarity may not be the only “borrowed” aspect of this production (Whishaw’s Q also bears comparison with Simon Pegg’s techno-geek in the Mission: Impossible series), but if action cinema has been plundering from 007 for so long, surely a little payback is forgiveable. There are also certain plot contrivances, not least Silva’s tremendous foresight in how his grand game will play out, but these occasional frowns don’t linger for long, and in the context of the entire Bond canon, the terrorist revenge plot has contemporary relevance.
Overall, the one word that really describes Skyfall is class. Mendes may have taken the series somewhere new by giving the drama a heightened intensity, but he’s only been able to do that successfully by embracing the franchise’s past. Roger Deakins’s cinematography puts paid to all that wobblecam mayhem of Quantum of Solace and the Bourne series, giving this more the epic feel of early Bond. Adele’s theme song is a wonderful throwback to the Bassey era. And the appearance of the 1960s Aston Martin DB5 is beautifully judged.
Mendes’s film certainly stands out, and there’s a sense that things may be slightly different from now on. This is no reboot, more a recalibration of the format, or perhaps even, as Bond himself deftly puts it, “a resurrection”.
When the end credits roll and the familiar wording appears that “James Bond Will Return”, we can only hope that this particular national treasure will once again be put in such safe hands.