In Skyfall, Sam Mendes has given us a James Bond for the 21st century and also made a film with genuine heart. Alistair Harkness is bowled over
WITH the traditional hype and hoopla surrounding the release of the latest Bond film Skyfall reaching fever pitch over the past month or so, it’s been impossible to ignore the fact that the world’s longest running film franchise is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. That’s partly down to Skyfall itself making a virtue of celebrating its heritage. Directed by Sam Mendes and once again starring Daniel Craig as cinema’s most conspicuous secret agent, Craig’s third outing is both a playful tribute to the entire history of Bond on the big screen and a worthy modern-day action movie that finally advances 007 into the 21st century with the panache one might expect from a character whose chief appeal has always been his penchant for sophistication, insouciance and ruthless violence.
Those traits were, of course, present almost from the first moment a tuxedoed Sean Connery, cigarette hanging loosely from his mouth, uttered the immortal words “Bond, James Bond” in Dr No. That film’s release on 5 October 1962, the same day as The Beatles’ first single Love Me Do – and a mere ten days before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of disaster – has elevated Bond’s cinematic origins to near mythical status, so much so that it’s hard to deny that this weird confluence of seismic cultural and political events has played an important role in shaping and defining an entire era.
As such, the release of a new Bond film can never simply be dismissed as just another movie. Twenty-two “official” films on from Dr No (and with rogue entries into the canon in the form of the star-stuffed 1967 Casino Royale spoof and Sean Connery’s contentious rival outing Never Say Never Again), the very existence of Skyfall is testament to the resilience of Ian Fleming’s original creation. Sure, there have been some lean years (Timothy Dalton’s brief tenure in the role), some creaky years (Roger Moore’s later efforts), and some increasingly silly years (Pierce Brosnan’s invisible car; Madonna’s cameo as a fencing instructor), but the character’s remarkable gift for reinvention and resurrection has enabled him to survive the ravages of time surprisingly well with each new iteration.
As it happens, it is precisely those ravages that form the primary thematic concerns of Bond 23. Even though it barely feels like yesterday that Craig’s blond, bloodied, brutal and, let’s face it, ludicrously buff take on the character radically reinvented him for an age in which Jason Bourne already seemed to have shown him the door, the otherwise soporific Casino Royale is now six years old and its frenetic follow-up Quantum of Solace is already four. For those paying close attention to Craig’s more rooted-in-reality approach, that means his Bond is already starting to feel the punishing effects of being a double-0 agent, effects Roger Moore would likely have dismissed with an arched eyebrow jutting into his wrinkly forehead, but which Mendes and his team of writers (regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade; Scorsese collaborator John Logan) smartly weave into the main body of the story.
That story kicks off in typically spectacular style with Bond being accidentally shot and left for dead by MI6 (a sequence that ends with him floating away into a hauntingly illustrated title sequence to the strain’s of Adele’s instant classic Bond theme). When he re-emerges from the shadows – after M (Judi Dench) has written his obituary – his physical prowess has largely deserted him, but his ailments are symptomatic of a wider concern percolating down through the security services: namely that Bond’s cold-blooded methodology – and the practices of MI6’s entire double-O branch – is outdated and irrelevant, especially in an age of cyber-terrorism where, as Ben Wishaw’s new Q surmises, more damage can be done with a laptop while drinking a cup of Earl Grey than by Bond with an entire arsenal of gadgets.
Though Bond films have periodically commented on their imminent obsolescence – in Goldeneye, M famously scolded Pierce Brosnan’s 007 for being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War”), Skyfall feels as if Mendes is genuinely trying to engage with who the character is and what his function should be, especially at a time when audiences want the old-school excitement of a Bond film but with an ever greater degree of verisimilitude.
Mendes negotiates that tricky path by effectively turning Skyfall into a comment on its own creation. The 50th anniversary, for instance, gives him licence to spoon-feed fans a number of treats in the form of overt references to past films, but he’s careful not to abuse that privilege and works some more subtle ones in, too. In fact, the biggest influence is probably On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which may feature the least-loved 007 (George Lazenby, making his sole outing in the role) but, thanks to its dazzling technical achievements and jaw-dropping emotional beats, now seems like the most accomplished of all the Bond films.
Mendes has certainly absorbed a lot from it, using its acknowledgment of the Scottish parentage Fleming subsequently furnished the character with in tribute to Connery’s definitive performance for a fantastic third act sojourn to the Highlands, where the titular significance of Skyfall comes into play. But he also uses its influence to land some moments of real poignancy, giving the film the emotional kick Bond’s doomed romance with Vesper Lynd in the much-praised Casino Royale sorely lacked.
What’s particularly thrilling about Skyfall is that Mendes has reconfigured the tropes of the series so that Bond is once again out in front, setting the template anew for what a Bond film can really do. That’s something that’s made clear early on courtesy of a rooftop fight sequence in which Mendes (working with genius cinematographer Roger Deakins) frames Bond in silhouette against Shanghai’s neon-lit night sky as he battles an assassin. As action sequences go it’s as gorgeous as it is gutsy, and works as a real statement of intent for the film.
The other big piece of the Bond pie that Mendes gets right – aside from finally using the Monty Norman theme properly (there’s both a reassuring two-second blast of it at the start of the film and reprise later on to accompany a typically iconic moment) – is Javier Bardem’s deliciously outré villain, Raoul Silva. A former agent with a personal vendetta against M, Silva is certainly a memorable throwback to Bond villains of old: he’s both an irrational megalomaniac and as camp as Diamonds are Forever’s Mr Kidd and Mr Wint. The difference is he’s progressive and transgressive with it. In their most intimate exchange, Silva taps into the hitherto unexplored homoerotic side of Bond, something the movie thoroughly embraces by giving Bond his funniest comeback in the film. It’s a further sign of how far the Bond films have come and also works as a belated acknowledgment of one of the more subversive aspects of Craig’s Bond: his willingness to be objectified.
As a result, it makes sense that Bond girls in the classic sense barely feature, with only Naomi Harris’s Eve sticking in the memory beyond the end credits. That’s perhaps also because over three films it has become clear that the only woman Craig’s Bond really has space for in his life is M, and it’s their relationship that provides Skyfall with something that Bond films have consistently lacked: genuine heart. If that sounds sappy then so be it: Skyfall is the kind of film that makes it easy to love Bond the way you probably did as a kid. When “James Bond will return” flashes up ahead of the end credits, it’s hard not to hold out hope for his next 50 years.
• Skyfall is on general release from tomorrow.