Skyfall – Bond at 50

1 Nov

WARNING: Some spoilers ahoy.

It’s only in the last 10 years James Bond has bothered celebrating the “big” anniversaries. Ten years after Dr No hit the screens, he celebrated by taking a year off, in between Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die. For his 20th onscreen birthday, it was another break, between For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. For his 30th, why… that was the saddest of all, falling in those dark, dark years between Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, when we didn’t even know if there would be another Bond film.

Nice try, Arnie.

Only when he turned 40 did 007 bother making a big deal about it, and then it was with Die Another Day.

For fuck’s sake.

Ahh. Die Another Day. A film that managed to get just about everything wrong. Its plot was bonkers, the love scenes between Brosnan and Halle Berry were just a little too explicit for a Bond movie (I seem to remember seeing a very-uncalled-for pelvic thrust), the CGI was horrible, the Madonna song just wasn’t a Bond theme, And don’t get me started on the invisible fucking car.

Oh, Brosnan…

Thankfully, after a 4 year break, Bond was back, and – more importantly – back on form. Though some fans were sent into paroxysms of online fury by the casting of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig, Casino Royale’s faithfulness to the original novel, its moderation (compared to Brosnan’s see-through car shenanigans) and overall stylishness made it a breath of fresh air. Following on from such a class act, Quantum of Solace was almost guaranteed to disappoint. It didn’t help that Finding Neverland director Marc Forster seemed to think he was making a beautiful travel documentary with car chases, or that there was no actual plot, or that at the end everything explodes for no reason.

I’ve seen this movie 3 times, and still have no idea why any of this happens.

The attempt to make a direct sequel to its predecessor was both admirable and original (does anyone think of Diamonds Are Forever as Bond getting his revenge on Blofeld for Tracy’s murder in OHMSS?), but overall it felt more like an extravagant DVD extra than a movie in its own right.

With the news that American Beauty and Revolution Road director Sam Mendes would helm the next Bond movie, it seemed the producers were keen on making more high-end, artsier films than before, and my heart kind of sank a little. Would Mendes “get” Bond? Would he understand that we, the audience, want car chases, fight scenes, and a bit of sweet loving – preferably on a yacht – along with some crazy villains and a half-decent story?

There was also a slim chance of this happening.

Well, having now seen Skyfall, I can confirm that Mendes really does “get” Bond. And then some.

As a 50th anniversary film, Skyfall does everything Die Another Day should have done, and didn’t. It pays homage to its predecessors, without being heavy-handed. For example, who but the most die hard fans would appreciate the opening scene’s fight taking place on a train in Turkey, location to much of From Russia With Love, a movie that also features prominently a fight scene on a train? Or that the whole first act bears some resemblance to Fleming’s novel The Man With The Golden Gun?

Even when playing the homage card to a more general audience, Skyfall does it with class. I can’t be the only person – and let’s face it, man – who almost came when the Aston Martin DB5 turned up, accompanied by the classic Bond theme.

I referred to the row in front of me as the “splash zone”.

I’ve read one or two reviews that are sniffy about Javier Bardem’s villain, Raoul Silva (one friend described him as looking like “Constable Honey Monster”), but I loved him. He was the exact right blend of camp and menace that makes a classic Bond villain. Think of Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice, or the brilliant Christopher Lee in the otherwise execrable Man With The Golden Gun. These aren’t Bane-style behemoths, or crazed, Bin Laden style ideologues. They’re debonair, effete. What’s more, while Silva’s ambiguous sexuality could have ended up at the offensive end of the scale (“He’s possibly gay, therefore evil”), here it’s played more as a foil for Bond’s strutting masculinity, a kind of anti-Bond. Even then Bond has a surprise up his sleeve, which we can read either as a witty comeback or an admission of something some of us have suspected for a very long time…

And I have the photos to prove it.

In previous Bond films, certainly from the 1970s onwards, there’s been a tendency to emulate whatever was topping the box office at the time. Following on from Shaft and Superfly, we have Blaxploitation Bond in Live and Let Die. Following Enter the Dragon we have Kung Fu Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun. Following Star Wars we have Space Bond in Moonraker. And this trend has continued in recent years, with much of Quantum of Solace feeling too much like a sun-kissed riff on the Bourne franchise.

Let’s be grateful this didn’t happen after ‘Twilight’.

Fortunately, Skyfall is entirely its own film, but if it reminded me of anything, it was The Dark Knight. Certainly, there’s something nihilistic about Silva’s mission. He isn’t trying to take over the world or kick off World War III, he just wants to see everything burn. Plus, in the last act, we’re left with the possibility that just about anything could happen. Okay, they’re unlikely to kill off Bond, but every single other character that you care about – and you actually do care about them – is in the firing line, and it’s thrilling.

Brilliantly, the film opens on a series of big set pieces, but as it goes along becomes something smaller and more intimate; almost unheard of in an action film. And I can think of few action movies that dispatch their villain in such a small-scale, yet satisfying way. We’re used to seeing our bad guys dropped from great heights, blown up, or jettisoned into space. What’s offered here is much more low-key, but also infinitely more appropriate.

A word must be said for Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Thomas Newman’s score. Deakins, veteran of Mendes’ previous movies, and multiple films with the Coen Brothers, delivers in Skyfall possibly the most beautifully-shot Bond film to date. Quantum of Solace was certainly very handsome, but in a way that didn’t always suit the style of movie. Here, Deakins gives us gorgeous landscapes, exotic casinos, and glacial, futuristic cityscapes of the Far East so stunningly, you could hit pause on just about any frame, and hang that picture on your wall.

“I remember when all this was houses.”

As for the score, I was disappointed that for this outing they let go of the brilliant David Arnold, who’s served the franchise so well since Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold had an understanding of the late, great John Barry’s music, paying his dues while innovating. Could anyone replace him? Well, it turns out that Newman – more famous for his whimsical soundtracks for American Beauty and Toy Story – can do Bond with aplomb.

And lastly, the cast. This must be the finest cast assembled for a Bond movie. Ever. When Albert Finney is a kind of bonus prize (I didn’t even realise he was in Skyfall until the opening credits), you know the rest of the cast will be top drawer. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench deliver their best Bond franchise performances to date, and Rory Kinnear continues to give us a wonderfully stoic Bill Tanner. Newcomers to the franchise, Bardem’s performance crackles with manic energy, Ralph Fiennes is a brilliantly saturnine government mandarin, Naomie Harris a sexily confident MI6 agent, and Ben Wishaw is just perfect as the brand-new, bespectacled Q.

QILF?

Yes, in the great scheme of things, the Bond movies are hamburgers. They’re junk food. You won’t come away from a Bond movie contemplating the machinations of the intelligence community, or the subtle nuances of geopolitical tensions in a post-9/11 world. Characterisation is economical, perhaps even perfunctory. Bond is neither Hamlet nor Willie Loman. Anyone going to a Bond movie and expecting nuance, subtlety, and depth has been in a coma since 1961. However, that doesn’t mean a Bond movie should be lazy, that it should be made with a kind of careless hubris (“Hey, it’s only a Bond movie… so anything goes, right?”)

Brosnan…

Make a film like this properly, with all the right ingredients, and what you get is not a Big Mac, or the kind of burger you’d buy from a van outside the Millennium Stadium, but the classiest, most delicious burger you ever ate.

And that’s what Skyfall is. It’s a burger, but by God it’s the best burger you will have eaten in a very long time. It does everything a Bond movie should, never straying so far from the template as to offend, but still managing to deliver quite a few surprises along the way. Is it the best Bond ever, as Philip French suggests in his very spoiler-heavy review in The ObserverNot quite. I’ve seen both From Russia With Love and Goldfinger quite recently, and both take some beating. I’m also very fond of Live and Let Die, it being the first Bond movie I can remember watching, but it’s a strange film, and in places very flawed. If I had to judge them equally, ignoring all sentiment, I’d have to say Skyfall is possibly the best Bond since Goldfinger.

Seriously, Brosnan. Piss off.

What’s more, for the first time in over a decade, Skyfall ends with that tantalising promise: “James Bond will return…”

It’s a shame we don’t yet know the title of the next movie (that was always one of my favourite things about them as a kid – that they offered a hint of what was to come), but still… There shall be another Bond film. And I can’t bloody wait.

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2 Responses to “Skyfall – Bond at 50”

  1. psychedk November 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    First of all, hahaha, brilliant use of photos in your posts! Love the little comments you do under them.

    Finally caught the movie the other day and well, you’ve already said it, The Dark Knight was definitely what came to my mind as well. Similar intelligent action, and Silva is a villain a lot like the Joker. I’m personally very fond of baddies who want to see the world in chaos. It makes them more unpredictable and more dangerous than if they were just set out to rob a bank. You can’t quite fathom them. I loved how, when he had M at gunpoint, he wanted to die himself. Have you seen BBC Sherlock? Moriarty also kills himself in the end to take himself out of the equasion. In his mind his goal was bigger than his own life.

    I’ve read most every comic the Joker features in, and the Joker is definitely also very sexually ambiguous, so even there the analogy fits. (I was glad the theater was dark, that scene with Silva and Bond tied to the chair made me blush!)

    Over all a very good movie, and a great Bond movie, even if it’s just a fancy burger 🙂

    • thedaillew November 6, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it – the blog and the movie!

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