Daniel Craig is committed and we have a new writer and director to try and deliver something better than the previous Quantum of Solace (Filmstalker review), a film that still casts a very dark shadow over the recently rebooted Bond which showed so much promise after the excellent Casino Royale (Filmstalker review).
No one is expecting another Solace, not with Sam Mendes directing from the writing of John Logan, but then Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are also writing and they were on Solace with Paul Haggis so there's still potential there for it to drop out. However do you really think Mendes would direct something that didn't have a decent ending, do you think that the producers would let that happen again? No, I didn't think so.
Skyfall opens superbly well with a fantastic title sequence which channels the old and the new Bond, something that you see a fair amount of throughout the film. It's a fantastically cinematic sequence that grabs the attention, and it really did with me. I was as glued as I was during the film itself as it reinforced the feeling that once again Bond was going to be in pretty serious trouble.
The film leaps into the action sequence almost immediately and it does give other action films around it a real run for their money. There are multiple sections to this opening action sequence, the car chase, the bike chase and the train, all fantastic to watch and beating expectations every time.
There had been doubts expressed about Sam Mendes directing the Bond film and delivering the action required of the franchise and I have to say that he blows those critics out of the water in the first ten minutes and then keeps doing so until the end.
The car chase was good enough but when the motorbikes took to the rooftops I found myself on the edge of my seat and holding my breath through some of the wider shots. They looked amazingly realistic and even when they cut to some shots of Craig on the bike and you could see that he wasn't actually on the bike on the rooftop they still did a great job of making it seem as close to realistic as possible. Watching the bikes tear over the rooftops seemed to be the highpoint of the whole sequence but there proved to be more to come.
When the action took to the train and the digger I was agape. I couldn't really believe how they managed to achieve it the way it looked on screen and rather than many other sequences where we see isolated, closely cropped shots to build up a feeling of the overall scale of the stunt we saw plenty of wide shots of the digger on top of the train knocking the cars away and crashing down onto the carriage. The shots weren't isolated down and the scale faked for the audience, this looked as real as can be and amazingly CG-less.
I think it's pretty clear now, Sam Mendes can do Bond action, more than that he kick the arse of other action films. The film doesn't just let the action lie in the opening sequence, or in the closing, there are sequences throughout the film but it is fair to say that the biggest are the beginning and the end.
You might expect that the ending of the film would have an equally large action sequence, and while it is pretty big it isn't to the same scale as the opening, like the film itself there's a strong concentration on the personal. As the plot looks to M and Bond so do the action sequences and they feel much less about the scale and keep it more about M, Bond and the bad guy and while there may be other guns, vehicles and locations involved it feels as though the attention is much more on the characters.
I really enjoyed this aspect of the film as the action sequences no longer felt like a break in the plot for the obligatory action and instead the action feels much more part of the film and an extension of the story itself. I think this is something that Mendes has brought to the film and it makes it all the stronger for it.
Mendes, and to be fair the script writers, have made sure that the film is a strong and personal thriller that allows the audience to connect more with Bond and M rather than just following the template for a Bond film. This has been a positive direction that has been instilled since Casino Royale (Filmstalker review), but even they at times felt as though they broke for the large action sequence.
The entire scale of the film has been reigned and again it feels all the better for it, the bad guy doesn't have a giant laser aimed at the Earth ready to destroy it and Skyfall has actually taken something positive from Quantum of Solace (Filmstalker review), apart from remembering to write and ending, they've taken the idea of the more realistic villain and actually added that required evil villain element - with Solace he was just a businessman with a bit of a mean streak.
Javier Bardem does a wonderful job as the villain, a villain who personifies the film itself, he has some typical Bond styling from the hair, the slightly creepy voice and personality, and the mark of the Bond baddie to the baddie lair, but he has realistic and personal goals of revenge, not the hyper reality of the average Bond villain. He also doesn't have an army of bad guys and unstoppable resources behind him, nothing seems overly big on the Bond scale, it's all held back and that works wonderfully. Bardem gets some great speeches and some great moments to show his inner bad guy. He's given a surprising range for his Bond character and that gives more to the actor and more to the film.
Daniel Craig has plenty of screen time as one would expect and he is also given more to broaden his character, as he was with Casino Royale. There's more emotional weight to this story and he doesn't always act like you would expect Bond to. There are some great moments and one I'll pick out is perhaps the most amusing, his reaction to the Komodo dragons during the casino fight allows us to see the human behind the agent. The agent is there though and not just in the opening action sequence, look to the whole tunnel chase sequence to see how great the two leads work with each other and the courtroom shoot out to see how strong Craig's Bond is.
Bond is, as per the rest of the film, reined in a little and other characters are brought up to his level rather than Bond being the showpiece with fluff and dressing around him. The other MI6 agents aren't bumbling fools or paper pushers and there are some great returns for the old Bond characters but with the same modern and realistic turn to them. The return of Moneypenny with the superb Naomie Harris is perfectly pitched and adds more to the character than we've ever seen with the franchise, and there's also a little addition to the character of Ben Whishaw's Q getting him more involved in the stories although surprisingly the film keeps itself distanced from the Bond gadgets. There is a surprising new character in the form of Ralph Fiennes and he also is graced with a much richer back story and like the other new characters here he isn't just sitting around letting Bond take all the limelight as he gets his hands dirty and picks up a gun.
Oh and I do need to mention some other strong performances, there's the excellent Judi Dench who has much more to deliver with her M character this time out and has done so with great strength, Rory Kinnear delivers a good MI6 lead desk agent, and Helen McCrory does a good job in the typically school teacher scolding and insinuation filled public inquiry that British politicians love so much.
The pacing of the film is fantastic. The extended running time might put a few people off but it allows the film much more time to build the characters and the story and that really does pay off throughout the film and especially come the ending.
I think the ending might divide audiences because it's not quite what you might expect from a Bond film. There is great action, there's humour, the expected characters, the drama, etc. however the film makes it even more personal, drawing it back to just M, Bond and the baddie, making sure we're totally focussed for the dramatic and rather emotional finale. I think it really works and yes it does allow us to see a more human side of Bond and again deepen the character but I don't view it as a poor aspect of the film and it's portrayed very well. It also leads into a great story development for the ongoing series.
Skyfall looks fantastic throughout with wonderful sets and locations, although it does spend most of its time in Britain to great effect it doesn't turn into a dreary Bond with a lack of glamour and glitz. When it does up the sparkle the lavish backdrops aren't just there for show and often they reflect and interact with the story as weaves into the locations themselves. Just look to the fantastic set of the glass building and how the physicality and lighting is used through the scene or the casino again with the lighting through the Komodo dragon scene, or the Scottish locations from the first arrival to the home of the Bonds.
I've presented a glowing picture but it's not all fantastic, mind you the issues I have with it are small and are only a few. The first is probably the biggest occurring early on in the film. Bond is presented as a seasoned operative who has been on many missions, and yet in the franchise he's still supposed to have only been on a few missions. It does go back to the problem they now have with the time-line of Bond where to the audience he's a new and rebooted Bond and yet there are elements that still point to the length of the franchise and the lifespan of the character.
Another aspect of Bond early on that was a little annoying was the fact that he disappeared and went into a bit of a self-obsessed depression when he realised that he was just another agent and indeed was dispensable, that seemed a little odd considering his line of work and what is reinforced to the character on every mission. His sulking didn't really fit but allows the story to build from the required point.
Strangely Bérénice Marlohe plays the most underused Bond girl I've seen but it's with her that lies another oddity with the story. Having identified her as having been forced into the sex trade at a horrific young age Bond then seduces her. It does seem a rather odd character choice and perhaps shows a darker side of Bond rather than the classic seduction role he plays.
Perhaps the part that annoyed me most was the obvious issue with Q analysing the laptop. From the opening second of him delivering the voice over as he tries to decipher the code within the laptop it was obvious what was going to happen, and with Q claiming he was the best, wrote the code, and so on, you have to wonder why he placed the laptop of the villain onto the live network of MI6. This is IT security 101 in the real world never mind when dealing with a baddie out to destroy your organisation.
Finally there was the perfectly timed tube train, I realise they run in with only minutes between them, but it was amazingly well timed. Still, that's easily forgivable as it sets up the next sequence and what follows provides action and plenty more story evolution.
They are small points in an otherwise excellent film that brings the old and new of Bond together, and the old is there too, not just with Moneypenny and Q but there are some surprising arrivals during the final scene which take us right back. There's also a great sequence before the drive up to Scotland as Bond reveals the beautiful old Aston Martin and the old style Bond theme arrives as he powers off. Again though this isn't here for just show and the car gets involved in the closing sequence wonderfully which will raise another smile on the faces of the fans of the old Bond.
Sam Mendes has directed a superb Bond film, it looks fantastic but nothing seems to be there for face value from the beautiful use of lighting in the glass building through to the impressive action sequences, everything has an added dimension and develops elements of the story and characters. The story is paramount and it is close-up and personal, reined in from the often over the top Bond films and characters and brought right home to Britain, MI6, M and Bond, delivering a thriller first and foremost.
There are plenty of nods to the old Bond such as the beautiful Aston Martin and there are also many additions to the new Bond from the old franchise from characters and locations, and yet they've resisted the urge to date the new Bond with these throwbacks and instead modernised them and given them much more importance and depth in the Bond stories setting them up for much more involvement here on in.
The action is spectacular throughout and does tie closely with the story rather than taking a break from the thriller to provide some eye candy as Bond has so often done in the past. The bike chase, the train, the court room and the Bond house attack are all fantastic to watch and deliver a new MI6 to match our relatively new Bond, an MI6 that gets involved and doesn't just provide paper support and humour to see Bond off in the direction of the bad guys.
Skyfall is a strong thriller that looks wonderful and delivers strong characters bringing more depth to the franchise and to Bond. It's another step forward and one that begs for Mendes, as well as all the main MI6 characters, to come back again.