Warning: Some Spoilers follow!
Let’s start by the bucking the trend of unanimous praise and addressing Skyfall’s major flaw. Is there a truly jaw dropping action sequence? Yes, many of you will sharply reply, have you not seen the pre-titles sequence? It’s certainly true that the early action in Istanbul is impressive, exotic and engaging. You cannot get more outrageous and dazzling than that digger sequence on the train. There is also plenty of variety, with the action hurtling along from shadowy apartment, to four wheeled and two wheeled pursuit, before crashing down onto the train tracks in breathless but effortlessly stylish fashion.
However, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) revealed in an interview with The Culture Show on BBC 2 that his benchmark for the opening action scene was Casino Royale’s free running crane extravaganza, which culminated in a bruising embassy shoot-out. For me, the Istanbul chase sequence in Skyfall does not come close to the action spectacle in Casino Royale. This may well be because almost all of the pre-titles sequence has been showcased in trailers or promotional footage, dampening its impact in the cinema. I would prefer to see less of the key action sequence in future, but the marketing clearly worked, given the takings at the box office. Nevertheless, Casino Royale also has the Miami airport scene, the stairwell fight at the hotel and the somewhat overblown climax of the sinking house in Venice. Skyfall, for the majority of its runtime, plays out at a much lower key in terms of action. Even Quantum of Solace, for all its faults, has action scenes that could arguably trump Skyfall’s. Its opening car chase and Siena based rooftop foot chase may feel like add ons to Casino Royale, with disappointingly Bourne-esque execution at times, but they remain excellent action set pieces.
Yet Skyfall is wowing critics, fans and ordinary cinemagoers at once. In the UK opening weekend and opening week box office records have been broken. How is it getting away with it? Surely Bond should be getting a grilling for failing to go bigger with the action, because bigger means better, right? Wrong. The reason for Skyfall’s success is that good storytelling tops mindless and meaningless action spectacle every time. Casino Royale had a convincing love story and the added thrill of seeing a newly qualified 007. This gave its action sequences more punch, along with a refreshing, new, gritty approach. Skyfall’s pre-titles sequence betters even Casino Royale in terms of drama though, and this is perhaps the most important ingredient in any action scene.
In many ways the pre-titles sequence of Skyfall sums up the entire film. It incorporates key elements of the plot by splitting the focus between Bond, Eve (Naomie Harris) and M’s office back in London. After an incredibly sophisticated and iconic opening few seconds to the film, in which Thomas Newman’s (The Shawshank Redemption) score and Roger Deakins’ (A Beautiful Mind) cinematography lusciously combine (and not for the last time), Bond is faced with a dying fellow agent. His immediate reaction is to help but M issues stern orders to leave him and pursue an assailant with top secret information. The tension between Bond’s operational instincts in the field and M’s merciless, increasingly desperate objectives in the MI6 boardroom is instantly evident, and the thematic spine to the film is established. Mendes then uses all his expertise, from the world of theatre as well as film, to juggle an action sequence with many layers (he has compared it to Russian dolls), setting up new characters, relationships and plot points as well as thrilling his audience.
So crucially the action in Skyfall is plot focused, and this plays a role in ensuring that this is a really good film full stop, not just a good Bond film. Many reviewers have played up the similarities to recent superhero epics, such as The Dark Knight, that thanks to Christopher Nolan’s (Memento,Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) darker edged talents brought previously laughable villains and protagonists brilliantly into the modern world. However, any Bond fan will rigorously dispute the influence of these films. There are some noticeable similarities, with glimmers of Newman’s score resembling Hans Zimmer’s Bat themed work and certain lines of dialogue echoing Nolan’s trilogy, but most of these are coincidental. For the most part Newman’s score cleverly references the Bond canon created by John Barry, even if David Arnold perhaps understands the series better. And John Logan’s involvement with the script, originally drafted, as usual, by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, has produced some classic Bondian dialogue with a twist. The real invigorating influence at work, as Daniel Craig is the first to point out, is Ian Fleming’s original books.
Skyfall is a journey from Craig’s modern, gritty Bond back towards a traditional, but refreshed, 007 dynamic with his allies. Some have seen it as disjointed but those behind Skyfall knew exactly what they were doing. In creating a story that pays homage to some key moments and themes of James Bond’s 50 year cinematic history, the makers of Skyfall have allowed 007 to follow an arc that gradually restores humour and fun, along with some classic ingredients. All the while though a modern Bond is emerging, who is the best of the books and the films, and not at all dated.
The resurrection of some classic Bond allies is a very wise move that seems to have set up an exciting immediate future for Daniel Craig’s tenure, as well as a secure, longer term legacy for his successor. Ben Whishaw (The Hollow Crown) and Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) are excellent additions, whilst Judi Dench (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is given room to deliver her best ever performance as M. Of course a considerable chunk of Bond’s character comes from his existence as a lone wolf but these moments that cast 007 as the solitary, wandering assassin are given greater weight in Skyfall because of his relationships with his friends, colleagues and employers. For example, my favourite action scene of the film is a shoot-out in Whitehall at an inquiry into M’s competence. The sight of so many quality actors involved in such a bullet ridden scene gave me goosebumps, even during my second viewing of the film. Indeed, Bond’s rush across London, which is mostly just him against the bad guy, with some fun touches from Whishaw’s youthful Q, is equally riveting because we know he cares about the people in danger at the other end. There’s also the thrill of watching a Bond film transform the tedium of the Tube into endless tunnels of possibility.
I haven’t even mentioned Javier Bardem’s (No Country for Old Men) blonde baddie, Silva. He provides the genuine threat that Quantum of Solace so seriously lacked. Only an actor of Bardem’s calibre could pull off some of the absurdities of his character. His eccentric fashion sense, his homoerotic taunts and his delightfully scripted anecdotes make him unforgettable from the first time you see him. But it’s his back story and his reasons for vengeance against M and MI6, physically embodied by his deformity, which makes him a great villain. From the moment we meet him Skyfall accelerates confidently into top gear with a burst of mad nitrous oxide into the tank. We’ve already been treated to the botched operation in Istanbul, Bond and MI6’s decline, and Bond’s partial reawakening in Shanghai and Macau’s casino by the time we meet Silva. Bond’s neon lit, stealthy approach of hired gun Patrice in Shanghai is a particular highlight, due to the gorgeousness of the visuals and the tension ramped up by the soundtrack. Bond’s flirty conversation with Severine in the casino, and his knowing insights about her background, is also a great moment. But Silva’s introduction takes us straight to the heart of the film.
In Skyfall we perhaps get closer to who James Bond is, and where he comes from, than ever before. Xan Brooks (of The Guardian) has criticised Skyfall for losing sight of what a James Bond film is and trying to do something too poignant, too clever. There will no doubt be those who agree with him. They will argue that taking the final third of the film to Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland is a step too far. I disagree. As I’ve already said, Skyfall is both a good film and a good James Bond film. The two things needn’t contradict each other. There are some conversations with emotional undertones, but they remain undertones. Bond never breaks down over the fact that he is an orphan. In fact his front of charm and bravery seems to thicken on home soil; it’s as if he’s returned home at last with a fine new suit to be proud of, and of course he’s staying strong for M. The Oedipal nature of Skyfall has been discussed by almost every reviewer and I certainly believe it’s been over hyped. Bond and M’s mutual respect, and underlying tenderness, is undoubtedly a central pillar of the plot though. In my view, Bond’s relationship with his family home and M gives Skyfall substance, and these relationships are handled perfectly by Mendes, who never undermines 007’s traditionally solid character.
The action sequences on the moors of Scotland are refreshingly unique in the Bond series. They also invert the normal dynamic of a Bond film; rather than the story ending in a villain’s lair, the villain comes home to Bond. Ultimately Skyfall’s real climax takes place back in London, with the unveiling of some new allies and Bond receiving a symbolic gift; a British bulldog. The bulldog represents a very British sense of endurance and perseverance, embodied in the character of 007. But it also perfectly summarises the ability of the James Bond franchise to evolve and reinvent itself, so that James Bond will always, always return.
Unbelievably stylish, with a great story and a fantastic cast, Skyfall sets the template for a new James Bond formula. Craig and Mendes simultaneously embrace and kill off the old, so that 007 can be reborn into a new era.