While on a mission to recover a hard drive with the names and aliases of MI6 field agents, Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot under M's orders, and presumed dead. But of course he's not. He then lays low in Thailand enjoying "retirement" before returning to England to serve and protect when MI6 comes under threat. Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent and someone who’s got beef with M (Dame Judi Dench), plans to take M down and seems to always be one step ahead of 007.
What we thought:
After the dull and rather po-faced Quantum of Solace, it would have been enough for the latest entry in the Bond franchise to be merely above average.
In light of Quantum’s failings, anything surpassing that film would no doubt be hailed as a return to form for the franchise. That the new film, Skyfall, not only surpasses that previous entry but also cements itself as the one of the best in the franchise's history, should come as a delight to fans of the series. Skyfall is a film that challenges Bond not only physically but also finds him taken, literally and figuratively, to far more personal places than we have yet seen for the character.
Wasting no time, the film starts with Bond in Istanbul with a fellow agent played by Naomie Harris, on a mission to find a hard drive containing the names and aliases of MI6's field agents. This then leads to a frantic chase through the streets of Istanbul, which moves nimbly from foot to car to motorbike and then a train, climaxing with Bond being shot under orders from M.
Of course, he isn’t really dead, and when we next see him, he's lying low in Thailand, spending time with the ladies and working on his drinking habit. But when MI6 comes under attack, Bond comes out of hiding and to the aid of his agency, his boss and Queen and Country.
Turns out that the person behind this attack is someone from M's past, Silva, and the schemes he has planned will put Britain's super-spy through the wringer like never before.
Bond films have often used their stories as an excuse to string together increasingly ridiculous set-pieces with cartoonish stunts and gadgets that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wile E Coyote cartoon, with the results being films where the sense of peril was undone by the absurdity of it all. When they’ve gone for a more grounded tone, such as License to Kill or the aforementioned Quantum, the films have often been so dour as to turn off audiences expecting the customary fun of the Bond series.
It takes a canny director to be able to judge the right of mix of light and heavy required for a Bond film. Guy Hamilton. who directed Goldfinger, understood the tone. So did Martin Campbell, who directed Golden Eye and Casino Royale. Sam Mendes, whose filmography is largely a showcase for material somewhat weightier than the average Bond, seems to be an unlikely fit for super-spy antics. But like Hamilton and Campbell, he has the ability to bring a bit of levity to proceedings without allowing the sense of peril to be undermined.
Better yet, particularly for anyone who has followed Mendes' career, he shows off a facility for action that was hinted at in Jarhead and Road to Perdition, but literally explodes here in Skyfall.
The opening set-piece in Turkey is a promise of things to come, but the film tops itself with each new action sequence, with the set-piece in London being a particular highlight (nice too to finally see Bond doing work for Queen and Country in that great city).
And Mendes, unlike so many directors working in action today, understands that building up to the action is as important as the action itself. He is helped by a script from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, that provides a wonderful story, actual characters and dialogue that frequently fizzes (though the story does suffer from a bit of fat on its mid-section).
Particularly refreshing is that this is the first Bond film that places M right in the action. Previous films in the series have used M as a character that is almost entirely a function of plot. M would come in, give Bond his mission and then bow out for the rest of the film. When Dame Judi Dench was given the role during the Brosnan-era, M was given a bit more oomph, but the role still existed as a largely peripheral character.
It seems a shame to have an actor of Dench's quality at your disposal only to waste her on dispensing plot details, which is why Skyfall is such a delight. Before we even get into the film’s main story, we see M having to deal with the bureaucracy of her job, having to fend off attacks from her superiors.
Dench is marvelous here, her character having more weight and colour than ever before. Toward the end, the film nudges ever so slightly toward a buddy movie, as Bond and M join forces to take down the bad guy, and the chemistry between Dench and Craig is a wonderful thing to behold.
Bond films have always presented us with magnificently colourful villains, and Javier Bardem's Silva is no different. The first meeting between Bond and Silva is a fascinating mix of flirting and posturing, with Silva caressing the chest and legs of a tied up Bond while he taunts our hero.
You might chuckle at his effeminate mannerisms or his verbal tics, but you'll never see Silva as a joke, particularly once you see his physical deformity. Bardem, taking his cue from his director, makes sure to balance a sense of threat with a touch of fun and it makes for a villain sure to make his mark on Bond history.
But no matter all its other qualities, a Bond movie will always stand or fall depending on its leading man. Thankfully, Daniel Craig is more than up to the task, and Skyfall sees him at his best yet.
Connery was the cool man's man with a cruel streak, Moore was the jester with a perpetually arched eyebrow, Dalton brought a dark intensity to the role while Brosnan was the smooth charmer. If anything, Craig is the British Bulldog (something hinted at with a small ceramic statue that has its place on M's desk).
Tough, tenacious and never one to give up where others might throw in the towel, Craig's Bond is the type who'll smash through a wall instead of jump over it and whose visage implies a history of hard won battles.
In a break from franchise tradition, Bond doesn’t get much opportunity in this film to engage in the ol' "Kiss Kiss" but he does get more than his fair share of "Bang Bang".
Given the scowl that comes so naturally to his face, it's great to see Craig bringing a welcome bit of lightness to the role this time, no doubt encouraged by director Mendes. Honestly, at times, Skyfall feels like an Indiana Jones film with its ability to mix action and humour without descending into full camp. This is especially apparent during a fight scene with two goons that takes place in a pit of Komodo dragons.
Making up the rest of the cast are Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, who works for the Intelligence and Security Committee, and Ben Whishaw as the new, more youthful Q. The first meeting between him and Bond is one of the film's delights, particularly given how the roles of elder and young buck are reversed for this film's Q and Bond.
Kudos should also go to director of photography Roger Deakins, whose eye for colour and framing make Skyfall the most gorgeous Bond movie you’re likely to see. The bit in Shanghai is a feast for the eyes and one action set-piece involving a bit of hand-to-hand combat set against a backdrop of blue light might very well go down as the fight scene of the year.
At nearly two and a half hours there was the risk of a film that felt bloated and overlong.
Thankfully, it never outstays its welcome and come the end, you'll be chomping at the bit for the next Bond film. For a franchise that has just hit the 50 year mark, that is something to be proud of, as is producing a film that still manages to surprise and excite.
This latest iteration of Bond got off to a great start with Casino Royale, it stumbled somewhat with Quantum of Solace and now it makes a magnificent return to form with Skyfall. It’s almost certain to go down as the best film of the current era Bond and one of the best of the franchise.
Very, very good to have you back, Mr Bond.