Saturday 8 July 2017

From the archive: "Skyfall"

With one tremendous opening pursuit through the streets and across the roofs of Istanbul, Skyfall – the 23rd official James Bond film – eradicates all unhappy memories of Bond 22, 2008’s sputtering Quantum of Solace. As we glean from another of Daniel Kleinman’s typically imaginative credit sequences, making full sense of that Adele song that’s dominated the airwaves this past month, 007 himself is faring less well, however. It’s hardly novel for this franchise to float the notion its protagonist may have become unmoored from time; the triumph of Skyfall is that it finds engaging ways to reconnect Bond with his past, while plotting a renewed future for him on our screens. For the first time in a Daniel Craig-era Bond, everything tumbles into place.

There remain moments when Craig resembles the world’s luckiest hodcarrier, but director Sam Mendes proves less interested in our hero’s default thuggishness than in his flickers of intuition, visible even as that gym-chiselled physique lets him down. This Bond is more connected with the women in his life – literally so, through those first minutes, as a transmitter puts their voices in his head: Naomie Harris, owning the prominent role she’s long deserved, as Eve, Bond’s protégée, sidekick and something more; and Judi Dench’s magnificent, moody, maternal M, whose distinguished intelligence career is threatened when a list of undercover operatives falls into enemy hands. Critically, Bond and his latest adversary, sniggering rogue agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), have been reframed as little boys competing for M’s affections; the film proceeds towards a genuinely shocking pietà.

The first Craig Bonds carried on regardless of the younger, more energised Bourne films, rather arrogantly assuming the action game hadn’t changed and that the Bond marque was enough in itself to get audiences into the multiplex. Skyfall is a humbler proposition, co-opting some of Bourne’s most potent dramatic tools (a watery rebirth, the ground-level perspective, chases through the Tube), not to mention one of its actors. The implication there’s a mole within MI6 also tips the film towards zeitgeisty successes like 24 and Homeland, though it’s still a fogeyish touch that our new and notionally techno-hip Q (Ben Whishaw) should confess to drinking Earl Grey rather than, say, Red Bull. Such details suggest Bond remains, in part, the fantasy of middle-agers stuck behind desks in the kind of rain-lashed bureaus M is seen inhabiting early on – though Skyfall shakes everything up further by having Silva bomb MI6’s riverside HQ, driving the staff into Churchill’s WW2 bunkers.

Mendes is not an obvious action director, yet as the stylised shootouts of 2002’s Road to Perdition made clear, he knows good cinematography, art direction and production design when he sees it. Skyfall often thrills simply by doing something different for this series: staging fistfights in silhouette (DoP Roger Deakins’ work throughout is exemplary), or in Asian gambling houses – complete with peckish Komodo dragons – that hint at what a John Woo or Kill Bill-era Tarantino might have done with this franchise. It’s a warmer, more human and inclusive Bond – giving due prominence to older and mixed-race performers – yet one that doesn’t sacrifice its commercial edge, functioning mightily well as an example both of action cinema de luxe and of a brand rediscovering its bulldog spirit. Not for the first time in 2012, you can buy British with confidence.

(MovieMail, November 2012)

Skyfall screens on ITV1 tonight at 9pm.

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