Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

Skyfall

SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

The most recent James Bond outing is tremendous entertainment, full of vim and zip and energy. It’s also an engaging character story that weaves M and Bond’s pasts together for a sensational final act. “Where are we going?” asks M at one point. “Back in time,” replies Bond… The last half-hour is mostly set at Bond’s childhood home, and sees him given two surrogate parents. As the trio defend the house from the bad guys’ assault, the movie becomes some kind of hybrid of Straw Dogs and The A-Team, and it’s gripping stuff. After the clean slate of Casino Royale and the po-faced Quantum of Solace, director Sam Mendes is deliberately embracing classic Bond traits and motifs. We get a new Moneypenny, a new Q, the return of an Aston Martin DB5, and even a belting title song sung by a large-lunged diva. The final few moments coalesce our new team, and the final scene is set in a deliberately 60s/70s/80s M office. But it’s far from by-the-numbers. After a great opening action sequence, which starts in a small dark room then constantly opens up and gets bigger and bigger in scale and ambition, we get surprises galore – M’s moving death, a new M, the new Moneypenny, what the film’s title refers to. Huge chunks of it are set in London, which is great fun and new for a Bond movie, and the whole film looks amazing. Director of photography Roger Deakins gives each location its own colour scheme and feel: Shanghai is bright neon, expensive sheen and glass; London is grounded and everyday; Macau has the soft, warm glow of lanterns and lots of yellows, reds and oranges; the Highlands are desolate and airy, while Skyfall itself on fire at night produces some beautiful and surreal imagery (pictured). It’s such a shame the superstructure of the plot is so poor – when you sit back and analyse Raoul Silva’s plan, it’s reliant on monumental coincidences and him knowing precisely what would happen when far ahead of time. The film loses a mark because of this haphazardness. Nine ceramic bulldogs out of 10.

Bond: In three films, he’s gone from reckless rookie to washed-up veteran. He says “bring me to him” when surely he means “take”. When Silva tries to unnerve him with a bit of homoerotic flirting, 007 acts nonchalant (“What makes you think this is my first time?”).

Villains: Ola Rapace plays assassin Patrice. There are numerous heavies and bodyguards, none of whom is featured. Headline bad guy Raoul Silva enters the story at the 67-minute mark (a beat after the DVD layer change, in fact!). He’s an arch, melodramatic lunatic who knows full well he’s a Bond villain. Javier Bardem plays him camp and cruel, and excels in the character’s brilliant opening scene (he’s introduced with a monologue all shot in one lengthy take as he walks from 30 metres away up to the camera). It’s a shame his plan is head-scratchingly full of plot holes.

Girls: Bond has a beach-hut shag, who we don’t learn anything about, and there are some bob-cut babes working in the casino. French actress Bérénice Lim Marlohe – Jesus Christ, how beautiful is it possible for one human being to be?! – plays Silva’s haunted girlfriend Sévérine. She’s not in the film for long, but it’s a terrific performance. (The less said about Bond twigging she was a sex slave from the age of 12 then shagging her in the shower the better.) Basically, Judi Dench is Skyfall’s female lead…

Regulars: …M has a large and vital role in the story; Judi Dench is excellent, as always. She is absolutely Bond’s equal in their various one-on-one scenes – it’s the best ever Bond/M relationship, butting heads but always conveying underlying affection. Also, Dench becomes the first person in a Bond film to say fuck. Her aide, Tanner, returns from Quantum of Solace. We meet three new characters who will presumably become our new gang of regulars. Eve Moneypenny (her name is held back until a few minutes from the end) is initially a slapdash agent cocking up a mission, then gets grounded and becomes a secretary (anyone remember feminism?). Naomie Harris is distinctly unlikeable in the role, and she and Daniel Craig have no chemistry whatsoever. Conversely, Bond and the new Q (played well by Ben Whishaw) instantly strike up a fascinating relationship of grudging respect. He’s a young, anorak-and-glasses geek who’s clearly off-the-chart clever and a bit stuck-up. Their first meeting is a lovely scene that nods to the past and also inverts the clichés. Finally, Ralph Fiennes (really excellent) appears as Gareth Mallory, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He’s one of the genre’s great you-think-he’s-a-twat-then-he-proves-his-worth characters, and by the end of the film he’s earned both Bond’s trust and M’s job.

Action: The opening chase sees Eve driving erratically, causing chaos and naming the brands of cars for product-placement reasons. Bond then gets on a bike to chase Patrice across Istanbul rooftops and through markets. (It’s a common action-movie trope, isn’t it? Filming a chase in a Mediterranean city? Gotta go across rooftops! This, Quantum of Solace, The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Taken…) There’s the stuff on the train, with a ridiculously tongue-in-cheek JCB gag, then a train-top punch-up. Bond is then shot – accidentally, by Eve – and falls a terribly, terribly long way down to a river. There’s the explosion at MI6 headquarters, with a shocked M watching on from Vauxhall Bridge. In Shanghai, Bond tracks down Patrice to a skyscraper: he hangs onto the bottom of a lift as it climbs dozens of floors, then watches as Patrice assassinates someone. In a tremendously beautiful sequence – impressionistic lighting, constantly moving reflections, lots of shadows and silhouettes – Bond and Patrice fight to the latter’s death. Bond also has a brawl at the Macau casino, and falls into a pit with some komodo dragons. He later kills four or five of Silva’s goons in a sudden burst of ultra-violence. Silva’s escape from MI6’s prison includes Bond chasing him through tunnels and the London Underground – he has a near-miss with a train, has to run along a platform to jump on a train as it leaves Temple station, then slides down the dividing bit of a pair of escalators. (This last stunt makes no sense: any Londoner will tell you those middle bits have regular ‘Stand on the right’ signs sticking out of them.) Silva sets off a small, prepared explosion to cause a train (which is empty for some reason) to crash down towards Bond. Silva storms the parliamentary committee and there’s a huge gunfight. The climactic battle at Skyfall house is all Home Alone improvised defences, machine guns, grenades, fire, gas explosions and helicopter action. Bond and a henchman fight underwater after falling into a frozen lake. During the final confrontation in the chapel, Bond kills Silva – then M dies in his arms.

Comedy: There’s an arch moment of Bond ‘shooting his cuffs’ after his daring leap onto the moving train. When Bond turns up unexpectedly at M’s townhouse (a scene that echoes one in Casino Royale), he’s told MI6 have sold his flat as he was presumed dead. “I’ll find a hotel,” he says. “Well, you’re bloody not sleeping here,” replies M. Bond’s word-association session with a psychologist is witty stuff. When 007 returns to active duty, Tanner says to M, “I didn’t know Bond passed the [evaluation] tests.” M dryly replies, “He didn’t.” Bardem has great fun with his opening scene, hamming it up knowingly. When Bond races along the platform and jumps onto the back of a speeding tube train, a laconic man nearby says to his wife, “He’s keen to get home.” Bond is then hanging off the back of the carriage and shouts through the glass to an off-duty driver: “Open the door!” (Never mind Thor or Jack Bauer, seeing James Bond on the London Underground is the best ‘iconic-fictional-character-rides-the-tube’ moment of recent years.) When James and M are in his Aston Martin DB5 – originally intended to be the motor he won in Casino Royale, then changed to the Goldfinger car for 50th-anniversary hijinks – he threatens to activate her ejector seat. “See if I care,” deadpans M. When they reach Scotland, Kincade assumes ‘M’ is short for Emma.

Music: The incidental music is by Thomas Newman (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Lost Boys, American Beauty), and it’s great. It’s especially effective during Silva’s escape and his attack on M, when it powers us through and distracts us from asking too many awkward questions. The title song, by Adele, is trad but good: the best Bond song of the 21st century.

Personal connection: I first saw Skyfall with Fraser Dickson and Carena Crawford, on Monday 29 October 2012 at the Odeon Marble Arch. As someone who’s lived in London for 12 years now, I adore seeing lots of locations I know well in the film. I’ve gone past the MI6 building on the 436 bus many, many times; I’ve often been to Whitehall and Trafalgar Square; I’ve been in the undercrofts of the Old Royal Naval College (where the scene with M and the coffins was shot); of course, I use the tube all the time; and – most excitingly – when Bond and M are driving out of London, they turn off Lewisham Way (where I used to live) onto New Cross Road! Whoever thought that grimy student dive The New Cross Inn would be in a James Bond movie?

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