Skyfall returns the Bond franchise to its roots.
Sometimes, you don’t even realize something’s wrong until they fix it – and that pretty much sums up the impact of Skyfall, the 23rd and latest James Bond movie directed by Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes.
The movie opens up in the same vein as it’s disappointing predecessor; the deeply underwhelming Quantum of Solace. James Bond is tracking a stolen hard drive with his comely companion, Eve, and that leads to a wild chase through the back streets of Turkey that is frenetic enough to get anybody’s pulse racing.
But just like in Quantum, it just doesn’t feel like a Bond movie any more.
There’s no gun-barrel sequence at the beginning. The thumping soundtrack by maestro David Arnold is noticeably lacking Bond’s signature guitar riffs. As tightly edited and thrilling as the film is, it’s utterly, drearily generic (it could be a Mission Impossible movie, or the latest Jason Borne adventure. There’s nothing distinctive about it.)
But unlike Quantum of Solace, this time that’s the point.
Because Skyfall is ultimately a film made up of three distinctly different “acts” – each one giving a deliberate nod to Bond’s unbelievable 50-year history on the silver screen (and beyond.)
The exhilarating, but unoriginal opening act of the film follows the formula of the post-Cold War Bond movies; from 1995′s Goldeneye to Quantum of Solace.
This is the post-modernist Bond we’ve all become painfully uncomfortable with – a non-smoking, feminist-friendly mannequin with a female boss, played by the inimitable Judi Dench, and an increasingly generic playbook of gunfights, action sequences and love affairs to plod through.
If the Hollywood executives had their way, this might have been what the whole of Skyfall ended up like – just another drab entry in an overplayed movie franchise. But instead director Sam Mendes explodes the status-quo – literally.
Less than half-way into Skyfall, MI6′s familiar headquarters on the banks of the Thames gets blown to smithereens; and that’s when everything changes.
An evil villain, played with relish by Javier Bardem, sets to work systematically dismantling M’s espionage network; and in doing so, takes apart two decades of overplayed Bond tropes with it.
This is where the second act of Skyfall begins; and it’s really unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
As a fan of the James Bond books, I can tell you that Ian Fleming would have been proud with what transpires. Bond’s adventures as he tracks down Bardem’s former MI6 agent character, Rauol Silva, incorporate many of the more twisted elements of Bond legend that most movie producers would have steered clear of.
There’s cruelty, as Bond watches a former lover die just so Silva can make a point. There’s ugliness, as Silva removes a mouthpiece to reveal a horrible disfigurement he received as a result of M’s decisions as head of MI6. And finally, in a very Fleming-esque moment, there’s a scene of uncomfortably twisted sexuality as Silva tries to intimidate Bond with sexual innuendo (which, to his credit, Bond throws back with equally calculating relish.)
In every way that these scenes aren’t the stuff of “traditional” Bond movies, they are the stuff of Ian Fleming’s writing; and in many ways Sam Mendes manages to crawl deeper under Bond’s skin than any director before him.
That’s especially true in the third and final act of the film; in which Bond kidnaps M and whisks her off to the Scottish highlands, for a showdown with Rauol Silva at the abandoned Bond estate of “Skyfall.”
Bringing Bond’s past to life is something no movie-maker has ever attempted before. 007 has always been played as an archetype – an empty tuxedo that can be temporarily filled by any number of handsome actors. But in Skyfall, he becomes a real person – with a real mother and real father, both lost during a climbing accident when he was just a boy.
We see Bond’s boyhood home. His family gamekeeper (played inexplicably by Albert Finney.) Bond prepares for battle with his father’s double-barreled hunting rifle tucked under one arm. He even rides off to battle in the original Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger and Thunderball (complete with ejector seat and machine guns, both of which get used in anger during the final confrontation.)
In taking this approach, Sam Mendes brings together all the separate, disparate parts of the Bond mythos and ties them together; making Daniel Craig more of a “Bond” than any who have come before him; Sean Connery included.
And that’s ultimately how the movie ends.
Villain dispatched, and tears shed, the final scenes of Skyfall return the Bond franchise to its cleaner, pre-modernist roots. We get a new Q, and a new Moneypenny. A more traditional M steps into Judy Dench’s role. Even the office that Bond receives his latest briefing in is a nod back towards Bernard Lee’s digs in the original Bond movies.
And that’s when you realize what I said in the first paragraph was true – we didn’t realize the Bond franchise was broken until Sam Mendes came in and fixed it for us.
Ever since Bond’s “reboot” in 1995, when Judi Dench first stepped in as M, we’ve been trying to force Bond to be something he isn’t. We’d made him give up smoking. We’d replaced his Savile Row suits with ill-fitting Brioni. We’d even traded in his Aston Martin for a BMW, and his 7.65mm Walther PPK for a bland 9mm. Bond just hasn’t been the same and even the highlights of recent years (like Casino Royale) are followed up almost immediately by blatant missteps.
But by pressing the “reset” button on the whole franchise, Sam Mendes has wiped clean the slate and given us a chance to return Bond to what made him great in the first place.
Now the only challenge is living up to that opportunity.