As part of our look back at the films of James Bond, ahead of the SPECTRE release, Barnaby Eaton-Jones remembers Skyfall....
“Orphans always make the best recruits.”
I don't like Daniel Craig as 007. No, sorry. I didn't like him. Now, I do. You see, that's what Skyfall does for us naysayers. It turns Craig into a proper 007 and not a pouting, moody thug with a Steve McQueen complex. Admittedly, I came to this film with low expectations. I couldn't see what was so brilliant about Casino Royale (I prefer David Niven's psychedelic trip of a comedy version) and my wife actually fell asleep whilst watching Quantum Of Solace with me in the cinema. However, my interest started when I knew that Wade & Purvis (the 'writers' of previous 007 films – and I use those quote marks for a reason) were being overseen and re-written by award-winning John Logan. That had to be a good sign. Then there was the appointment of Oscar-winning Sam Mendes as the director. Talk began of a return to familiar tropes of the 007 movies of old and a move away from the connecting thread of the last two movies, of the mysterious organisation which was Spectre in all but name. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the cinematic version of James Bond, Skyfall was shaping up to be a winner before I'd seen the film.
And it was.
The opening sequence is exciting, intriguing and seemingly ends with 007's death. Obviously, this isn't a new thing. After all, we know that you only twice. But, when we meet up with 007 again, he's retired to a beach paradise and is only brought out of his solitude by an attempt on MI6's headquarters. His inactivity and retirement from the field means that he fails the series of physical and psychological tests that he's put through to be able to return to the field. M, whose soft spot for her favourite '00' agent is played to the hilt in this film, allows him to return even though he's not ready.
The middle section of the film deals with an old-school Bond villain with a new-school revenge tactics. This is Raoul Silva. He's played with psychotically camp perfection by Javier Bardem. His weapon of choice is hiding in cyberspace and orchestrating his reign of terror from behind a laptop but he's got a grudge against M and against MI6, being a former operative who worked closely with M herself. It's in this middle section of the film that the action sequences kick in and the 'caught, escape, chase' formula is used to perfection. For me, this feels like a 007 movie of old that's been melded with the new Daniel Craig format and you can't see the join. Sam Mendes, not known for his action-packed movies, injects a ferocious pace and spectacular sheen to every action sequence but, obviously, excels in making this the most cinematic of experiences – his eye for detail, for shots and for bringing you on a journey with the characters is unparalleled and it's no wonder the franchise has held on to him for the next movie. It also helps that he's friends with Daniel Craig and, perhaps, persuaded him to loosen up and chip away at the ice-cold persona that Craig had created for his Bond. There's a few throwaway quips that hit their mark better than before and maybe that's because Craig isn't afraid of them with Mendes at the helm. He still doesn't look like 007 to me, as his appearance is more Nightclub Bouncer than Night-time Bounder but the film that surrounds him envelops his persona with a return to what made 007 such a popular and enduring set of movies in the first place.
It's in the final third of the film that I think Skyfall becomes a classic Bond movie. After another attack and attempt is made on M's life by Silva in a public enquiry over the bombing of MI6's headquarters, Bond escorts her away from the obvious return to the bosom of her organisation and travels to his childhood and ancestral home in Scotland, called Skyfall. It's here that the movie kicks up another gear as we meet the faithful old gamekeeper of the estate, Kincade. He's played with a gruff twinkle by Albert Finney, though there were real - if brief - discussions about offering the role to Sean Connery, the original Bond. However, and I think they made the right choice, the producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli felt that it would have drawn the audience out of the story somewhat and, as a 50th anniversary nod, would have been too blatant.
Bond enlists the help of Q (Ben Whishaw), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Commission, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), in his mission to lay 'electronic traps' for Silva, to lead him to Skyfall for a showdown. Once there, the booby traps become real and there's a been a few criticisms of a sort of Home Alone or, even, The A-Team, feel to the setting of booby traps around the Skyfall estate for Silva and his men to succumb to. However, I don't get that vibe at all and, to me, it's a tension-building progression that works perfectly with the two old-timers, M and Kincade, helping the supposed old-timer 007 get practical in a world of digital dominance.
If you're reading this review, you'll know what happens next anyway. If you've not seen the film or haven't heard of the ending before, then I suggest you stop reading now and grab a copy of the DVD to watch. Go on, off you go. I haven't set any booby traps for you.
Okay, on we go to the sad part.
M dies at the end. Judi Dench, when she was cast as M in Goldeneye (Pierce Brosnan's debut movie as 007 way back in 1995), seemed a perfect choice to shake up the franchise with the inclusion of a new Bond. She had some great lines, she built a great character and she fitted seamlessly into the world of 007. In fact, I don't know why they didn't consider a strong female head of MI6 before they did. The fact she stayed on once Pierce Brosnan's not-altogether-amicable parting of the ways happened shows how much she was attached to the character and how much the series needed that continuity from the strongest and most recognisable actor that wasn't actually Bond. In the attack on the Skyfall home, she is wounded. We, as the audience, know how bad it is. Bond doesn't. Escaping through a secret tunnel to a small chapel on the Skyfall estate, Silva is finally killed by the last minute arrival of Bond. M, quite rightly, dies in Bond's arms from her wounds. It's an emotional and stark exit, which sets you up for the very next short scene of Bond returning to work in a very familiar setting, with Moneypenny behind her desk, the leather-padded door, and Ralph Fiennes' Mallory promotion to M. The emotion from losing Judi Dench's M is turned on its head with the emotion of seeing Bond in the most familiar setting that, so far, hadn't happened in a Daniel Craig movie. This is Bond, back to the old formula whilst still being brilliantly modern. For me, it's so good a film and such a good ending, I really sort of wanted the 007 franchise to end there. Fifty years is a good run, after all. Ahem. However, the re-pairing of Sam Mendes as director and Daniel Craig as 007 for the upcoming Spectre is too tempting a double-act to want to lose. Here's hoping they continue on in the winning formula that Skyfall provided.
Image - IMDb