Film Review: Skyfall

Bond's loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost. (Source: IMDB)

There’s a moment in Bond 23 in which Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva asks a dishevelled Bond his preferred hobby, to which he replies “resurrection”. Given we’re now celebrating Bond in his fiftieth year, it’s a trait the Broccoli family has also had to adopt to keep Bond feeling fresh through the years. Over the past half a century – kicking off with Dr. No in 1962 – the franchise has had to continually redefine, reboot, resurrect itself to stay relevant, ticking off the 00's as it goes. Fittingly, it's Skyfall that melds the old and the new together in a modern day Bond perhaps better than any other. 

Like Casino Royale that came before it, kicking off Daniel Craig-era 007 (we're promised a further two films from Mr Craig), Skyfall is unashamedly ‘back to basics’. It’s a more grounded, gritty, hard-edged Bond that’s as prickly as Daniel Craig’s beard, but also one built from the ground-up for modern cinema-goers. And yet, beneath its intensity and cut-throat action undeniably influenced by the Bourne series, there's an underlying strand of Bond DNA on show here that keeps the film feeling gloriously British and quintessentially Bond

Stripped back, then, is the over-stuffed plotting and zippy editing of Quantum of Solace in favour of a much simpler premise: a hard drive containing the details of all NATO agents in the field has been stolen, and it's down to 007 to plug the outbreak. Straight-forward, perhaps, but a solid enough set-up that allows Bond 23 to gain traction and pump up the action without floundering under a weight of exposition. 

It helps too, of course, that Skyfall gives a bit of breathing space for both Craig and Judi Dench returning as M to get into the meat of their respective characters. Fair play to Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan for tackling the back stories of two of Fleming's' most iconic characters – we're led to the childhood home of Bond where difficult memories remain and the origins of the character are examined, while M confronts a figure of her past – in a way that feels all at once maturely handled and poignant. Not that you'd have expected anything less from the Oscar-winning director behind Road To Perdition and American Beauty, mind. Visually, it's a Bond without comparison. Shooting such vibrant and distinctive locations as Macau, Istanbul, Shanghai, Scotland and London, Roger Deakins' cinematography is flawless, brings a colour and touch of artistry lacking in the likes of Quantum's hand-held camera work. 

And while the long-mooted return of gadgets man Q doesn't quite deliver in terms of the high-tech weaponry and flamboyant designs of the 007 films pre '06 (“What were you expecting, an exploding pen?” quips Ben Whishaw), his return nevertheless marks the film's drip-feeding of Bond-ness that will satiate the appetite for fans. Miss Moneypenny is back, too, while the classic 1963 Aston Martin DB5 which made its first appearance in 1964's Goldfinger gets a starring role in the movie's climactic (and explosive) shoot-out. Heck, the Martini that's always best shaken, not stirred even gets a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod in the wake of the Heineken sponsorship. By every right then, Skyfall ought to be the definitive Bond movie, as so many critics seem to believe it truly is. It's just not quite there...

Even for a movie with so many jaw-droppingly spectacular set-pieces as this – Bond 23 kicks off with energy, a frenetic and neatly-edited motorbike chase scene over the rooftops of Istanbul; a shadowy, neon-lit hand-to-hand fight scene in Shanghai is as stylish as it is a re-emergence of the brutality and ruggedness of 007 – at well over the two-hour mark, it still feels bloated. For a premise as simple as this, one couldn't blame the producers if they had chosen to skip from one set-piece to the next without a moment to draw breath. But instead, we're left with the slow build-up to the reveal of a villain more drowned in camp than masked by terror; a hideous, bleach blonde, so-called 'genius' played by the otherwise-brilliant Javier Bardem. His motives don't always feel entirely substantiated ('disgruntled employee' comes to mind), and the blue-prints for his attacks seem needlessly complex – not least the one that involves figuring exactly where Bond will apprehend him so he and the Bond producers can find a way to shoe-horn a terrific Tube crash into the movie that, while epic, is one of many moments that under-mine the believability and grounded feel of the film at large. 

Other of the film's orchestrated set-pieces just fizzle out into nothingness. A detour to one of Macau's glamorous and showy casinos feels flat and un-inventive and is tied up with a pair of Komodo dragons, while the movie's entire final half hour seems showy without any of the substance that should draw it to a close in fitting fashion, and that's not to mention the quite anti-climactic offing of the film's antagonist. In so many ways, Skyfall feels like the ultimate Bond experience; full of the high-octane action pieces, frenetic pacing and glamour of 007, but one also capturing the suaveness and playfulness of the man wearing the tux. But in others, it feels all-too convenient and, with a sprinkling of maturity, has lost some of the zest of what it means to be a 007 film.

Richard Birkett