Ahead of the release of SPECTRE this month, the Bond Reloaded series takes a look back at each film in the iconic James Bond franchise. This time, Daniel Craig shields M from a face from her past in Skyfall.
The Bond franchise was, yet again, in dire straits after Quantum of Solace came out in 2008. Financial difficulties were ravaging studio MGM and these put the latest Bond movie on hiatus for the entirety of 2010. Fortunately, Eon already had American Beauty director Sam Mendes in place to direct the saga’s next film, with Daniel Craig returning to the lead role for the third time. In 2011, production resumed in earnest and Skyfall was born.
Given that the franchise had almost entirely reinvented itself with Casino Royale only six years earlier, it was remarkable to see that Skyfall was yet another completely different beast. For the first time ever, there was no real evil plot on the scale of world domination – just a madman turning his ire towards MI6 and, specifically, Judi Dench’s M in her final appearance.
Skyfall is an exquisitely written Bond movie and probably the franchise’s high watermark outside of the classic Goldfinger. It was Bond as drama more than high-octane thriller, but aided by terrific performances, well-done action scenes and one of the best villains in the history of the franchise.
Look to the past
Skyfall opens with the kind of sequence that has become a pre-credits classic – the apparent death of 007. This time around, it’s a poorly aimed gunshot from fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) that puts an end to Bond, leading into Adele’s distinctly Shirley Bassey-esque theme song. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bond isn’t dead and soon returns to the fold after a cyber-terror attack targets MI6. Via an encounter with mysterious Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), Bond finds himself meeting Silva (Javier Bardem) – a former agent with a serious grudge against M.
Right from the pre-credits chase, which is perhaps the best Bond opening to date, the approach of Skyfall is clear. This is the rugged, blunt instrument agent who we saw in Casino Royale, rather than the glossy action man of Quantum of Solace. Mendes brought a real world sensibility to Bond with this film, whilst calmly nodding to the past in the franchise’s 50th anniversary year and assembling a new generation of MI6 staff, with Harris becoming iconic secretary Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw appearing as a brand new incarnation of Q.
"All this jumping and fighting – it’s exhausting. Relax."
Skyfall is incredibly brave in that it is not structured at all like a Bond film after its halfway point. Initially, the globe-trotting action and breadcrumb trail of clues is vintage 007, but then Silva is apprehended on his private island and a curveball is thrown. The rest of the film sees Bond on the run as he tries to protect M from Silva’s complex and devilishly intelligent plan. It’s an interesting change in dynamic that bears real dramatic fruit. The shift in narrative style also slows down the pace, which was absolutely breakneck in Casino Royale, but here gives the more personal story the necessary breathing room.
Judi Dench and Daniel Craig make the absolute best of that breathing room, delivering the two best dramatic performances in the history of the Bond franchise, particularly as M succumbs to her death on the floor of a Scottish chapel. It’s in that moment that the icy relationship between 007 and his boss pays off in an outpouring of, not quite emotion, but overwhelming respect. It’s fitting that the most popular M ever should get a proper, on screen send-off and Mendes’ risk pays dividends in allowing the film a more solemn finale than the usual romp in a field.
Pursuing Dench across the UK with ruthless forward planning, Javier Bardem is a genuinely hissable villain. Silva’s cyber-terrorism gives him an interesting angle, but even more intriguing is the homo-erotic dimension to his relationship with Bond. Silva is not only Bond’s equal, but someone who flies in direct opposition to his hyper-masculine perception of the spy game. On top of this, Silva has a classic Bond villain feel, aided by his grotesque true appearance and the sense of his always being one step ahead. Bardem’s performance is maniacal in calm and measured style, particularly in the final, fiery assault on Bond’s ancestral home.
MI6 under fire
The secondary plotline of Skyfall sees MI6 itself threatened, following the accidental leak of the secret identities of dozens of agents embedded in criminal organisations worldwide. This, in a topical evocation of the Leveson Inquiry, pits Dench’s M in a battle of wits against her own government, forced to prove the value of her work in a modern age. If what we know thus far about Andrew Scott’s C in SPECTRE is anything to go on, the notion of MI6’s place in the world will continue to be a major theme of the Craig era.
Mendes puts together an intense array of action sequences for Bond to face, including a fistfight in a Shanghai casino which brings Craig face to face with a fearsome komodo dragon. The final assault on Skyfall sees Bond stripped of his innovative gadgetry and relying solely on improvised weaponry and his own wits to protect M. It’s a tremendous sequence, shot beautifully by ace DOP Roger Deakins, that sees Craig’s Bond at his best and Bardem on villainous form.
"Well, I like to do some things the old-fashioned way."
Alongside working as a dramatic action film in its own right, Skyfall does a solid job of assembling the new MI6 staff like an Ikea flat-pack. Naomie Harris proves to be a flirtatious and interesting Moneypenny, given a modicum more depth than simply being in love with Bond. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw is one of the film’s standout performers as the new Q, bringing a youth to the role that meshes nicely with a more technologically aware era. His initial exchange with Bond is one of great wit and a battle of old versus new, showcasing these two men as the intellectual equals they have always been.
By the time the credits roll on Skyfall, a whole new MI6 has been established, ready for Bond to embark on its second 50 years as a definitive series in the canon of British cinema. It’s remarkable what the film manages to achieve in terms of planning for the future and nodding to the past, as well as delivering an efficient and wildly entertaining action movie. With Sam Mendes back in the director’s chair for SPECTRE, there could be yet another Bond hit on the cards.
Arriving at a premiere attended by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla in November 2012, Skyfall almost immediately became the biggest financial hit in Bond history. It eventually made its way to in excess of $1bn at the worldwide box office, including being the first film to make more than £100m in the UK alone. At the time of writing, Skyfall remains the thirteenth highest grossing film of all time globally.
Reviews for Skyfall were overwhelmingly positive. Roger Ebert gave the film the perfect four stars, calling it “invigorating” and praising it for being “a full-blooded, joyous, intelligent celebration of a beloved cultural icon”. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter dubbed the film a “fresh blend” of an old vintage, whilst Kim Newman in Empire Magazine lauded the film as being everything audiences could want from a Bond in the 21st century.
Even the more negative stances on the film were wrapped up in generally laudatory reviews. Xan Brooks, writing in The Guardian, said that the film “allows sentimentality to cloud its judgment” and criticised its “touchy-feely indulgence”. Daniel Krupa, over at IGN, was critical of some of the supporting performances, singling out Harris’ “awkward” Moneypenny for having very little chemistry with Daniel Craig.
"I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas, before my first cup of Earl Grey, than you can do in a year."
Reinvigorating the Bond franchise with a shot of adrenaline to its heart, Skyfall is one of the best British movies of recent years. It marries elaborate action sequences and a contemporary take on supervillainy with an intense, character-based drama that brings Bond firmly into the modern era. SPECTRE has a lot to live up to, but with the Mendes/Craig duo at its heart, it’s tough to see how it could fail.
That’s the end of the Bond Reloaded series. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. See you in the cinema for SPECTRE.
What do you think of Skyfall? Did Daniel Craig produce his best turn as Bond? Let me know in the comments section.