Perhaps not the best Bond, but it's a bloody good one.
A long time ago, by which I mean about a year, in a different life, by which I mean my blog, I committed to re-watching and reviewing all of the Bond films. As it happens, the atrocities of Octopussy rather dampened my ardour for the endeavour, although I suppose I should pick it back up again for completeness' sake. Perhaps it makes more sense to start from this freshly minted effort, Skyfall, and work backwards, in the interests of being assured of a few good films before descending back into the dark days of the Moore era.
Make no mistake, Skyfall is a good film - it's being spoken of as candidate for the best Bond film, and even as a contender for 'Best Picture' awards. A long way from Octopussy, indeed. I'm not quite so enthusiastic about it, but even at my most curmudgeonly I'd have to admit it's in the top five Bond films and top five films I've seen this year. But I'm rather getting ahead of myself.
Skyfall kicks off, more or less, with Bond (Daniel Craig) dying. For given values of death, of course. He's trying to retrieve a stolen hard drive containing a list of every undercover operative and agent in M.I.6. which in the wrong hands would be disastrous. A bad call from M (Judy Dench) and a botched effort by a junior operative to 'help' Bond sees him take a bullet and a plunge into the unforgiving waters of well, wherever. While he initially uses the whole 'assumed dead' angle to take a short, boozy holiday, it's not long before he's reporting back in to M.I.6. headquarters. Or at least their new digs, seeing as someone went and "bombed" the old one. The explanation for how this was achieved is so remarkably silly that I think it more believable if we simply say that a wizard did it.
With the probable exception of M, the Intelligence gang including the new government overwatch mandarin Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) question why he's back and if he's fit for duty. After a period of soul searching and testing that feels like someone's been watching Never Say Never Again, Bond's back out in field trying to find out who's got it in for them now. Hey, something that bears a passing resemblance to actual spy work in a Bond film! Who'd have thunk it. In common with Dr. No, we don't even get wind of who the antagonist of the film is until around halfway through, although admittedly the trailer does a rather complete job of shorting out any suspense this might otherwise have created.
Seeing as it's out there I suppose there's no harm in revealing here that we're ultimately after Silva (Javier Bardem), who has his own reasons for targeting M.I.6. and M in particular. It's this vendetta between Silva and M that provides the driving force for the second half of the film, with Bond trying to keep them apart. Almost an inverse Licence To Kill. Certainly in Bondian terms, this is a rather involved, up close and personal plot the likes of which are rarely seen. No world domination or trips to the moon, just revenge, with all the character exposition and development that entails. Why, it's almost a proper film!
Which brings us back to the dichotomy of Bond 2.0 that we've been talking about since the pseudo-reboot of Casino Royale. For better or worse, and normally worse, the term "Bond film" carries with it enough luggage to incur significant excess baggage charges on all airlines. Gadgets, daffy plans, over the top action, womanising, martinis, one-liners and all that jazz. NuBond is far less cheesy, and so far better off for it. However, regardless of how often you argue that the new Bond films share much with the oldest Bond films, there's still an expectation that a Bond film isn't a Bond film without the gadgets and all of that, and there's a certain audience demand to bring them back.
You can't blame film production companies for being influenced by that, I suppose. We'd all love to think that films are art, but like everything else it's really business, and the traditional Bond formula certainly does business. However, we're in a very different cinematic landscape now, even compared to the Brosnan era. The guns and gadgets of Bond films provided a good proportion of the summer tent-pole action content of yesteryear, a position that's now squarely occupied by comic-book adaptations. Going head to head with Marvel is probably going to be a losing game, given that Iron-Man's alarm clock is going to provide more high-tech wizardry than anything Q branch could come up with, even in their self-parody moments.
So Skyfall seems to mark the start of a compromise, perhaps in part due to the 50th anniversary prompting a retrospective in the writing team. As the canard goes, we know it's a compromise because no-one's happy with it. While the old-school influence is minimised and largely compartmentalised to the return of an old car, that it's there at all feels retrograde. This film, and the others of the Craig era, are orders of magnitude more interesting when looking forward, rather than over its shoulder. I'm much more involved in the film when Bond's silently questioning his own abilities than I am when someone's trying to drop a train on him, again by methods best explained by wizardry.
For all that, these moments are exactly that - moments in a film where the vast bulk of the drama and the engagement comes from a clutch of great performances, and believable, well conceived character motivations and obstacles. It's at its best when it's down and dirty, however even there it's not perfect. Silva's grudge and motivation are solid, but his methods seem to change based on the demands of movie pacing rather than anything born out of a logical progression of his path of rage. There's nothing too egregious in there, but it takes enough of the shine off to put paid to any "year's best" talk from this neck of the woods.
The events of the finale provide a tremendous opportunity for moving Bond forward as a character, although the tone of the de-brief sounds, to me at least, as though the next film could see him teaming up with Batman. Bond 24 can zig, or it can zag - I'd be quite interested in seeing either direction, but if it keeps trying to go two opposing directions simultaneously it's in danger of tearing itself apart. I could also do without digging up any more artefacts from the previous films - this franchise is chronologically messy and ambiguous at the best of times, and it's now almost in danger of becoming a temporal paradox. And the other Doctor will tell you that those ain't a barrel of laughs.
With all that pontificating in mind, it's worth pointing out that these are concerns for discussing over a glass of port in the drawing room post-viewing. In the dark of the matinee, Skyfall's a damnably entertaining film. Discussing minor quibbles and its meaning to the franchise as a whole is more interesting to write about than simply telling you that it's a hell of a lot of fun, and that you should see it immediately. That said, Skyfall is a hell of a lot of fun, and you should see it immediately.
Judi Dench (M)
Javier Bardem (Silva)
Ralph Fiennes (Gareth Mallory)
Naomie Harris (Eve)