When Sam Mendes was announced as director of the latest Bond movie, I was both excited and sceptical about what he could bring to the series.
Excited because Mendes is primarily known as a dramatist, and I hoped this would add a new level of depth to the characterisation and storytelling, and also because of the visual flair he displayed in previous outings such as American Beauty and Road to Perdition.
My scepticism came from the lack of action-centric films on his resume; although some of his work contains good, brief scenes, he hadn’t created anything of Bond’s scale or shown the dynamism and invention that is associated with 007.
Thankfully my fears were proved unfounded within Skyfall’s opening 10 minutes; a blistering chase ensues across Istanbul for a stolen hard drive, which escalates from car to motorbike (some of the stunts are heart-stopping) to traintop, before a crescendo involving the first of many plot twists. The sequence hits all the right adrenaline-pumping buttons, effectively sets up several important plot-points and coveys one of the movie’s overall themes; while certain conventions can be resurrected, death is an unavoidable part of that process.
Refreshingly, Mendes abandons the shaky camera and hyper-editing of Quantum of Solace in favour of a more measured and focused approach, giving all the major action scenes a more epic and engaging feel. In particular, the suspenseful and explosive finale stands out as one of the most memorable of the entire series. To give much more away would definitely spoil your fun though.
It is not just the trademark set-pieces that are engagingly shot. The cinematography in the rest of the movie is crisp but immersive, scenes in Scotland, Macau and Shanghai being especially gorgeous. As hoped, Mendes shines with the dramatic elements too. In exploring the past of both Bond and M, he makes them more rounded and resonant characters, while Daniel Craig and Dame Judi Dench bring gravitas, humour and a warm chemistry to their respective roles.
Some of Skyfall’s best moments can be found in the quiet, reflective conversation between them and the excellent supporting cast. Of them, newcomers Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw made the biggest impact, Harris as ballsy field agent Eve, and Whishaw as a cool, witty Q; both represent fresh takes on classic characters, and prove essential assistants to Bond as the story progresses.
Out of the secondary players, Ralph Fiennes is the epitome of understated authority as a covertly badass bureaucrat, and Bérénice Marlohe is enigmatic and captivating as femme fatale Severine.
Unfortunately, few movies are perfect and Skyfall is not without its flaws. Javier Bardem, as villain Raoul Silva, veers from maniacal and cold-blooded killer (with maternal issues), to a goofy, wisecracking almost-antihero and never finds a comfortable middle ground. In the end his parts are greater than his whole, but some of his parts are undeniably fantastic (his overt flirting with Bond in one scene being among the highlights).
There are a few nods to classic Bond elements, which although welcome in one sense, don’t actually fit with the overall tone very well; the Komodo dragon casino scene evokes Live And Let Die, but feels hackneyed and awkward (the mediocre CGI doesn’t help), and while the ejector seat gag raises laughs in theatre, it felt like unnecessary hat-tipping – was the reappearance of the DB5 not enough?
These are really only minor quibbles though, and they detract very little from what is an otherwise spectacular and rewarding outing for the ubiquitous secret agent. Sam Mendes’ contribution to Bond’s legacy has left a high water mark for future entries; we can only hope MGM continues to hire directors of his calibre to keep things moving forward.
Overall, the 23rd Bond manages to mix blockbuster thrills with heart and emotional resonance, to create possibly the most complete vision of the icon yet.
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