I was in a queue for a cup of tea, about to go into the cinema and take my seat for Skyfall when I glanced down at the ticket and realised what an extraordinary achievement this film was already. I mean, when you stop to think of it, when it’s written in black and white on your ticket: it’s the 23rd film of a series. That is quite a unique achievement in films and at the same time a huge challenge for any director. We’re onto our 6th actor playing Bond (Daniel Craig) and there are 22 previous films full of character histories, conventions and high-points to constrain your creativity going forwards and to be compared to. How do you tick all the boxes and stay true to the series but without just repeating what has come before? Well, that was the challenge for Sam Mandes (director of ‘American Beauty’ from 1999 amongst other things).
And he started off with a bang! The pre-titles sequence is a great, frenetic action chase and the motorbikes on the roofs of Istanbul are incredible to watch. Speaking of watches, the lingering shot of Bond’s watch as he operates a digger on the back of a train is a little distracting and leaves you a little wary of how much product placement is to come, and as Adele’s tune starts for the titles I was a little concerned. I’ve got to be honest, it’s not a great song, but doesn’t ruin the film. It kind of fits the credits, but the silly ramping, slightly out of tune chorus isn’t the best I’ve ever heard. The film could have gone either way from here.
Thankfully it goes in a very good direction. There are some excellent choices of locations, sets and cinematography – the underground MI6 bunker office, the very first shot of the film with Bond in the hallway, Shanghai looking far more colourful and interesting than it did when I visited, and more than ever the UK taking a front row.
The best thing about it though is that the characters are given some heft. James is put in a situation he hasn’t been in before, M (Judi Dench) has a storyline and presence that we haven’t seen since 1999’s ‘The World Is Not Enough’, Ben Wishshaw puts his own stamp on the role of Q and perhaps the best role is taken by Javier Bardem, appropriately perhaps for an actor of his calibre. He is a villain with a fresh twist who is introduced with a long single-shot monologue as he walks closer and closer towards the camera. He not only has a genuine and understandable motivation in the story, but a real unsettling effect on Bond and completes a great relationship with Bond and M. Later in the film his injuries are revealed with chilling effect!
The story has us mostly set in the UK, with a few trips over to China but importantly has an easily explainable and tangible setup early on. There are plenty of nods and winks to previous Bond films along the way, but it definitely feels a contemporary take rather than a retreading of old.
It turns into a different type of film for the showdown (‘Home Alone’ or ‘Straw Dogs’ are brought to mind). It feels a tad un-Bond-like there, but perhaps it’s necessary for the bigger character development. Perhaps a little unsatisfying in the show-down with the villain with hindsight.
Still, this is a really great Bond film and just a really great film in itself. The biggest problem with it is that the bar is set very high for Bond 24!
4 on 5
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench ,Javier Bardem ,Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney
UK Release: 26th October 2012