In a dark world of post-9/11 cynicism, James Bond needed to change. Pierce Brosnan had finished his four-film contract with Die Another Day in 2002, and while the film was the highest-grossing Bond at the time, the cheesy gadgetry and use of CGI were becoming ridiculed. Four years later Daniel Craig stepped into his shoes as a harder, meaner, grittier Bond in Casino Royale. This saw a return to the old-fashioned ways of practical effects and the dark tone reflected an uncertain society in an uncertain world. Bond was back…until 2008’s Quantum of Solace undid all of what Casino Royale had worked hard to achieve. Thanks in no small part to the 2008 Writers’ Guild of America strike, Quantum of Solace’s nonsensical plot brought the Bond franchise crashing down again. With MGM in financial difficulties the production of Bond 23 was put on hold. But when the company exited bankruptcy in 2010 and Sam Mendes was attached to direct, fans and critics waited with baited breath is Bond got back on track. This week sees the long-anticipated release of Skyfall, and it can safely be said that we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
The Bourne films shook up the action genre. Quick edits, no nonsense – straight to the point with plenty of grit on the side. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace followed in a similar vein, doing away with many of the silly gadgets and one-liners that Bond had become famous for. Skyfall sees a return to roots, with a James Bond that many of us have become so familiar with over the last fifty years. After all, Skyfall coincides with 007’s 50th anniversary, which may well explain the nods and winks to early Bond films. While nowhere near the same level of wacky as Die Another Day, Skyfall does feature gadgets, cars and one-liners that would please even the most diehard Roger Moore fans. There is a balance, however, and director Sam Mendes strikes it with expert precision.
Bringing Mendes in for Bond was a small stroke of genius. Mendes is a well-established film and theatre director (American Beauty; Revolutionary Road) and was able to bring the franchise back from being action-oriented to paying more attention to the characters, specifically the relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench). It is something that has not been touched on anywhere near enough in previous films, but here M has been given a much more significant (and very welcome) role. The Bond/M relationship has always been infinitely more interesting than any of the throwaway Bond girls in previous films, and it almost seems strange that nobody has explored it further before. Her mistakes cost Bond and MI6 heavily during the setup of the story, and she continues to face the consequences of her determined but ultimately flawed way of doing things throughout the film. Javier Bardem features as villain Silva in his most terrifying role since No Country for Old Men. His motive is simple but personal, and Bardem brings him chillingly to life on the screen. The Bond/Silva dynamic is almost reminiscent of the Batman/Joker relationship, and the theme of resurrection parallels this year’s The Dark Knight Rises. The triangle of M, Bond and Silva is what ultimately lies at the heart of the film and this allows Skyfall to stand head-and-shoulders above Quantum of Solace and its complicated, meandering plot. Of course, by no means does this replace the action setpieces that bring people flocking to the cinema. Skyfall has no shortage of chase and fight scenes, but Mendes and screenwriter John Logan have done a perfect job in touching on the human aspects of Bond, placing the characters at the centre of the story.
Make no mistake, this is a Bond movie through and through. What makes it stand out from the others are its strong, underlying themes of motherhood, resurrection, and the place of Britain in an increasingly homogenised and uncertain world. James Bond has come a long way in fifty years, and it has evolved to reflect the current times.
Just as rebirth features prominently in the plot, Skyfall sees the Bond franchise rising from the ashes and stepping up to the plate. It is not just an homage to a fifty-year-old film series and a staple icon of popular culture, but a film with a powerful emotional core and a strong voice of its own. Skyfall has been made with such near-perfection that it is unsurprising people have been calling it the best Bond film of all time. I’ll let you decide that for yourself, but what is absolutely clear is that Bond is well and truly back.