No, Mr Bond, we don't expect you to die. Not before Adele sings over the opening credit sequence of shadows and gunshots. But it seems impossible for anyone, except you, to survive such a fall.
Daniel Craig has signed on for two more Bond movies.
There was a time when it would have been enough for an action movie to have a car chase, shoot-out, thrilling motorcycle race across rooftops and through Istanbul bazaars and a train-top fist fight involving an excavator and the obligatory flash of an Omega watch. But not these days. Daniel Craig manages this in the first minutes of his third and most enjoyable outing as Bond, James Bond.
There have been few better openings to a Bond movie, which is saying something, but it only improved over the following two and a bit hours. M, played by Judi Dench as the very model of a modern chief executive, takes a more central role in Skyfall. She's facing a crisis where the identities of secret agents are being leaked, dealing with cyberbullying and has to answer to the politician who oversees the spy agency, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Yes, it seems Voldemort wants control of MI6.
Fear not, an explosion in central London saves us before Skyfall morphs into Yes, Minister. Bond, who has been staring down scorpions and numbing the pain of his gunshot wound with drink, interrupted briefly for meaningless sex, comes back. You only live twice, after all, and besides, his country needs him.
A few formulaic tropes are revived. Bond has to fail a fitness test and buck the authority of M and Mallory, flirt with Eve, who seems destined for a desk job after her efforts in the opening scene, and get a lecture from Q about returning government property in one piece. (Ben Winshaw's Q is a hipster computer genius already adding levity to the gritty rebooted series. "Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't go in for that sort of thing anymore.")
Bond goes back into the fray for Queen and country. He belts up killers in Shanghai, gambles and fights and drinks a perfectly shaken, not stirred martini in Macau, and seduces the bad guy's girl before getting trapped. All going according to plan so far.
Berenice Marlohe plays Bond girl Severine.
This is when the fun starts. No, really, all that is just a precursor to introducing the bad guy. Javier Bardem saunters into the film as Silva, a figure from M's past who is part Blofeld and part Hannibal Lecter, with a pinch of Heath Ledger's Joker thrown in for good measure. Silva is out for revenge and M is his target. His cybercrime skills are a match for Q, but he also has to deal with the primal animal that is Bond.
Skyfall balances delicately between honouring the great bits of the first 20 Bond films and continuing with the darker, grimmer incarnation Craig brought with the excellent Casino Royale and the adequate Quantum Of Solace. In the series' 50th year on screen, director Sam Mendes salutes the old while staying relevant and fresh. The major strike against this is a mild case of chauvinism. You could argue Bond's loaded banter with Eve (Naomie Harris) has more to do with what happens early in the film than her being a woman. However, his sliding into the shower with Severine (Berenice Marlohe) is a bit creepy, even if she was hoping he would turn up. Not the sort of thing the rest of us could get away with on a first date.
Bond's biggest woman problem in Skyfall is M, which might as well stand for mother. Dench is the real Bond girl here, leaving looks aside (sorry, Judi). M is integral to not only the plot but also the film's emotional core. Nothing explicitly Oedipal, mind you, but it's fair to say there are a few issues.
Dench is excellent in the heat of the action, although the Oscar buzz is probably over the top. Still, she did win for eight minutes on screen in Shakespeare In Love, so never say never again.
Bardem is ghoulish as Silva, clearly the best Bond villain since Sean Bean in GoldenEye, even if history will rank him below Blofeld, Scaramanga and Jaws. With his shocking blonde hair and stories of cannibal rats, in lesser hands Silva's manic malevolence could have been a cartoon of Dr Evil-ness. Bardem teeters at the edge of genius and insanity and clearly enjoys his work.
You have to wonder if Craig can say the same, because he's cracked more skulls than smiles in his three films so far. He seems to be warming to the task, taking more pleasure in how his martinis are made and the repartee with his MI6 co-workers. He's signed on for two more, so life as Bond can't be all bad. (As an aside, it will be interesting to watch Bond's relationship with Fiennes' character develop after its curious and rocky start, as the seeds have been planted for future encounters.)
Bond should be popcorn entertainment without being corny. In the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan years it was often guilty of being too trivial. Craig has taken the series in a darker direction, but mercifully Skyfall has playful moments.
If Mendes and team had a checklist, Skyfall must have ticked almost all the boxes. Great opening? Absolutely. Great villain? Sure. Interrupting the plot every time it gets serious for a fresh fight scene? You better believe it. Bit of sex? Present and perfunctory. A slightly uncomfortable suggestion of misogyny? Got that too. What about the car? A classic, just you wait. Great gadgets? Er, no. Not really.
There's technology aplenty, but that's really Q's department. Bond goes old school, relying on his wits, fists and whatever weapon comes to hand. So old school, in fact, he pulls Albert Finney and a well-known Aston Martin DB5 out of storage.
Skyfall will have you believe that instead of fighting Russians or the spectre of Blofeld and international crime organisations, spies these days are facing lone wolves who look anonymous in the crowd. For all the intelligence and technology, there remains a need for a man on the ground who knows when to pull the trigger.
But we know better. Bond's enemies really come in the form of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. The Batman and Iron Man/Avenger series have made billions of dollars from conflicted, damaged heroes who rely heavily on gadgets to save the city or country or known universe from the clutches of evil. To counter this, Skyfall goes back to basics.
Bond as ever is tortured, still going through his perpetual midlife crisis, and stripped of laser watches, jet packs and remote control if not invisible cars, he delivers an intimate, intense violence. And this helps put Skyfall up there with Bond's best.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles