Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
2012/ UK, USA
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney
The on- going problem with Bond, this is the problem that Sam Mendes, the famed director, faced when he was finally given the go ahead in 2011 to take the reins of the greatest espionage series of all time. What he has come up with is Skyfall, probably the greatest imagining of 007 in the 21st Century we have yet to see. But to look at this film’s success we must consider Mendes’ position over a year ago when he was working out how to bring Bond back into the mainstream and to do this we must look at the last two films that were his starting point and main pool of reference.
‘Casino Royale’ directed by Martin Campbell landed in 2006, Campbell previously having success with ‘GoldenEye’ was tasked with bringing Bond back to relevance. With an all new actor in the role, the hit indie star Daniel Craig was already a star in the making, Campbell delivered a delicious slice of Bond for cinema viewers. Obviously after the emergence and success of ‘The Bourne Trilogy’ audiences now expected more, the market for Bond had changed. Jason Bourne was a tooth and nail type warrior, willing to go further and deeper into the physical nature of espionage. In simpler terms he had “true grit” he didn’t drive a fancy car or worry about his suits being pressed, or even wooing the ladies and people lapped him up over three excellent movies. So with ‘Casino Royale’ Campbell had to rework the concept of James Bond and bring him up to speed. What we were given was an excellent little Nano cluster of a film. The majority of the films events revolve around a small elite poker game in Monaco that Bond has been tasked with winning. Less plane hopping and car chases and more time to delve into the psyche of what makes 007 tick. Reality was a huge factor in this film; the harrowing effects of violence are touched upon. Eva Green’s Vesper is shown crying, cradled in Craig’s arms after we see him murder two assassins. James Bond became vulnerable in ‘Casino Royale’ we see him bleed and we see him suffer tragedy when Vesper eventually dies. The villain was perfectly aimed at our hero as well Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre is beautifully sinister and devious. Ultimately Campbell had set the platform for Bond to leap forward into interesting new ground.
However what director Marc Foster did with 2008’s ‘Quantum of Solace’ was inexcusable. In the process of trying to make Bond a more realistic entity he forgot key values that audiences expect from this series. The continuation of the plot arc from ‘Casino Royale’ was his first error, the attempt to bring Bond from the casino floor in Monaco into the wider modern world failed miraculously. Driven by rage at Vesper’s death Bond sets out on a campaign of bloody revenge to bring down the organisation that had controlled his dead dearly beloved. When he uncovers enough stones he finds an outfit named Quantum fronted by Mathieu Amalric’s Dominic Greene that is set on controlling the world one small government at a time. Amalric’s Bond villain is comparable to a wet kitten; at no point do we truly fear for our protagonist, a truly awful casting choice. The task at hand doesn’t seem too unmanageable either and with little effort the villains are all dethroned. We also have in this film possibly the most useless and wooden performance from Olga Kurylenko, the token Bond Girl, she offers nothing and doesn’t aid the plot at all.
So, the problem facing Mendes was huge. Craig was faltering on whether to return to the franchise at all. Rumour has it that both Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender screen tested in early readings of the script. The director had two immensely different films to work with, and when Craig decided to sign on for three further films this only got harder (Craig had actually requested Mendes personally though). What Mendes created in the next twelve months is what we are here to discuss…
Skyfall begins in high octane fashion catching Bond and field agent Eve (Harris) in the midst of a mission trying to catch a terrorist with a stolen MI6 hard drive. After a gunshot gone wrong Bond falls from a moving train, presumed dead. Cue the credits, Adele in perfect Bond- theme moment. We are re- introduced a few months later. Bond is alive and well (it would be a short film otherwise) but Britain is far from it. After an attack on MI6 and M (Dench) Bond must rise from the ashes and re-join the organisation that forgot him and track down the source of the attack. What he does find is Javier Bardem’s Mr Silva, a deranged former spy intent on destroying M and the entire British nation. Bond must go back to his roots and really test his metal against a villain that knows no rules or honour and that will stop at nothing to destroy everything in his way. And with pressure growing on M from government man Mallory (Fiennes) Bond and MI6 face the very real threat of extinction.
Daniel Craig has never been better as 007 than in Skyfall. His performance hindered only by his alter- ego’s woeful outing last time round. But this boy can act as seen by his numerous and varied starring roles in big Hollywood productions pre and post Bond. And with another two films to look forward to its time we got used to him as the world’s greatest spy… he really has pulled it out of the bag now.
A huge note must be made of Javier Bardem at this point however. Never has a Bond villain been so incredibly insane. He even borders on the homo-sexual at one point, sadistically stroking Bond whilst he is tied to a chair. Never has Bond had an adversary so intent on destruction and domination, he’s like Buffalo Bill from ‘Silence of the Lambs’ with a private army, on crack. An ex- British spy himself Silva is much akin to Bond as Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes. His abilities and skills are the same as 007’s however his implementation of these is incredibly different. Marlohe’s Severine is used to exemplify this, introduced with an incredibly obvious parody of the staircase scene in ‘Double Indemnity’ Severine is presented as a character with a huge back story, Marlohe is given a main casting credit, we expect her to remain in the film for its duration and to play some part. However, this is not the case. Silva highlighting the futility of human existence and the abrupt end that violence can bring to life. A truly superb performance.
The next thing Mendes does right is the bringing back vintage Bond but with a twist. Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ is brilliant bouncing off Craig in a stand out performance. This is where the twist comes in, the Q of old gave Bond such items as rocket packs and shoes containing switch blades, this new Q offers state of the art fire arms and radio devices a big departure but still with the same sense of hilarity. We don’t do spoilers here but Mendes constantly offers us slices of Bond- cheese paralleled against a very dark and intense storyline. The nod to ‘Dr No’ with the classic car is rather humorous as well.
But with Mendes it’s really his established background in character driven films that makes Skyfall possibly the greatest in this franchise to date. Amongst all the action we have excellent character studies and back stories. Every role is expertly cast with great care and consideration. We even get a brief look into Bond’s past, something truly unthinkable but something that makes him a far more human character and makes him more believable. All in all though it’s Bond’s relationship with M that drives the story forward, his devotion to her is very much a result of her becoming like a surrogate mother to him. It’s Judi Dench’s crowning moment for M, spouting lines of Tennyson, building bombs like a lethal grandma and embodying good old British spirit.
The last thirty minutes of Skyfall take us to completely new ground. Returning Bond to that similar setting of isolation and detachment seen in ‘Casino Royale’ but with a darker edge and just when you think it’s all over, the action just keeps rearing its ugly head.
Cinematography in a James Bond film has never been better. The scenes in the Singapore sky scraper are gorgeous and lighting is used to impressive effect.
We must remember like every modern film these days that they are a vehicle as well. James Bond being the worst for this, it’s a huge commercial entity that has led a single handed reinvigoration of MGM studios bringing it back to life in the process. Yes you may see 007 chowing down on a Heineken, wearing the latest Tag Heuer watch or checking his Facebook on his new Sony laptop BUT this really is all lost if you immerse yourself in the story and stop looking for flaws when to be honest there are few if none at all.
Sam Mendes deserves high applause for being able to make Skyfall what it is. A tremendous culmination of everything an audience wants from James Bond. Bond is no longer a stuffy old cold war agent reminiscing about the “good old days” but Mendes notes it’s fun to look back at that from time to time. What Bond is now and what he has become from the metamorphic process of Mendes’ direction is a protagonist we can believe in. James Bond is no longer drinks and ladies, he is pain and sacrifice. Skyfall is one of this year’s must see films, but you have to indulge, suspend disbelief and revel in the enjoyment of it all. Maybe James Bond is a bit more real but we all love the ridiculous stuff too. Here’s to him breaking trains in half and making bombs from light bulbs for many more years to come.