Well, that was fun.
In fact, that was the most fun I’ve had with a Bond movie in a long time. I liked Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing, quite a bit, but I think Skyfall tops it.
Daniel Craig: still a near-perfect Bond, if you ask me. In this one he’s a slightly more humanised figure. A little bit of vulnerability, a bit of softness, is allowed to peek out from behind the cold, hard veneer. Just a little bit, now and again. It works well, making him a marginally more nuanced character.
Javier Bardem: best villain in a while. Harks back to the over the top, rather campy Bond baddies of yesteryear, but it’s done with such a consistency and credibility of mannerism and habit that it comes across as a real, damaged and dangerous person. Top marks.
The setpieces are full of vim and vigour, as you’d expect, but still keeping the loose connection with reality and plausibility that all the Bond movies have had to maintain ever since the Bourne trilogy showed them how it should be done. It’s nothing like as gritty and realistic as the Bourne stuff, but it’s just close enough to not look entirely silly.
The plot’s fragile. Poke it too hard and it’d puddle into a little smear at your feet, but that’s not too important. It’s got enough energy and direction to keep you watching, which is all it needs to do, because – even aside from the explosions and the fighting and the good actors doing their thing – Skyfall‘s got stuff in it that makes it a much more engaging watch than recent Bond outings.
And that stuff is: theme. As often as not, over the long history of the franchise, the closest Bond movies have come to ‘theme’ is plugging in to some then-current buzz in the zeitgeist. (post-Star Wars space-love for Moonraker, over-weening media moguls for … oh, whatever that one with Jonathan Pryce in it was called, etc etc). Skyfall, though, takes its theme from human beings, their condition and their interaction; and that makes it a much more satisfyingly rounded experience.
Now, it wouldn’t do to go overboard about this. It’s a Bond movie, after all, not a meditation on the human condition. I’m using the word ‘theme’ loosely here. But still: it’s there, parading itself at every opportunity with the precise opposite of subtlety, and I enjoyed it. Specifically, it’s about ageing, diminishing, moving on. And it applies those ideas not only to Bond himself but to M and (briefly, rather tangentially) to Britain itself. These aren’t the super-capable, invulnerable secret agents of yore. They’re ageing lions, raging against the waning of their light. Fighting on more by force of will, sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, than by the vigour of youth. Refusing to leave the stage, even though the drama around them is trying to change.
The Bond/M dynamic is at the heart of the film. In fact, Skyfall is almost as much an M film as it is a Bond film. M here is a puppetmistress who finds herself the one on the end of the strings rather than the one pulling them, with hints of the distant, tough love mother figure that you suspect Bond lost long ago (his orphanhood is a strong presence, and a tonally important one, in the late stages of the movie).
All in all, it’s perfect that Skyfall is hitting screens right now. It’s a deeply Autumnal movie. It’s about fading light, changing times, changing seasons. But for the last five minutes, it could have worked (worked rather well, in fact) as the last Bond movie. It should be Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, if this were a normal movie. That would be the natural, logical closure of the thematic flow.
Those last five minutes, of course, can’t permit that. They have to tell you that no, this goes on. Bond will be back. This never ends. I confess I found that slightly jarring, in the context of the tone and thrust of all that had gone before, but it’s inevitable. This is a franchise, and a money machine. And with Skyfall, they’ve re-injected an air of quality and ambition into the franchise that I suspect is going to deliver them rich and well-deserved rewards.