James Bond is 50 this year, because no one reads books any more so they don’t count. In light of this, there’s been a primeval forest of material fetishising the fashions, guns, girls, cars and gadgets.
Sky has conjured up its own 007 movie channel for those people who don’t get ITV, which is free.
There is also a new 007 perfume for those of you who might be fans of old spice mixed with gasoline, with a top note hint of vodka and last night’s sexual acrobatics. You too can smell like the man himself absolutely wouldn’t.
Legal Disclaimer: the 007 cologne doesn’t smell anything like the above; it’s not that appetising.
But all the merchandising and friendly puff-piecing is by the by. The main question is: is Skyfall actually any good? The consensus seems to be that it’s much better than Quantum of Solace even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Casino Royale. It’s certainly overlong and rather silly, but this is Bond so that’s damn near as necessary as the Walther PPK and the bevy of nubile beauties.
It’s also beautifully shot, well-paced even if it tires a bit towards the end and generally exactly what you’d want from a Bond film.
The gist: someone has managed to get their antagonist’s hands on a list of secret operatives embedded in terrorist networks, Bond (Daniel Craig) is dead and the department is collapsing around itself. Dame Judy Dench’s M is in an increasingly untenable position, apparently targeted by Ralph Fiennes’ government bureaucrat, Mallory.
The film opens with a sequence that sums up the strengths of Craig’s terrier-like Bond: he doggedly gives chase in a manner that is blunt and clumsy, if effective. He bleeds freely, a visceral reminder of this Bond’s vulnerability. There’s a neat gag involving cufflinks and an intrusive bit of product placement before the pre-credits vignette is capped off with a typically audacious stunt: a plunge from a bridge that is quite literally breath-taking.
Director Mendes resists the temptation to insult the audience’s collective intelligence by attempting to give a plausible explanation for Bond’s survival of this.
As befitting the man with the golden anniversary, Skyfall is broadly concerned with the question of Bond’s continuing relevance to the modern world. Is the spy with a gun and an easy charm not a bit past it? What value such a man in today’s world of highly mobile cyber-warfare in which the biggest threats are shadowy corporate entities and terrorist cells? It’s a touch myopic but not unwarranted.
This is reflected in Ben Whishaw’s Q, the dynamic shifted to leave Bond as the old dog with Q the young pup: the future of espionage (actually the present).
The point about Bond’s age and relevance is hit home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when Mallory pointedly tells him that he has an opportunity to ‘stay dead’ and disappear without scandal or ignominy – Bond is getting on a bit after all, and he’s taken some serious hits over the years (Thunderball). The same character likewise offers M the chance to retire with some dignity.
The cynic might suggest that slinking off to retire with dignity would be moot if Quantum of Solace were to be the final Bond outing.
Naturally, Bond and M refuse to leave quietly, like a pair of drunks at a restaurant. In this sense, Skyfall suggests that Bond will carry on until there’s no other option but to put him out of his misery.
Later, when M defends British Intelligence in a monologue during a public inquiry chaired by a self-serving MP, she could almost be flying the flag for this most anachronistic of spy capers against the legion of critics clutching their Jason Bourne collections.
Whatever the march of time, she says, we’re relevant; look we even opened the film with a sideways glance at Wikileaks.
But in truth Skyfall is too self-absorbed to bother much about the rest of the world, reflected in the numerous references to past films and indeed to Bond’s own past.
And then there’s the biggest in-joke reference of them all.
Javier Bardem’s Silva combines Max Zorin’s hair (Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill) with Bloefeld’s (various) combination of uniformed henchmen, evil lair and dastardly scheme. He dials up the campness of Bond bad ‘uns, albeit intentionally for once, and in doing so creates a masterclass in movie villainy. Make no mistake; Bardem represents the movie’s greatest asset and probably the reason while you’ll return to it more than once a year at Christmas.
If such nostalgia is to be expected, it comes with an edge: the last Bond outing to make such heavy weather of Bond references was Die Another Day, a film which came closer to derailing the franchise than any other and which prompted the sort of soul-searching that begat Craig’s new direction.
Or to quote Q, “did you expect an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that any more” – ‘that’ being Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye.
No exploding pens then, but the danger implicit in reminders of past conquests is that they throw the new ones into sharp relief; they beg comparison.
The question to be asked of Skyfall, then, seems to be “what do you have to say that isn’t steeped in nostalgia?”
Skyfall represents an attempt to reconcile its predecessors (Casino and Quantum) with the wider canon as a whole – we’re left with the Bond we’ve come to love, in the sort of Bond film we used to expect. It’s an assured take that neither churlishly ignores the pre-Craig years nor drowns under their weight.
In this sense, Adele’s theme tune is representative – a modern take on the old school: a soaring ballad from one of today’s most lauded voices. It’s effective enough, but ultimately you’ve forgotten how it goes almost as soon as it ends.
The same can’t be said of the film.
It’s pretty great as entertainment, even better as a birthday celebration, but I hope the next film spends less time making a self-conscious case for the defence and gets on with it. That and a truly decent theme tune.
Skyfall ends with the legend “Bond will return”, harking back to the good old days one last time. But what was once promissory now feels defiant; less a statement of intent than a threat.
Jack Reacher, Aaron Cross, you have been warned.