Skyfall

Skyfall ★★★★½

I remember British film critic Mark Kermode's review of Skyfall beginning along the lines of "and we're back" and it's hard to argue with that sentiment. Quantum of Solace, without being a terrible film, just felt like yet another Bond movie, whereas Daniel Craig's first outing felt anything but.

And as we know with so many franchises, once that malaise sets in, it can be very difficult to pull back out of it. Nowadays, producers tend to bail as soon as the ball is dropped, and reboot their IP before the stench of reviews has shifted - The Suicide Squad anyone? - but credit to Eon, it took them over 40 years into the Bond series before they truly tore up the playbook, and they weren't about to let one dodgy film knock them off course

But they did learn from their mistakes. What Martin Campbell achieved with Casino Royale was to cast off all of the sniffy remarks about the artistic integrity of the franchise, and Skyfall embraces that attitude. Before 2006, Bond's exploits were always popular, but even the strongest defenders of the series would admit that sometimes it was little more than a bit of fun.

Up to this point, I've given two films in the series the full five stars. And they couldn't be more different. My first - The Spy Who Loved Me - was in the context of the series. It's simply the best and most entertaining film in the first 40 years of the franchise, playing against all the tropes of the past 15 years to fully establish the legend of James Bond - the glitz, glamour, gadgets, girls...

But Casino Royale pushed further than that. It took the opportunity for full-scale change and pushed Bond to another level where it could now be comparable with not just the films that came before, but anything else out there. It's quite accurate to call the 2006 reinvention a product of a post-Bourne world, for example, and while it's true that Die Another Day looked incredibly dated when held up against The Bourne Supremacy, Casino Royale was still a very different beast to Jason Bourne's adventures.

Which is where Skyfall comes into play. Casino Royale was a lightning in a bottle moment, and Quantum of Solace showed that Eon had no intention of going to the same well again, and if anything Skyfall retreats further back to the past. It is a celebration of James Bond, delivered from a new perspective. It's clearly made by people who understand the weight of the franchise, even when it was being particularly lightweight.

Sam Mendes is an inspired choice as director. He really is the first person to take the chair with a resumé to rival the history of the films themselves. Michael Apted helmed The World Is Not Enough, but that was still a chance move to put him in charge of something with the scope of Bond. Mendes however, has a track record of great, popular filmmaking and he brings all his experience to the fore.

Crucially though, he never sees himself above this material. He's clearly as much in love with the world as any fan, and from the off is determined to deliver the film that the awaiting audience longs for.

In the pre-title sequence, Mendes lays out his manifesto. This is to be the James Bond we know and love, but brought into the 21st Century. There's no iris opening, but there's 007, standing out of focus as the single familiar note rings out. It's the same, but different. And the opening 15 minutes call back to the outlandishness of all the great Bonds that have gone before. There's foot chases, cars, bikes, diggers, trains, and even a reference to You Only Live Twice.

Following the brilliant credits, the film feels like On Her Majesty's Secret Service. 007 is gone and the world is a darker place without him. He's washed up in the ends of the earth drinking himself into oblivion whilst everything he once knew is being dismantled in the world back home.

We watch as M is called into the office of Mallory for a dressing down over what has happened, and then an explosion at the MI6 headquarters. M is being targeted and with Bond nowhere to be found, she's without the one man she can truly depend on.

Which is why she pulls out all the stops when he does return, to get him back out in the field. This idea that 007 is something special to M has always been hinted at in the past films, and Skyfall amplifies it. There's a sense that these two have a unique union that transcends the typical relationship M may have with the other agents. Bond is the only one she can trust, even when she doesn't know it.

And Javier Bardem's Silva is an extension of this. He was once to M what Bond now is. But he couldn't be trusted. He wasn't James Bond. This is where this particular villain succeeds. He is the flip of the coin to Bond himself. What if you foster a killing machine, give him a licence to kill and then he turns? It's a core to the 007 myth that is often hinted at but never explored.

It takes well over an hour for Silva to turn up, but his presence looms large. There's a feeling that whoever is at the heart of this, is someone well known to the organisation. As this unfolds, the script wisely allows for more time spent between Bond and M than ever before. And with each scene, it's always what's not said that is most important. The usual bickering is there, but around everything else that is going on, it's clear that M needs Bond more than ever.

And then Silva finally does turn up. With a beautifully orchestrated single take (stick that in your pipe and smoke it Quantum of Solace). The grand opening is perfect in establishing this character that is a shape from MI6's past, coming face to face with an old ally. It's one of the more cinematic moments in the whole series, and it was delivered at the perfect time.

And this grandiosity is felt throughout. There's a moment later on where we see the DB5 driving along Scottish moorland through a helicopter shot and it struck me just how epic in scope this film is compared to so many other Bond films. And it's clear Mendes has been taking a cue out of the Christopher Nolan book. Shanghai reminds me of The Dark Knight. Silva's island reminds me of Cobb's dreamworld in Inception.

In between the main story, Skyfall does a lot of the work that Quantum of Solace maybe should have done. We are introduced to a number of new characters - some old, some new and some brilliantly twisted into new version of the old. This goes back to my point about the celebration of James Bond itself. When the film closes, there's a badge celebrating 50 years of Bond, but it needn't be there - the film is clearly paying homage, and doing a brilliant job of it.

Mendes is smart to draw the style of the film back to that of Casino Royale. It's maybe not as beautifully composed as that film, but it's just as rewarding. If Casino Royale is the truly great album that an artists legacy rests on, Skyfall is the greatest hits. It's not quite as impressive, but it may be even more rewarding.

And it benefits from some of the best aspects to any Bond film. The Thomas Newman score finally deserves mention alongside John Barry. The theme song from Adele is one of the very best, no question. And the cinematography is the strongest from any of the films.

Roger Deakins is now (finally) recognised as the brilliant operator he always has been, but Skyfall is an interesting juncture in his career. I used to always associate him with the Coens and Shawshank, but it's with Skyfall where he moved into more populist cinema. It's not his first film with Mendes but it feels like together they are moving into a new genre of filmmaking with the high-octane action of a Bond film, and the way he adapts to it is quite extraordinary. The highlight is the Shanghai sequence that is an absolute marvel to sit through. It's not only that it looks beautiful, but this wall of neon and glass, reflecting into the dark night, acts as part of the action as Bond hides in these unique shadows. To then top it off with the silhouette fight... it's an incredible piece of technical filmmaking.

The film closes with a far less subtle homage to the past, as Bond takes M to Skyfall in his trusty old '64 DB5. This is actually the part of the film that I enjoy the least. I love the old references - even though I wish, wish, wish Albert Finney had been Sean Connery - but the actual standoff is a little disappointing to me. It's maybe a case that the rest of the film is so great up to that point, but I find the Straw Dogs home invasion sequence a little dull at times, and I think the conclusion could be handled slightly better.

That's only a small point of frustration though, and the actual final five minutes or so is probably my favourite in the whole film. I don't want to spoil any of it for anyone who's not seen it, but the effortless way it steps back into the past, it's really quite beautiful.

In a way, I wish this was the end for Bond. It's a brilliant send-off that respects everything - the good, the bad and the hilarious - that went before it.

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