Skyfall is very, very good. Part of its success is that it at times has you thinking ‘goodness I’m bored’, and ‘doesn’t Daniel Craig look way older in this one than in the last two’. The former attribute avoids the pitfall of many an action movie – trying to constantly outdo the last scene and ‘ramp up the action’ to the point where what should be a story becomes an avalanche of machine gun flashes and damsels in distress being propelled through the air by grenades that have hair stylists as secondary functions. The filmmaker must play tricks on the viewer’s mind in order to captivate it properly. Here it’s done in a number of ways, the plot slows, then gradually becomes more intriguing. The music matches this pace, with long stretches that have no music at all, allowing for the appreciation of more nuances in the acting as well as the feeling that we are watching real people rather than scripted movie stars.
Within this framework, it’s the acting that’s really allowed scope to carry the whole, and Judi Dench and Javier Bardem really deliver here. Don’t be at all surprised to see both of them nominated in the best supporting category again this awards season. It is the difference that a great deal of, no pun intended, intelligence into the piece has made. From the Broccoli’s decision to hire an Oscar winning director in the shape of Sam Mendes, and nine times Oscar nominee Roger Deakins as director of photography (who is a true master of his craft, evinced by several of his films: ‘True Grit’ in 2010, ‘No Country for Old Men’ in 2007 and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ in 1994 to name but a few), to their whole outlook with regard to revamping the franchise, beginning with ‘Casino Royale’ in 2006.
Part of that outlook is evident here, as we see a beat up version of Bond, far removed from the suave, unruffled, and ridiculously cheesy Bond of past movies. In some of the novels Bond was at times much more human and fragile, and that certainly is how the opening of Skyfall feels. It’s almost like subverting the symbol of movie land masculinity. There is a scene where Bond has to go through a medical exam – it would have been wonderful to have seen him go through an STD test as well. One can imagine Q, ‘em, we may have to add a few to the number of women that have died as a result of having had intercourse with you 007…’. It would make sense for the future of the franchise to see a Bond musing on the family he never had, or indeed discovering a hitherto unknown son, or twenty. So long as none of them are called Mutt…..
Skyfall then is a well crafted and bold statement from the crew who worked on it. An engaging tale that reinserts Bond as a real person fighting modern day enemies, and one that leaves the audience thirsty for more. There is more than one nod to previous films in the franchise along the way too. Though, as is always the case when you encounter a film that you really enjoy, there are the inevitable parts where you wish they’d said this instead of that, or omitted that line, or why did he do x instead of y. For example, one scene has Bond receive his new weapon in an open case from Q whilst they admire some of Turner’s work in the National Gallery. The National Gallery which, oddly enough, has cameras covering every single part of the public space and security warders on constant patrol around no more than two or three rooms each. It doesn’t take MI6’s finest to work out this is not really the best place for the handing over of live arms and a nice chit chat to go along with it (although the moment does go well with the last scene the pair of them, Craig and Ben Whishaw, shared onscreen together in ‘Layer Cake’ 04). These things are though consistent with the other two instalments of the new Bond franchise. If you watch the keys Bond presses to insert the password for the money in ‘Casino Royale’ you’ll notice they do in fact not match what he later states the password to be. The Red Dragon, upon realising this, figured Bond was one step ahead of the game…
To go into the specifics of Skyfall in a little more detail, the opening of the film has a few things that could have been tweaked. Like the way bond states he’s trying to stop the downed agent’s bleeding, and all he does is dab his wound with a grotty looking cloth. Then when Moneypenny shoots him, she has ample time to let off another round with that rather deadly looking weapon she’s holding and actually hit the now sitting duck bad guy. Probably best, as they acknowledge, she takes up an office job afterwards. These details make the feel of the opening sequence, although the stunts are good and it is actually Daniel Craig on the train travelling at fifty miles an hour, more like an episode of ‘Spooks’ than a big budget film. Having said that, The Red Dragon was thinking as Bond faces the bad guy in the forklift truck ‘O yeah, like he wouldn’t get shot through the glass’, and then he does. Great!
They are running through the same streets and along the same rooftops in Istanbul as Maggie Grace and co do in ‘Taken 2’ (12), which is interesting. If I’m not mistaken Clive Owen appeared on them too in ‘The International’ (09), interesting if one influenced the other, or if Turkey has realised a good business opportunity. Unfortunately, there are shadows of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy here, as there are in many films now. This is especially noticeable with the music as they are besieged in Skyfall at the end, but also the concept of the criminal mastermind who plans to be captured for some greater purpose (also with Loki in the ‘The Avengers’ 12), and the explosives under the city, though ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ would probably have been filming around the same time as ‘Skyfall’. It’s not a major complaint, enough of the rest is completely original.
For The Red Dragon, the feeling that this film was a little special didn’t really begin until the fight sequence with the lights of Shanghai’s advertising in the background, a poetic death to the skilled enemy assassin. From then on in it really got interesting. Even with the first face to face scene with the next Bond girl soon to bite the dust. Said Bond girl’s acting caliber seemed to be in question, until you realise there is a lot more going on, that feeling of ‘That’s rubbish…O, I see…’, almost fooling the viewer, is a very effective trick. Speaking of which, could he not have done all his heroics before Javier Bardem shoots her?! Similarly, surely with some trusted people at MI6 clued up to Bond’s plan at the end they could have sent some reinforcements! ‘It’s OK, there’s a shotgun up there and a Scotsman, more than enough for some terrorists!’.
The Red Dragon would very much like to know if that was a real, venomous scorpion on Bond’s arm when he’s busy becoming an alcoholic and unnamed substance abuser. Whilst Daniel Craig was a real action man on the set (which really adds depth to the film when you realise it’s actually him you’re seeing doing the stunts), Havier Bardem has stated that he is a “big believer in stunt doubles”, I wonder if prior to ‘No Country for Old Men’ he could have envisioned himself as a Bond villain, as famously the Cohen brothers had to work hard to convince him he could play the bad guy, in what would later become his Oscar winning role.
For The Red Dragon, what is by far the most interesting part of this film though, and one reason it has scored so highly, is the fact that James Bond’s heritage is definitively shown to be Scottish! This gets a massive thumbs up from The Red Dragon. Earlier in the film, it did jar slightly when there was a reference to Britain and then very quickly afterward when Bond is playing word associations he gives ‘England’ as his response to country. There seemed to be a hint of double standards going on. However, at the same time his home of Skyfall is mentioned. So, is it perhaps that as a spy he has eradicated his own personal story, and so his claim to be English is to throw anyone else off the scent of his true backstory? Or does he, the character, want to forget his own childhood and its trauma, and prefers to think of himself as English? We aren’t given enough details to tell.
We see the graves of his mother and father who we know from the novels, and from previously in the film franchise, were Swiss and Scottish respectively – this lineage was introduced in the novels by Fleming as a nod to Sean Connery’s interpretation of the Bond character in ‘Dr .No’ (62), and Fleming mentioned once in a magazine article that Bond was born in Glencoe, Scotland, the site of an infamous massacre in Scottish history, and where several of the scenes in the film were shot. The specific house of ‘Skyfall’ however, is new. It may be a reference to the home Fleming’s family owned in the Scottish highlands (both his father and grandfather were Scottish, from Fife and Dundee respectively) but where previous film and novelised tales of his early years differ, here we learn he grew up there, in what appears to be an ancestral home. He also lets us know he always hated the place when he burns it, but we don’t know why. It seems odd, growing up there he can’t have known many other places so why hate it so much? Was he abused? Did he have a hand in the deaths of his parents?! Expect to see this looked at in more detail in future instalments with Daniel Craig as Bond.
It is curious to consider the timing of this introduction to the legend of James Bond. Before the next film is released, the referendum for Scottish independence will have taken place. Is this inclusion in the story linked to the politics of the day? His reference to England also means he can continue to represent England should Scotland vote to go her own way, and his dual Scottish/English background may be placed as a sort of cinematic cement on the fabric of the United Kingdom. Political annalists are expecting the biggest independence voting demographic to be the ‘Braveheart’ (95) generation, those who were growing up when the film was released, underpinning the emotive power of cinema and the age old adage ‘life imitates art’. After all, an integral part of the franchise is that 007 is a British agent (as an update to this, on the weekend before the referendum the filming schedule for the next Bond film was released – due to begin December 6 2014. Also Finland’s independence day, incidentally. RD 2.12.14). It may be that the people behind this multi-billion dollar (circa twelve with inflation taken into consideration) institution would consider a break up of the country he represents as a negative…
In any case, the revelation of more of Bond’s formative years, regardless of the exact details, adds a lot to the film, and to the depth of the character that will continue to be depicted over the next two films. Eight more films down the line, the Daniel Craig years may be remembered as the most definitive guide as to the fleshed out character of Mr Bond. A guiding template of his past, to better shape his future.