Bond's loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As M16 comes under attack, 007 (Daniel Craig) must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.
At two seconds shy of 143 minutes, Skyfall is the second longest James Bond movie of all time, just behind Casino Royale’s 144 minutes. It’s also groundbreaking on two counts, revealing 007’s origins and devoting the most screen time to Judi Dench’s M and her problematic relationship with her favourite spy.
The film works best when it focuses on the verbal sparring between Bond and M.
But does it rank as the best Bond ever, as some US and UK critics have enthused? Not in my view, as an unabashed fan of the 50-year franchise.
Sure, director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have delivered a high-octane, multi-layered and emotionally-charged narrative which blends breathtaking action, adventure, sharp wit, a smidgen of romance (more on that later) and intrigue.
But there are several flaws which I think rob the film of its otherwise deserving status among the Bond classics. Most glaringly, the running time is unjustified, prolonged to the point of tedium by several endings when one would have sufficed.
Javier Bardem is a gifted actor but his flamboyant, sexually ambiguous villain Silva lacks the cold menace of such adversaries as Dr. No, Goldfinger and Blofeld. Yes, Silva is cruel and ruthless and he reveals a hideous deformity but his high camp manner works against the evil he’s meant to project. One suspects he’d be no match for Bardem’s truly chilling Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
A more minor quibble concerns the obligatory Bond girls: Naomie Harris as sassy fellow agent/sniper Eve and Bérénice Marlohe as femme fatale Sévérine perform serviceably within the confines of the script. But 007’s seduction of Sévérine seems perfunctory and the sex scene is disappointingly brief and coyly filmed. My memory might be failing but I always thought Sean Connery was a more dangerous Lothario.
To the credit of Mendes and his creative team including ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, action scenes that have been done countless times before, such as an extended chase on the roof of a speeding train, have an urgency and freshness. Even so, Bond’s escape in the pre-credits sequence, the first of two set-pieces involving trains, defies gravity and common sense; logic, however, has rarely been a staple of the Bond canon.
The plot follows Daniel Craig’s Bond as he tries to retrieve a hard drive containing a list of nearly all the NATO agents who had infiltrated global terrorist organisations. The list had been purloined by lackeys of psychopath Silva, an electronics genius who, it gradually emerges, has a score to settle with M.
The use of exotic settings such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, glittering Shanghai and a Macau casino, and the stunt work displayed in a motorcycle chase, hand-to-hand combat and a race through London’s underground are a cut above average for the oeuvre. And there are the familiar props of cars, tuxedo and martinis.
To me the film works best when it focuses on the verbal sparring between Bond and M as she reveals a manipulative and cold-blooded streak, tinged with an almost maternal fondness; and the byplay between Bond and his nemesis Silva when the super spy is taunted about his fondness for booze and pills.
Craig relishes the chance to flesh out his character in surprising and sometimes subtle ways, plumbing emotional depths more so than in any recent edition. For instance, he shows an un-Bond-like disorientation after that initial near-death experience, before regaining his mojo. At other times he exhibits a beaten-down weariness and cynicism as he realises M is in mortal danger. In most of their scenes together Dench upstages Craig with a beautifully judged performance full of class, dignity and pathos.
Ben Whishaw brings a youthful exuberance and arch humour to the role of Bond’s computer-savvy sidekick Q, a character last played by John Cleese in 2002’s Die Another Day. 'We don’t go in for exploding pens anymore," declares Q in deadpan style.
Ralph Fiennes is effective as Mallory, the dapper, chilly chairman of an intelligence and security committee who has the temerity to inform M she should retire after the botched operation to recover the hard drive. Mallory also has a testy relationship with Bond, a teaser, I’m sure, for the next chapter. Albert Finney brings guile and gravitas in a cameo late in the piece.