GoldenLondonEye: Skyfall Reviewed

Stuart Wright enjoys the 23rd James Bond flick, which opens in UK cinemas today and finds our hero largely back on home soil

After the spectacular Olympic opening ceremony taster, where James Bond’s skydive with the Queen brought new meaning to the phrase ‘on Her Majesty’s secret service’, it’s good to finally get to see the film it was foreshadowing.

Skyfall is the 23rd outing for Britain’s favourite spy and its release coincides with the series’ 50th anniversary. Only the Godzilla franchise has lasted longer (it started in 1954) and spawned more features (28 to date).

At the start of the preview screening, a senior marketing man from Sony told everyone there would be lots of surprises (true) and reveals (true) that the press pack are encouraged to leave out of reviews, so that audiences get to enjoy them for the first time too. Here goes…

Skyfall was crafted by the combined writing efforts of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (whose credits include the four most recent entries, going back to 1999’s The World Is Not Enough) in conjunction with US scribe John Logan (The Last Samurai, The Aviator). Their appreciation of our hero, and the action genre, is writ large in every single-high stakes moment (of which there are many) that they draw you in with. Inventive set-ups and payoffs come thick and fast. The ingenuity and choreography lavished on a slew of elaborate sequences – and reversals – will leave you breathless. Bill Martell’s book The Secrets Of Action Screenwriting waxes lyrical about the intelligence written into Casino Royale. With the release of Skyfall, Martell will need to add a whole new chapter celebrating what’s great about this movie.

American Beauty director Sam Mendes takes the script and channels his 13-year-old self into every sensational scene, collaborating for the third time with Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner. They go to Turkey, a country that seems in vogue with filmmakers right now, to take advantage of the Grand Bazaar’s huge rooftop – it provides cover for 61 streets. Whereas Taken 2 only races you across it on foot, Bond is up there chasing the villains on a motorbike.

China simply dazzles as the camera flies across Shanghai’s cityscape, giving us our first sighting of femme fatale Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe). However, the real star of this picture is London. Mendes and company may whisk the viewer off to far-flung places because a Macau casino with a komodo dragon pit is the perfect venue for Daniel Craig in his best bib and tucker, but the meat is back in the UK. Westminster, Charing Cross tube station and Vauxhall Bridge all get screen time. Plus, the subterranean landscape of our capital receives a hell of a wake-up call.

There are two strands to the Skyfall tale. Primarily, can Bond still trust M (Judi Dench) with his life, a story arc that plays neatly into the antagonist’s ire? Ralph Fiennes’ introduction to the team as the officious, senior civil servant Gareth Mallory lends the modern MI6 a public accountability and risk-adverse modus operandi that flies in the face of their instinct for danger and working in the shadows. This is Bond in the age of the Freedom of Information Act. Secondly, have agents in the field been made redundant by technology?

Where Bond previously used his guile, subterfuge and personalised gizmos to combat abuses of technologically advanced weaponry, he is now being told that in a world without a recognisable enemy we just need computers capturing the right CCTV footage, flight manifests, lists of bank transactions, secure networks, etc. It’s a young man’s game and he may well be the one who is refusing to change in an ever-evolving sphere.

The introduction of the new Q, played effortlessly by the charming Ben Whishaw, is both a bridge to the first point and tries almost immediately to answer the second. The pair meet in the National Portrait Gallery and contemplate a painting that shows an old galleon being towed into retirement by a tugboat. They share a moment, before the rookie boasts about his espionage skills with a laptop. Which Bond naturally mocks. Q gets his revenge in quick, issuing 007 his modest new toy with the line: "Were you expecting an exploding pen?"

The extravagant leader of the bad guys is Silva (Javier Bardem), whose bleached hair and beard do everything and more to accentuate his camp menace. It’s by no means over the top, but a million miles from the actor’s slithering evil grin in his mainstream breakthrough No Country For Old Men. Silva proves to be a worthy opponent, exposing weaknesses in government IT then reducing the secret service to chaos. Except of course for James Bond, who when down to just his wit and instinct is at his most dangerous. He’s fighting for himself and, more importantly, he’s fighting for Queen and "the old country" – as Silva laughingly calls England in one fraught exchange.

If Casino Royale was a throw down to the Bourne franchise, Skyfall sees Bond finally overtake the pretender to its throne. Put simply, this is a brilliant stand-alone action thriller. Add in the loving spoonful of 007 panache and some old school class, and you might feel a little bit of national fervour when you leave the cinema.

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