I have never made much of a secret of the fact that my favourite film series is, by some considerable distance, the James Bond films. Naturally, then, I was excited by the release of the new film, Skyfall, which I went to see in the cinema this week.
Pre-Skyfall preparation – reading the reviews in the papers aside – involved re-watching Daniel Craig’s first appearance as 007 in Casino Royale (inexplicably, the only Bond film I own on DVD – I still haven’t got round to replacing the VHS tapes), a repeat of You Only Live Twice (screenplay by Roald Dahl, I kid you not) and the generally excellent Top Gear special on Bond cars. Top Gear has in my opinion gone off the boil in recent years, becoming (as the Bond films did at some point) very much a parody of itself, but this particular special was definitely worth tuning in for. The very good interviews aside, the story of how an Aston Martin DB5 came to be used in Goldfinger was definitely worth retelling (in an attitude similar to that taken by British Leyland over The Italian Job, Aston Martin initially didn’t want anything to do with it, and the makers only insisted on an Aston because Bond had driven one – a DB Mark III – in the novel). Plus, there was a real treat in store in the form of converting a Lotus Excel for use as an actual submarine, in homage to The Spy Who Loved Me. Only the people at Top Gear could have come up with that.
And so to the movie itself. Well, almost. The film was billed as starting at 7pm, although this was of course the time that the half-hour of adverts and trailers was due to start, some of the former being obvious Bond tie-ins which included, rather annoyingly, quite a bit of the pre-credits sequence from the film I was about to see.
The film was certainly more dialogue-heavy and character-driven than previous Bond films, and I don’t see that as being a bad thing, especially with a cast like this. Ever since Casino Royale, there’s been a move towards redefining what a Bond film is (as well as being a direct sequel, Quantum of Solace was, to all intents and purposes, a revenge-flick – the Bond franchise had never done the former before, while as far as the latter is concerned the only previous one had been Licence to Kill), and as far as this fan is concerned that’s no bad thing. Skyfall breaks new ground for the Bond films in that it’s the first to explicitly emphasise 007’s back-story – and what’s wrong with revealing a bit more about the main character? In the books, Ian Fleming didn’t really get round to this until rather late in the day, with the story of Bond’s parents being killed when he was a boy not being told until You Only Live Twice, the last Bond novel to be published while Fleming was still alive.
In the book, this was told in the form of an obituary written by M, which duly features in Skyfall after Bond is presumed to have been killed in action in the pre-credits sequence. That he is in fact alive and living on a beach somewhere is also taken from You Only Live Twice (the novel, not the film).
Craig is, I think, an excellent Bond – tough and determined but, unlike most of the others, showing a vulnerable side and literally being seen to bleed (in flat contradiction of Q’s final piece of advice to Bond in The World Is Not Enough). He brings something to the role the others didn’t; he certainly looks like more of a killer than Roger Moore in his prime, and yet the vulnerability (an area previously explored only by the seriously under-rated George Lazenby) adds something to the character, making James Bond appear as something more than a wise-cracking government hit-man. Of the old Bonds, he’s closets to Timothy Dalton, who was himself perhaps too serious coming in after Roger Moore (Pierce Brosnan certainly sent things back the other way by restoring a lot of the gags). It helps, I think, that such a portrayal of Bond came at the same time as a welcome reboot of the franchise, which has helped those responsible for the films in that they no longer feel obliged to stick to a prescribed Bond formula. If you want to know why they had to reboot Bond, simply note that Die Another Day – the most self-parodying of the Bond films as well as one of the most extravagant in terms of special effects – was released in the same year as The Bourne Identity. Suddenly, overblown special effects didn’t look too clever, and as well as establishing a new timeline for Bond, Casino Royale was rather stripped-down compared to what had gone before.
Of the other characters, Judi Dench was on top form as M, and Javier Bardem brought in a performance as the villain that hasn’t been seen in many a year – I would not be surprised to find Raoul Silva spoken of in the same breath as Auric Goldfinger and Francisco Scaramanga in years to come. A renegade MI6 agent as the baddie has been done before, but not like this (and a cyber-terrorist to boot; very modern!). Throw in the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, and it’s obvious that Sam Mendes established a heavyweight cast for this, so much so that I’m struggling to think of a Bond film that was as well-acted as this one.
The relative lack of gadgets aside (these were dismissed by the new Q in a throwaway remark about MI6 not going in for exploding pens any more) was more than compensated for by the appearance of the legendary DB5, complete with the optional extras it had in Goldfinger. Even though we all knew what was coming thanks to the publicity, there was still an audible gasp in the cinema when Bond opened the lock-up to reveal the Aston.
Aside from a couple of times where Bond looks at his watch (yes, it’s an Omega, we get it) and an obvious close-up of his mobile phone, I don’t think that the product placement distracted from my enjoyment of the film. Having read the books, I’ve argued on many occasions that product placement with James Bond is not a recent phenomenon but something that goes back to Ian Fleming himself, who with his journalist’s eye for detail used brand-names as a means of making sure that Bond appeared sophisticated and worldly-wise – the Bond of the books wears certain brands or styles of clothes and smokes a particular (specially-made) brand of cigarette, for example, and when reciting the famous cocktail recipe in Casino Royale he really does specify Gordon’s rather than just gin. I guess the difference is that Fleming wasn’t getting paid to do it (although by all accounts he did receive the odd freebie after publication), whereas (for example) Heineken paid a lot of money to ensure that it’s their beer that Bond is seen to be drinking. Sticking with drinks, I note that Bollinger is now the official Bond champagne, although I seem to recall that in the books Bond liked Pol Roger. Or was it Taittinger?
All in all, I really liked it. After the relative disappointment of Quantum of Solace, Skyfall brings the Bond franchise, and Craig’s Bond for that matter, back to the superlative heights of Casino Royale. Daniel Craig is no longer standing in the shadows of any of his predecessors. He’s a great Bond but he’s not the best there’s ever been – yet. However, give him a couple more, and the original may no longer be the best.