To reiterate the conclusions of my original, spoiler-free review, the most impressive thing about Skyfall is that it manages to move towards the past, while retaining the modern momentum of Daniel Craig's tenure thus far, and yet covers equal ground in both directions without ever feeling torn. It's a rollicking and dramatic adventure film, more fun than Casino Royale and more comprehensible than Quantum of Solace, but I still have problems with the film that I couldn't have gone into with a spoiler-free review. With that in mind, SPOILERS will commence after the jump...
It's nobody's fault, that this film happened to be in development at the same time, and ultimately was released in the same year as The Dark Knight Rises. Given how Nolan's third Batman film takes a left-turn into Bond movie territory, it's actually Batman who'd come off worse if we were to directly compare the two films. Still, Bond's second out of the gate, and so there's something a little too familiar about the arc of rebuilding himself into an icon, tangling with villains who "want to be caught", (because apparently, the inside of a cell is always the optimal place to orchestrate a meticulous and note-perfect villainous plan) and retreating into the stately family home to confab with a surrogate father figure who looks after the place.
The film picks up later in Bond's career, and suddenly there's Q, and a proliferation of fights atop trains and in random deadly animal enclosures! It's like the old days, all over again! Well, not quite. As in his previous two outings, Craig just gets his teeth into the acting. That hard edge of melancholia is still running throughout his performance, and as other reviews have said, it does feel like some of that that mad shit from the earlier films has happened to him, off-screen, since Quantum of Solace. He's more of a ladykiller and a hard drinker this time around, but three films in, I wonder if we'll ever get to see this Bond in his stride, rather than learning how to be 007. Happily, there are also spoiler-y details that I really enjoyed about the film, so this is an opportunity to cover those, as well.
The contrast exists in the very bones of Skyfall, with the film itself being named after the aforementioned Bond family estate. As part of a series that's famed for globe-trotting travelogues, this instalment mostly takes place in Britain, and as if that weren't unusual enough, Skyfall is in the Scottish Highlands, which is easily the least exotic location for a Bond movie finale ever. Despite the questionable logic involved in protecting M by keeping her miles and miles from the back-up that might be required if, say, a big fucking helicopter gunship showed up, this unexpected setting really works. The idea that "the old ways are sometimes the best" is embedded in everything from the dialogue to the iconography, not only but especially when Sam Mendes is coming up with stuff we actually haven't seen before.
And Judi Dench's M, who survived even the seismic reboot that followed Die Another Day, is right in the heart of that contrast between old and new, with Bond and Silva acting as binary opposites who've been defined by their relationship with their handler. This capitalises on the great chemistry that has been displayed between Craig and Dench, over all three of his films, while setting up Silva as an Oedipal figure as a result of his treatment under M's supervision. It's a stonking conclusion to Dench's run in the series, and her death scene is the biggest downer since the ending of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, particularly when Bond's only real mission is to protect her.
While this M is on her way out, new versions of familiar characters are built into the structure of the film, with Ralph Fiennes' Mallory serving as a successor to both Dench and Bernard Lee, and Ben Whishaw's Q serving as the modern and relevant successor to Desmond Llewellyn that John Cleese should have been. In a moment not dissimilar to a fan service name-drop at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, it's also revealed that Naomie Harris' Eve is actually Moneypenny, a secret that was about as well kept as the title of the film and the fact that Adele would be singing the theme. But it matters more than it did in Nolan's film, because Mendes isn't just throwing the fans a bone- he's pointing the way for the series of the future, and now, finally, it looks comfortable in its nostalgia.
The film's focus isn't smaller for being largely set in Britain, but more precise. It gets up close and personal, and sends off an old friend in spectacular style, while also injecting new life into older elements that have been iconic over the last two years of watching these movies. It's taken enough time to get here, with writers' strikes and legal wrangles, but with the final calibration of Daniel Craig's Bond, his first three films feel like they represent a complete thought, so effortless as to make it look like they planned it that way all along.
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