You can always rely on James Bond to get out of a jam, can’t you? No matter how tight the spot, deep the hole or sticky the situation, Ian Fleming’s resourceful spy can be guaranteed to wriggle free.
Yet it really was touch and go whether we’d ever see Bond on screen again. When MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2010 it looked as though it was curtains for 007, buried under the film studio’s debt mountain rather than killed off by a super-villain’s laser beam or pet shark.
Happily, the 50th anniversary of Bond’s film debut in Dr No finds the spy in rude health, shrugging off bullets, bombs and even a komodo dragon in Skyfall. When, half way through the action, Daniel Craig’s agent deadpans that his hobby is ‘resurrection’ you know he’s telling the truth.
“A scorching car chase”
But Bond’s enforced hiatus, especially coming as it did after the underwhelming Quantum of Solace, meant that there was even more pressure on director Sam Mendes to do something special. And he has. Skyfall, the 23rd official Bond film, is right up there with the very best in the series, on a par with Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale.
Many people didn’t think Mendes could pull it off. The first Oscar winner to helm a Bond film, he was an unexpected choice and one that made fans uneasy when his name was announced. Fine for the serious dramatic stuff, was the consensus, but could he handle the action?
The answer is an emphatic yes, as Mendes proves from the opening scene, putting his foot to the floor for a scorching car chase through the narrow streets of Istanbul, with Craig’s Bond riding shotgun alongside field-agent sidekick Eve (Naomie Harris) as their battered Land Rover hurtles in hot pursuit of a foreign mercenary who has made off with a hard-drive containing the identities of every undercover agent in MI6.
“A pesky blond hacker”
A pesky blond hacker is behind the crime – no, not Wikileaks’ Julian Assange but Javier Bardem’s cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva – and when he begins leaking the agents’ details on the internet, MI6 boss M (Judi Dench) comes under intense political pressure to get things under control. Bond, of course, is the only man for the job, but as events unfold the mission hits uncomfortably close to home, emotionally and geographically, putting his loyalties to the test and forcing him to fight on native soil.
This isn’t something we’ve seen before in the Bond canon, at least not on this scale, but to witness the mayhem taking place in London and the Scottish Highlands proves an unexpected thrill and gives the action an additional resonance. Not that 007 entirely eschews his usual globetrotting. He has significant stopovers in Shanghai and an island in the South China Sea in addition to the opening scene’s whistlestop visit to Turkey.
It’s this combination of the familiar and the unexpected that is Skyfall’s winning formula. Mendes and his team, including screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, have done an extremely canny job of combining old-school Bond with new innovations, showing respect for the series’ heritage while also delivering some audacious surprises.
“A spectacularly voluptuous Bond girl”
Some things are the same – including a spectacularly voluptuous Bond girl in the shape of Bérénice Marlohe’s gorgeous femme fatale Sévérine and a ruthless megalomaniac villain in the form of Bardem’s campy, peroxide-blond psychopath. Bond’s iconic Aston Martin DB5 makes a crowd-pleasing appearance, as does the equally iconic Bond theme. There are even some quippy one-liners. But the outlandish gadgets that used to be a series mainstay are absent. ‘Were you expecting an exploding pen?’ asks Q (played by a surprising new face) when Bond blinks at only being handed a Walther PPK on his latest visit to the quartermaster. ‘We don’t really go in for that anymore.’
The rejoinder is a good joke, but it’s something more too. This is a Bond film that doesn’t go in for gimmicks. There’s real substance here, both behind and in front of the camera. To salute just two quarters, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is dazzling (and stands a fair chance of bagging an Oscar nomination) and the acting has true emotional heft, particularly in the scenes between Craig’s resolute Bond and Dench’s beleaguered M. But everyone involved has played a blinder. If producers Eon can continue making films this good, who’s to say Bond won’t still be defying death in another 50 years time.
In cinemas from Friday 26th October.