IT STRIKES ME as odd that both 007 and the Rolling Stones are celebrating their 50th anniversaries in 2012; if only the remaining original members of the Stones could have arranged for as many physical replacements as Bond along the way, and still keep their mojo.
Daniel Craig has some way to go to looking as grizzled as Jagger or Richards, but he does look pretty aged and fraying in Skyfall, and it’s hard to know whether he really has edged close to retirement age in the time it’s taken to star in three 007 movies, or whether his bedraggled looks are entirely the concoction of a makeup team dedicated to the story – wherein a battered and alcoholic Bond is called back to duty, despite the fact that he can no longer even shoot straight.
Perhaps that’s why the feats aren’t quite as astonishing or pyrotechnic (or as preposterous) as usual, but new director Sam Mendes (whose most liked film is still American Beauty) has fashioned a much better film by avoiding most of those (frankly impossible) set-pieces.
Which isn’t to say that the expected astonishing chase scenes, or the edge-of-seat (or in my case, under the seat) thrills are damp squibs, exactly. In fact, the film starts with an almost too-long chase through the streets of a Turkish town, in cars, on motorbikes and, improbably, on the roof of a train, and it’s definitely thrill-a-minute, if not quite up to the killer beginning of Craig’s debut, the refashioned Casino Royale.
It’s just that there’s a lot more drama and (dare I say it) character development in this film than is usually allowed, and that the action sequences feel like they’re organically part of the whole rather than tacked on, as they sometimes have in the past.
The reason for the extra drama is that we’re getting more up close and personal with both Bond, and his boss/matriarch, M (Judi Dench), as the film explores her hard-assed relationship to her charges, and we get to see through that hard edge to the rather fragile little old lady that in the end, needs protecting.
As always, there’s a dastardly villain and an equally dastardly plot to foil, and this time Javier Bardem is really great as the former protégé turned twisted assassin.
The script has been sharpened up, as well, and the film strikes just the right balance between genuine emotional clout, spurious thrills and funny, well-aimed one-liners that lighten the mood when most needed.
There’s no sexy villainess this time round to act as a foil for Bond, although we’re teased with that possibility early in the piece. In any case, the movie doesn’t suffer for its lack, because there’s an implied romance between Bond and one of his junior (but very smart) operatives. The fact that she’s a dusky maiden also gives the film a bit more of an edge than it might have had.
The only downside is the film’s implicit support for the secret service and its beyond the law tactics. When M is called before government bureaucrats to justify her agenda – which basically involves riding ram shod over everyone’s personal freedoms in order to catch those shadowy villains that want to bring the forces of good to their knees – we’re expected to believe we should trust that which we don’t know, for our own good. Yeah, right. But it’s just entertainment, I guess.
Oh, and the cinematographer seems to think we really want to see up people’s nostrils. I think that’s a shame. But it is a minor point.
Skyfall, I was relieved to discover, does not refer to jumping from planes or risky parachuting maneuvers, but to the utterly desolate Scottish house in which James Bond was raised, and that’s where the film ends up – Bond facing his personal demons while protecting M against incredible odds, of course. It’s a thrilling, dark and finally, unexpected conclusion that makes it a better movie, and leaves a lot of questions about where the Bond movies will go from here.
One aspect of the whole Bond franchise at this point is quite confusing. The audience is in on the fact that different actors have played 007 over the years, but the plot shouldn’t be. Craig is portrayed as the original Bond, but a man in his 50s won’t have been in the secret service in the mid-1960s; so why the utilisation of the 1960s Aston Martin, along with the original theme music? It’s a nicely nudge-nudge, wink-wink moment, but just confuses the issue, and muddies the water.
Slightly pissed off note: Event Cinemas, get your shit together! This is the second movie I’ve been to in as many weeks where the volume was too low, but your speakers could also have done with some serious bass reinforcement. I was privileged to get a free ticket, but if I had paid for this, I would have felt severely ripped off. The consumer can look forward to better sound through their modest home theatre systems. It really is about time that Event Cinemas was held accountable for poor sound and/or visuals, but there seems to be no easy complaints process. Shame on you. GARY STEEL
Rating – 4/5
* Skyfall opens in New Zealand on November 22.