Daniel Craig looks rougher, grislier, and altogether more jumpable in Skyfall, his third outing as the spiffing secret agent 007 – and that’s all to the good because this movie, like its sculpted leading man, is sex on legs.
Bond had grown darker in recent years, matching the Bourne series torture scene for torture scene, and the last entry, Quantum of Solace, was a misfire because the suave MI6 operative had lost the quippy irreverence that helped leaven his camp pomposity and patriotic derring-do.
Skyfall is all about big shiny mindless fun: gun battles against the backdrop of a Shanghai advertising light show, exploding helicopters, trains crashing through ceilings, and a motorbike chase across the rooftops of Istanbul.
The villain this time around is Tiago Rodriguez, who goes by the secret agent name of Raoul Silva, and is camped up to the nines as a monstrous-queer psychopath by Javier Bardem. Silva is an MI6 agent turned over to the Chinese by M (Judi Dench) in exchange for six captive agents and a peaceful handover of Hong Kong. Silva’s not too happy about this, particularly the horrific tortures he suffered, and returns for revenge on his former boss, stealing a hard drive with the identity of every secret agent in the field and drip-leaking their names online.
He hounds M via bombs and a spectacular shoot-out in a House of Commons committee room all the way to a remote manor in the Scottish Highlands. (The retreat north of the Border is referred to as “going back in time”, a quip that’s sure to turn a few of my more sour compatriots even sourer.) The best Bond villains have always been camp – Dr No, Blofeld, and Scaramanga – but Bardem’s Silva is too mincing, too purring, and, given his obsession with killing “mommy” M, more than a little distasteful on the stereotyping front.
The Bond movies and the Ian Fleming novels that inspired them were originally a rah-rah Boys’ Own adventure for a Britain in decline, an injection of post-imperial pride that said: We might not rule the waves any more but we can still jolly well get the job done and be home in time for tea and crumpets. While Britons long ago stopped agonising over their place in the world, the plucky-but-proper spy hasn’t lost his appeal to the home crowd.
Bond tells us there will always be an England and the franchise subtly negotiates pride-in-suffering nostalgia and a more modern patriotism, one that finds contentment in goodness rather than greatness. It’s a Love, Actually version of Britain – Cool Britannia! Modernity! Cancel the Debt! – but we need to tell ourselves a story and this is at least an optimistic one.
Skyfall is at its most entertaining in the final act, when Bond retreats to his childhood home in Scotland and lays a series of booby-traps to fend off Silva’s goons. Shotgun cartridges are stuffed under floorboards, shards of glass exploded from chandeliers, and sticks of dynamite thrust into gas canisters to defend the rural abode. The action is unrelenting and the tone moody-farce, Home Alone with the faintest hint of Straw Dogs.
Skyfall marks the 23rd Bond movie, unless you count the non-canonical Never Say Never Again, and if you do I will come round your house and beat you about the head with my limited edition On Her Majesty’s Secret Service George Lazenby action figure, still in the box. It is one of the most enjoyable movies in the franchise, possibly the best since the days of Roger Moore. Craig, who is signed on to make two more films, has now comprehensively answered his remaining critics. Not only was he the best choice for Bond, it’s difficult to imagine another contemporary actor in the role.
Sam Mendes directs tightly but lightly and that’s why his movie is so smooth and digestible. I confess I thought he was wrong for Skyfall – too cerebral, too burdened by dark thoughts about the human condition – but it works. Mendes has put the fun back into Bond.