During the pre-credits action sequence in Skyfall, the new — and fitfully entertaining — James Bond movie, we witness in quick succession a car chase, a motorbike chase (on rooftops) that plays like the two-wheeler equivalent of the parkour stretch in Casino Royale, and just when we think nothing can top this, Bond and his quarry leap onto a train and undertake a series of manoeuvres that incorporates a bulldozer, which, as we all know, every speeding train just happens to be equipped with.
Faraway at her MI6 office, M (Judi Dench) demands an update. Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond’s colleague who’s racing alongside in a jeep, sighs, “It’s rather hard to explain, ma’am.” The audience is in complete agreement. Preposterousness at these levels cannot be explained — merely experienced. And from our experience of decades of Bond movies — the series turned 50 this year — we cluck contentedly and tighten our seatbelts. It’s time Daniel Craig’s Bond stopped brooding and trained his eyes on world-annihilating megalomaniacs.
But the director Sam Mendes has other ideas. This action sequence ends shockingly — so shockingly that no other words could open Adele’s title song. (The accompanying visuals are astonishingly beautiful.) “This is the end,” she sings, in a soaring ballad that manages to be at once exalting and elegiac — and that’s the tone Mendes is after. He wants us as lusty spectators in the Bond circus. He also wants us to mourn for Bond.
And Skyfall gets trapped in a limbo. Are we watching an action film laced with drama? Or a drama with occasional bursts of action? My guess is that Mendes was after the latter — his beats are those of a classical tragedy, whose flamboyantly melodramatic villain (Javier Bardem, playing up the mincing mannerisms so much that he forgets to be menacing) instructs M to “think on your sins,” and, by the end, pleads with her to “free” them both, as if they were mother and child with intertwined fates. Goldfinger, in comparison, had it easy. He just wanted to blow up Fort Knox.
Skyfall is very much of a piece with the other films of the Daniel Craig era. The superb Casino Royale birthed Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and proceeded to hone his surface as well as his soul. He fell in love, was betrayed, and learnt how to announce his name to the world. The somewhat underwhelming Quantum of Solace dug deeper in the quest to turn Bond from cartoon to character, exorcising him of romantic ghosts from the earlier film — and now, we see the rest of the Bond universe being created, with a convincing case being made for Bond’s essentiality in this modern world.
But please, no more. Steven Spielberg dispensed with the backstory of his whip-cracking archaeologist within the first half-hour of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Three entire movies in, we’re still getting to know this Bond. Just set a steel-toothed villain on him already.
But that doesn’t look likely, if Skyfall is anything to go by. Bond is assigned to track the men who’ve obtained a list of secret agents embedded in terrorist organisations worldwide, which instantly guarantees their death. The kicker comes later, when, in usual fashion, Q (Ben Whishaw) hands over Bond’s equipment — a Walther PPK and a radio transmitter; nothing more — and smirks, “Were you expecting an exploding pen?”
But more pertinently, Bond is already ageing. Ethan Hunt showed signs of greying only in the fourth Mission: Impossible movie, but Bond’s unshaven chin is already a thicket of silver. And then we have Mendes’ longueurs. The mid-section is especially bloated with “classy” considerations, like an ill-advised romance and a long walk-and-talk through which the villain introduces himself, speaking about his grandmother.
Sometimes, Mendes’ non-conformism is a plus. I enjoyed looking at a villain’s lair that isn’t a gleaming space-age fabrication but an expanse of deserted island resembling the site of the climactic battle in Saving Private Ryan. I also liked the throwaway shots, like the one where Bond, at a bar, entertains a rapt audience with a drinking game involving a scorpion. (What this has to do with anything is irrelevant. It beats sitting through another funereally paced dramatic scene.)
It’s towards the end that Mendes’ controlled pacing really pays off, as Bond and his cohorts await the villain and his henchmen. This is where Mendes attains a perfect balance between emotional grandeur and blockbuster mayhem — the slight slog we’ve been through to get to this point is all but forgotten. And the finish is extraordinarily satisfying. But where next? Now that we even know where Bond’s parents are buried, can the forthcoming film do nothing but get him cracking on a high-octane mission? The exploding pen is optional.