Directed by Sam Mendes     
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judy Dench, Ralph Fiennes     

American Beauty director Sam Mendes takes on the unenviable task of reorienting the iconic Bond series. The modern-day Bond has the politics of a new world order to contend with, where the bad guys are an unknown entity, neither a nation nor a flag but individuals with their own agendas and personal vendettas.

With the benefit of 22 previous interpretations of a tried and tested formula Mendes takes full advantage, on the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s creation, to celebrate half a century of James Bond with an unashamedly sentimental nod to the glory days of 007. Bond’s world-weary “international man of mystery” meets the chirpy irreverence of a new era of espionage in a Bond film. 

The expectation for charismatic villains in contemporary action movies has been around since the late Heath Ledger’s show-stealing turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The token Bond villain this time around is played with devilish delight and much vigour by Javier Bardem, a real villain’s actor whose portrayal of a remorseless assassin in the Coen brothers’ masterful crime-drama No Country For Old Men is utterly compelling.

In Skyfall, Bardem embodies Raoul Silva (an ex-MI6 agent with a grudge against Judy Dench’s inimitable M) with the same deranged yet charming mixture of ruthless determination and psychotic charisma which made Ledger’s Joker so malevolent, unsettling as much for their likeability as for their maniacal overtones. His blond hair makes him look a bit like Julian Assange, a nod to the new threats to the world order.

The Bond signature gestures — saving the world, getting the girl and giving the proverbial middle finger to the authorities — are put to the test in Skyfall. In a very contemporary setting, MI6 is being investigated by a public inquiry over its increasingly public embarrassments. These include the unBondian gaffe of losing a list of the names of every British undercover operative under its command.

Alongside an ill-disguised contempt in the media for the Golden Age of espionage comes the assertion, from new security minister Gareth Mallory (played by Ralph Fiennes), that dinosaurs like 007 can no longer afford to play blackjack and toss back martinis with impunity. MI6 can no longer operate in the shadows – “There aren’t any shadows left!”

In a culture of 24-hour news coverage where security breaches are posted live on YouTube and accountability is king, it’s a brave new world for Bond. His licence to kill is revoked pending investigation and he is declared missing in action, presumed dead. When he returns to MI6 he has to pass a physical and psychological competency test. Bond begins to feel like an old dog learning new tricks, in a young man’s game.

The new Q, played by fresh-faced newcomer Ben Wishaw is completely at odds with the Desmond Llewelyn-era Q branch with its lethal armoury of implausible but wonderfully inventive gadgets. In its place we have a nod to the silly excesses of the Bond brand with a tongue-in-cheek comparison to the back-to-basics approach of the new generation. “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore.”

As far as the formulaic innuendo and sexual promiscuity of the Bond brand goes, there is some, but it is pretty tame for the most part. Don’t take my word for it though. The Vatican has come out in favour of the 23rd Bond film giving the film’s more human feel an unprecedented thumbs up calling it “less cliched, less attracted by the pleasures of life, more introspective and more vulnerable physically and psychologically”. In an article headlined “007: license to cry” L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, praised Skyfall’s refreshing take on the character as “more human, capable of being moved and of crying: in a word, more real”.  

There is a reflective feel to Skyfall as Mendes makes sure to keep our feet on the ground (for the most part), coupling the darker elements of the plot with a more revealing glimpse of 007’s past and subsequently a more satisfying portrayal of the man behind the cliché. In Skyfall we get to see a vulnerable side to Bond which 50 years of guns, gadgets, girls and cars have glossed over. He is an ageing Bond who is doing his best not to “cock it up”. He makes mistakes, gets shot (twice), manages to get killed (for a while), runs out of bullets, is abandoned by some friends and needs help from others.

The old clichés meet some gentle ribbing but ultimately with affection. You get the impression with Skyfall that this is a new breed of Bond film. It retains the flair of the franchise but brings it up to date. It’s Bond, just better.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...