As we close in on No Time to Die, and the final Daniel Craig-era James Bond movie, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months at Sam Mendes’ 2012 Bond mega hit, Skyfall…
The opening shot of Skyfall feels like a reintroduction to James Bond, which is perhaps appropriate for Sam Mendes’ first 007 movie.
Bond, out of focus, glides quickly into frame—set to an immediate Monty Norman flourish from composer Thomas Newman—at the end of a dark Istanbul hallway, framed behind by light, before swaggering toward the camera as Daniel Craig’s face edges out of shadow into view, raising his Walther PPK almost into our faces. It stands as the first of many glorious shots from Mendes and his Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins which elevate the 23rd James Bond movie out of mere cinema and into the realm of art.
It also reminds us that our hero will, once again, be front and centre across a story which will dig into 007’s psychology in a manner the series had never before attempted. Fitting for the 50th anniversary Skyfall celebrated since the debut of Bond as a cinematic icon, with Sean Connery’s Dr No in 1962. Mendes’ film, right from the beginning and a pre-titles sequence that for the first time since the Pierce Brosnan-era, truly embraces the Bond formula of old in kickstarting the picture with a thrilling, action-packed mini-movie. Skyfall’s pulse-pounding chase through Istanbul, by jeep, bike and later train, serves as one of the series’ finest.
Four years had passed since Quantum of Solace, a Bond film which, while not without its merits, underwhelmed a vast amount of audiences as largely a post-script to Casino Royale’s bravura introduction to the Craig-era. Skyfall, across the first fifteen minutes, screams loudly and clearly: this is the first true follow up. And it’s going to be an epic journey.
The pre-titles sequence of Bond yesteryear was ditched for Casino Royale, determined as it was to reinvent the 007 formula in the post-9/11 age.
While a stylish and thrilling opening, it was brief, hard and all about establishing Craig’s edged credentials. Quantum of Solace adopts a similar strategy, throwing 007 into a swift car chase that ends before it begins – indeed the opening of Marc Forster’s film is strangely edited. It always feels as if the famous Bond titles sequence comes too early, and should kick in at the end of Bond’s foot chase through Siena. In both films, the narrative seems keen to get the titles out of the way and get on with things. Skyfall, in contrast, embraces the joy of allowing the audience to bed in and be immediately stirred, even shaken, by 007 in action.
As with many such pre-titles sequences (or PTS, as we’ll abbreviate it to), we find Bond on mission, in this case mid-mission. MI6 agents are dead (or almost dead), something important has been stolen, and Judi Dench’s reassuringly steely M is in Bond’s ear guiding him. The cold reality of the 00 life, and Bond’s upcoming experience with being left for dead, is wrought in sharp relief as M instructs Bond to leave Ronson, a felled, dying agent, in order to pursue what they’re after. “We don’t have the time!” she declares, as Bond instinctively moves to help his comrade. He has no choice. Darkness gives way to light. Newman’s ethnic bazaar sounds rise on the score. And Bond emerges into the throng of baking, bustling Istanbul.
Skyfall is a film purposefully riven with contrasts. Bond’s sojourn in the boiling Turkish heat is the opposite of rainy London, where M presides over the cream stone walls of the post-modern, digital age MI6 headquarters she and her loyal aide Tanner (Rory Kinnear) run the operation from. Mendes chooses to frame Dench from behind when first we glimpse her, akin to a Queen surveying her subjects. There is an imperial feel to Skyfall lacking in the previous two Craig-era pictures around M, different from the stark commander accosted at her home in Casino Royale, or using near-holographic touch screens in Quantum of Solace as if aboard the starship Enterprise. Skyfall grounds M back in the MI6 of GoldenEye, or even The World is Not Enough, at least at the beginning.
When Skyfall begins too, we appear to have a Bond at the peak of his powers, at least in Craig’s incarnation.
Freed, it would seem, of the emotional trauma of loving and losing Vesper Lynd, he is finely tailored and driven by a functional need to please ‘mother’. He indulges his female field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), who instantly projects an air of forced confidence. She drives poorly through the busy Turkish streets, bantering with Bond over smashed wing mirrors, and perhaps here does feel designed to display how perfected Bond is at what he does. He leaps from jeep to bike and races off through Istanbul markets, streets and eventually rooftops, with thrilling, old-school bravado. Craig, up to this point, has never done it better.
The bike chase feels particularly akin to a statement from Mendes of intent. This is easily the most effective PTS sequence of any Bond film since The World is Not Enough’s joyous speedboat chase through the Thames (where the film, sadly, peaks), and gives GoldenEye’s seminal opening a run for its money. Mendes revels in Bondian antics in Bondian locations, on a scale not seen for over a decade. “They appear to be on the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar” Tanner says, almost with incredulity like even he doesn’t quite believe it. Newman’s score blasts out Barry-esque riffs with aplomb and we’re cheering. This is Bond. This is what we came for. Inspired no doubt in part by The Bourne Supremacy’s bike sequence it may be, Skyfall shoots and cuts its chase with far more grace.
If anything, the train sequence ups the ante even more. Craig’s propensity for playing Bond with a level of gallows humour shines through and placing him on the trail of one solitary villain in Patrice (a silent but skilled Ola Rapace) only serves to streamline the action stylistics. Craig’s leap from the digger he has commandeered to churn his way toward Patrice, onto the edge of the severed train, is as iconic as any action shot in any 007 movie. “Just changing carriages” he quips, adjusting his cufflinks, and sauntering on. It’s easy to forget, given how much Skyfall deconstructs Bond, just how classic 007 Craig plays him in this opening sequence. Connery and Brosnan could have pulled off that same moment without missing a beat.
Framed by stunning shots of the Turkish countryside, green yet arid, the fight atop the train between Bond and Patrice is stunning. Sharp punches, kicks, grappling and bare knuckle fury, it evokes the nasty dust up of Bond and Red Grant in From Russia With Love while glancing—when brawling in the speeding tunnel—at De Palma’s first Mission Impossible, if levelled with far more earthen grit and layered with a sense of foreboding, as Eve tracks them with her rifle. Even before what happens happens, Mendes loads the sequence with a semblance of dread. Surely this will end as every Bond PTS does, right? He takes out the bad guy and saunters off with the girl? Something about the stakes in this fight suggest it won’t be quite so simple.
“Take the bloody shot!” M growls, despite Eve’s clear lack of experience, and her fear she could just as easily shoot Bond as Patrice. The stakes are too high. The ‘list’ M mentions earlier needs to be recovered. Throughout the PTS, she has valued the bigger picture, the accomplishment of the mission, over everything – even the lives of her agents. You know, in that moment, that Eve will miss. Patrice gets away. Bond, already nursing a gunshot to the shoulder, is struck again and plunges off a bridge into a ravine. Any normal man would be dead before they hit the water. The sound drains away, to the rush of the river as rain pounds on M’s gloomy office window. Mendes translates shock into an audible and visual experience.
Skyfall subverts expectations, in this sense, right from the outset. Mendes begins the film with Bond at his best, as the man we know, the indestructible British secret agent, and concludes with killing him off. The 007 who emerges from that water following the titles sequence is a different man. He loses something. Skyfall becomes a film about exploring quite what that something is, what that something always was, and contrasts it with M’s own long night of the soul as she is forced to weigh up her ultimate judgement as a leader, a mother, alongside Bond’s own ‘death’, rebirth and restoration. In that sense, Skyfall’s PTS suggests the film’s overarching themes in microcosm before the story even truly begins, to a degree few Bond films had ever even tried before.
This is the end. So hold your breath, and count to ten…
Don’t miss out on the other parts of this series:
II – Let the Sky Fall
III – Retirement Planning
IV – Enjoying Death
V – New Digs
VI – A Bloody Big Ship
VII – Old Dog, New Tricks
VIII – I Like You Better, Without Your Beretta
IX – First Time for Everything
X – Look Upon Your Work, Mother
XI – …And Not to Yield
XII – Jumped Up Little Shit
XIII – Last Rat Standing
XIV – With Pleasure
Or other Scene by Scene movie breakdowns:
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