“England… Mi6… so old-fashioned!”
What makes a James Bond film great? When you ask this of any fan of the cannon they’ll say gadgets, women, a villain that only Bond (with his multibillion dollar expense account can follow), and/or Bond kicking ass fixing his cuffs and moving along as if nothing happened at all. Does this film carry all of those elements? Pretty much; but it barely feels as if it is a 007 film.
Many will harp on the fact that this is the first in the series that they’ve handed the reigns over to a filmmaker more associated with auteur status than anything else. Sam Mendes, paired with Rodger Deakins (True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Jarhead) as the cinematographer, brought a much more directed action film than any of the others – even Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the two of the cannon which tried purposely to distinguish themselves from all the other films – by showing and not telling as much. However, what makes this film so much more different than all of the other films is the story itself.
When the film opens, for the first half an hour we’re given some of the most visual stimulating scenes as we’re not bogged down with exposition as much as we’re allowed to feast on the actions, clearly shown by our director. The audience is barely allowed to blink for more than a second without regretting missing out on some of the spectacularly framed visuals of the Turkey and Shanghai sequences. It isn’t until about the hour mark that we even meet our villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), and when we do the film allows itself to take a deep breath as we sit and enjoy the amazingly well crafted monologues that we expect serialized villains like this to deliver.
Where this film deviates from what we expect from a general Bond structure is in the third act. The film, unlike many others, actually acknowledges a lot of the history that comes before it while at the same time is working its way towards what we already know (as we see in the final scene/reveal). It stops being a super spy 007 globe trotting action film and switches gears into this low-key (and so much more sensible) character film where Bond (Daniel Craig) makes a logical decision as opposed to making it so much grander a spectacle to finish us off like every other film in the franchise has been.
What strikes me about this film is that it’s a world building film. It adds in a lot of new ideas and parts to the story of who and what made James Bond. These films exist as a microcosm of the life of an international secret agent. This is a man who sometimes we just can’t believe doesn’t get called on not being an employee of Universal Exports or whatever cock and bull story he presents as his reason for being in a nuclear plant or a space station. This movie exists to tell us about Bond and the world of a spy. Even the existence of Silva as the villain is trying to give us the flipside of what Bond could eventually become if things ever really went bad for him and his relationship with the British government. When we get to the third act and peak into the world that Bond came from it jars you. The whole construct of the film is one’s past coming to haunt them as M (Judi Dench) is being haunted by her past which is why we’re having this whole terrorist plot happening in the first place. Regardless, the minute levels of character focus that Mendes is willing to take Bond is interesting.
James Bond has always been a curious character. If one were to truly look at his track record one would ask why he’s allowed to even be a spy. He barely ever follows protocol, is always too cavalier and never quite able to make sense of things until the very end. We’re given an answer here and it’s the most logical and the most satisfying; also it works mainly because the movie doesn’t have to quite hammer it home but rather tap it into the corner calmly without shouting it from the rooftops. It’s because of a feeling that he’s great at getting those results even if he may not be the best tool for it on paper.
All in all it’s a great movie that departs the usual 007 structure, somewhat, for the sake of being a great movie. It makes use of the grounded version that we’ve been presented with since Casino Royale to make even more new stories and bits of the characters we’ve been spending time with for the last fifty years but barely know anything about. Mendes and co. has made a reflective film that winks at its history while at the same time making sure to pick and choose which parts of it to keep and which parts to throw out the window (for now at least).