For the longest running franchise around, it's not surprising that most Bond entries are fairly watchable. But there's relatively few that make claims to greatness within the spy/action genre -- a couple of Connerys, maybe one of Moore's, the sole Lazenby, probably the first Brosnan if we were feeling generous. So when "Casino Royale" hit theaters in 2006 and turned out to be the best Bond in decades, hopes were high that the Daniel Craig era would lead to a dawning of a glorious new age of quality for 007.
Sadly, a weak script rushed by the 2007 writer's strike (a plot revolving around utilities contracts in Central America is not what Bond classics are made of) and inept action direction from Marc Forster meant that all but the most undemanding fans of the franchise came away disappointed with "Quantum Of Solace." Fortunately, an extended four-year break enforced by MGM's bankruptcy seems, at first glance, to have reinvigorated the series anew, with "Skyfall" looking like the most prestigious entry yet for a number of reasons.
First up, there's decision to hire Sam Mendes, the first Best Director Oscar-winner in the franchise's history, to helm the project. Next is bringing aboard John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator," "Hugo") to write a script, from a story by Peter Morgan ("Frost/Nixon," "The Queen"), and a first draft by Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Then, there's acclaimed DoP Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen Brothers, heading up a top-flight below-the-line team. And finally, bolstering the cast with some of the most acclaimed actors around, including Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw, along with the more unsung but equally talented likes of Naomie Harris, Rory Kinnear and Helen McCrory.
Early footage suggests that Mendes and co. haven't skimped on the action, and have given the cast some solid material to play with. Some of the rumors (including an expanded role for Judi Dench's M) suggest that there could be more substance to the movie than in any film in the series since "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." And, appropriately for the 50th anniversary year of the franchise, there seem to be more nods to to the past of the series than in previous Craig films, including the return of Q, and a more flamboyant and colorful villain in Bardem's Silva. Could it be the complete 007 package?
We like Mendes more than some ("Jarhead" in particular is underrated), but even we were underwhelmed by his last two pictures, "Revolutionary Road" and "Away We Go." Even if he's got his mojo back by now, he might fall prey to the same issues with action/direction that plagued the similarly inexperienced-in-the-genre Forster last time around. And while he's awards nominated, we haven't been especially wild about John Logan's scripts so far.
That's not to mention the main issue with the Bond series: it's terribly, terribly formulaic. Even the better entries follow a similar template, and it's easy to see the new film following the same pattern. Will there be enough here to separate it from earlier Bond movies, or even rival spy films? Brad Bird raised the bar in terms of pure craft and spectacle in "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (although that had its own problems), and there's always the risk that Bond will feel like old news up against the competition.
Another risk that's all too common with the franchise: peaking too soon. In films like "The World Is Not Enough," and even "Quantum Of Solace," the highlight of the film often comes in the opening 5-10 minutes, with a cracking action sequence that makes the rest of the film look tame by comparison. The Istanbul-set opening of "Skyfall" sounds spectacular; a car chase turned bike chase, turned train chase, turned train fight. But most of the action highlights in trailers appear to come from that opening scene. Has Mendes got some secrets tucked up his sleeve? Or will this be another Bond movie that's shown its best stuff by the end of the first reel? Screenings start soon, and we'll have our verdict for you close to the film's opening in Europe on October 26th (it follows in the U.S. on November 9th).