Sam Mendes made his name in the cinema with the Oscar-winning American Beauty, but he hasn’t much of a reputation as an action director, so he was a risky appointment to direct a Bond film. I’m pleased to report that he’s delivered one of the finest of all time, just in time to celebrate 50 years of 007 in the cinema.
At least as clever as Casino Royale and infinitely superior to Quantum of Solace, this tells a refreshingly simple story. It succeeds because of marvellous action set pieces, tremendous cinematography (by Roger Deakins, one of the world’s best) and a cast so talented that it looks like the National Theatre at play. Not only does Judi Dench get far more to do than ever before in a Bond movie. There are juicy roles for Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, plus strong supporting parts for Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory , Ben Whishaw (as the new Q) and Naomie Harris.
And in Javier Bardem, Bond gets his creepiest adversary ever: a man not for once bent on world domination but with a good reason to hate MI6 in general, and M (Dench) in particular.
The film gets off to a terrific start in Istanbul, with a thrilling rooftop chase of a kind you won’t have seen before. By the start of the title sequence, Bond is already missing, believed dead, shot by one of his own colleagues. Needless to say, he has miraculous powers of recuperation, and he’s soon helping the head of MI6 track down Bardem, who, like all Bond villains seems to have endless funds and a limitless supply of henchmen. This guy is so weird, he makes The Joker look wholesome.
The action roams the globe from Turkey to London, then off to Shanghai, before ending up in Scotland. Here, Mendes pays tribute to earlier writers in the spy genre, particularly John Buchan and Michael Innes, and reveals more of Bond’s back story than anyone has before.
There are more acting scenes than we’re used to in a Bond films, but because of the quality of the cast they don’t drag; and they make most action adventure films look rushed and superficial. Mendes delivers not only some stunning action but some new, genuinely surprising twists and a welcome element of black humour, most of it thanks to Bardem.
To read the rest of this article, and more, check out the November edition of The Phoenix!