Daniel Craig’s third outing as James Bond will indubitably go down as one of his best in the franchise’s storied 50 year history. Somewhere between the shaken and stirred reality-based reboot of Casino Royale and old familiar Bond of yesteryear lies Skyfall, a film that ably and deftly continues Bond’s journey through the 21st century as England’s reigning super-spy.
In this outing, Bond isn’t trying to stop some terrorist financier, put the kibosh on a shadowy organization consolidating world oil, or ending a mad North Korean soldier’s world domination scheme using a giant space magnifying glass. (Remember Die Another Day?) At the risk of sounding clichéd, the plot of Skyfall, this time, is personal. Bond’s boss M (Dame Judi Dench) is targeted by enemies foreign and domestic, a stolen hard drive listing agents embedded with terrorist groups is stolen by someone looking to taunt MI-6’s leader, while British politicians, lead by Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, want to use the theft as rationale for putting M out to retirement.
In between is Bond himself, who’s knocked out of commission when he’s accidentally shot on assignment to retrieve the hard drive. When MI-6 headquarters is attacked, Bond comes out of his self-realized “death” to help his old boss, but this Bond is not at the top of his game. Damaged physically and psychologically, Bond goes up against one of the most cunning villains he’s ever faced.
MORE AFTER THE JUMP
Apropos for a Bond film marking the half century mark, Skyfall plays heavy the theme of old versus new. M is chastised for not being able to keep up with the new reality of threats to England; an era where you can’t define your enemies by lines on a map, and the only ideology is personal. Bond comes face-to-face with the new Q (Ben Whishaw), a kid barely old enough to drink one of Bond’s martinis, but can still do more damage in 10 minutes with a laptop in his PJs than Bond can with a gun and a year’s time. In one way, Q is right, but in the end, this story comes down to an O.K. Corral style gunfight that maybe no one will survive.
In a weird way the action is nearly an after-thought. The majority of Bond movies seem built around a simple plot device of a story able to leap form action set piece to action set piece without much complication. In Skyfall, the play’s the thing, and while we certainly get some impressive action scenes, character development and plotting seem to take priority. Director Sam Mendes brings together an impressive roster of supporting talent, a gathering of British acting heavyweights that is nearly unprecedented for a Bond movie. In particular, franchise mainstay Dench deserves credit for imbuing the normally thankless role of the stoic boss with humanity and mortality. In many ways, Skyfall is M’s story, not Bond’s, and Dench exceeds expectations.
And since no great Bond film succeeds without a great villain, we get the tremendous Javier Bardem as Silvia, a man who is Bond’s dark reflection, a former MI-6 agent once abandoned by M and is now out to destroy her in vengeance. I’ve read some reviews that try and compare Silvia to The Joker from The Dark Knight, but Khan from Star Trek II would be more apt. From hell’s heart, he stabs at M and he tries to compel Bond to come along with him, or at least stay out of his way. Bardem immediately sets a tone when Silvia finally makes an appearance about an hour into the film, and his character’s presence is felt throughout the rest of the movie even when he’s not on screen.
But what really sets Skyfall apart from other Bond films is atmosphere. It’s shot like a film noir, always half in shadow capturing perfectly the visual of the film’s recurrent discussion of the shadowy world of espionage. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, frequent collaborator of both Mendes and the Coen Brothers, does a brilliant job lensing the movie, every setting has a different look, and every local pops and engrosses you on the screen. I didn’t see Skyfall in IMAX, but I can assume that it’s a real treat in that format. From the skyline of Shanghai to the countryside of Scotland, to the underground of London, Bond has rarely looked better.
Of course, this being the 50th anniversary of 007, there’s some nice call backs to the series’ legacy. Bond’s classic Aston Martin DB5 makes an appearance, and there are a couple of in-jokes and references to adventures’ past. What’s more interesting is that there are a couple of developments too good to spoil that really sell this Bond as a throwback to the good old days even as it confronts the murky world of global terrorism in the 21st century as the threat that Bond must continually overcome. Let’s just say that Q isn’t the only classic Bond character to be given new life by the time the credits role.
Bottom line, I think those fans that liked the direction Casino Royale was going in, but thought that Quantum of Solace was maybe a bridge too far, are going to find a reason to get excited again with Skyfall. I also think it makes a permanent statement that there’s no room in this Bond universe for megalomaniacal schemes aiming to start World War III, or indulgences like invisible cars and exploding pens. The real world is fraught with enough possibility for danger to fill a lifetime of Bond films without bringing doomsday devices into it. We’ll leave that to the Batman films now.