Casino Royale wisely revitalized James Bond for modern times, shedding off forty-some years of baggage to meet the character back at the start – it was a rousing success. Quantum of Solace continued this new Bond’s progress though it sputtered throughout, making for a satisfying yet emotionally flat jaunt that did the character no real disservices.
And yet it wasn’t long ago the future of 007 was bathed in doubt. In all of MGM’s recent financial turmoil, James Bond’s post-Quantum of Solace absence seemed to be the most glaring example of a studio on the brink. Yet between Sony’s intervention, MGM’s recovery from bankruptcy, and the studios’ willingness to pare down the budget to a more manageable $150 million, one of cinema’s most iconic characters made his way back from the edge just in time to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. As far as golden anniversaries are concerned, Skyfall is a triumph.
A lot of that’s due to the upgrade inherent with hiring a director like Sam Mendes – a consistent deliverer of quality work with efforts such as American Beauty and Jarhead. The Broccolis entrusted him with shaking up Bond’s world, yet by the end we’re even closer to that classic Bond that was muted in Casino Royale and, to a greater extent, Quantum. From an opening motorcycle chase (that blows Bourne Legacy‘s away) to a final showdown that sets the sky on fire, Sam Mendes makes a statement as a worthy action director. There’s a scene where Bond breaks a guys neck running full speed and barely misses a stride. And though unconventional, there are two inventive beats involving Bond trying to catch up to trains. Few franchises manage what Mendes accomplishes here, crafting an action film that treads new ground while maintaining an air of familiarity throughout.
Which isn’t to say Bond’s more roguish qualities from the two films previous have been dismantled, in fact they’re amplified. Daniel Craig casts an imposing figure as he continues to portray a Bond increasingly unhinged; his calm, collected veneer enveloping a mess of rage, pill-addiction, alcoholism and self-destructiveness. With Skyfall, I feel like we now know Bond better than any film prior. The character is reduced to his most vunerable and human, and he had to take a few knocks to even get to that point. Through all of it Craig plays Bond’s charm and sexual charisma as weapons no different than that sleek, new Walther PPK entrusted to him by his new Quartermaster (Cloud Atlas‘ Ben Whishaw, again one of the best things in the film he appears in). Sex, charisma, handguns; they’re all tools the agent uses on the job, a job Craig’s Bond revels in, almost sadistically. For me there’s no question that Craig’s status as the best Bond is secured – providing more layers and nuances to the character than the accumulation of what’d come before.
But I’d argue that Bond shares top-billing in Skyfall, as the film belongs as much to M (Dame Judi Dench in her finest contribution to the series) as it does 007. With appearances in seven films, Dench now surpasses even Sean Connery in time served with the franchise (she’s now tied with Roger Moore), making her perhaps the truest “Bond Girl” of the series. Prior to Casino, Dench’s M was portrayed as something of a know-it-all, a stoic character expected to provide the answers when Bond could not. That seemed to change with Craig’s arrival, as their scenes together have skewed far more personal than the Brosnan-era. Casino suggested an almost familial level of respect and admiration. In Solace, it was clear that M was cutting corners on Bond’s behalf to keep him in play. Now, with Skyfall, she’s downright fallible as an old acquaintance looks to remind her of past sins.
That acquaintance is Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, who at this point should start a cottage industry playing iconic bad guys. Bardem’s Silva is perhaps my favorite Bond villain to date. What little commonalities he shares with Sean Bean’s Trevelyan in Goldeneye, it’s now evident that rogue MI6 agents serve as the best Bond adversaries. Bardem’s performance is so of its own wavelength and gravitas that it’s beyond comparison. There are two scenes close together that mirror each other. One where Bond is a prisoner and the other where Silva is the one being imprisoned. Yet Bardem holds the upper hand in both. Fair warning, they make a significantly bold choice with this character amounting to what I suspect will be the most controversial Bond scene ever, at least here in the States. Personally, I loved it as it added intriguing shades to both characters.
This is Bond’s most personal narrative, surprisingly so. Mendes’ film begins with a wide scope and he proceeds to spend the rest of the film zeroing in. Unfortunately it deflates the film somewhat. Nothing after Shanghai is as exhilarating or visually appealing, and the film suffers to keep you entertained for the next hour. There’s a pivotal scene involving an assassination attempt that, had it played out successfully, would have propelled the last act of the film into a fiery revenge piece. As is, the story skews mundane as Bond again inherits the role of protector, one he’s served so many times throughout his existance. As Silva’s endgame narrows so too do the stakes, leading to a final confrontation that’s reminiscent of Home Alone of all films. Kevin McCallister would be proud of Bond’s skills booby-trapping a house.
At two hours and twenty-three minutes, Skyfall still feels like a brisk product. It could’ve benefitted from a few minor cuts, as some scenes linger a touch long. For the most part it’s an eminently satisfying endeavor, one that puts the character through his paces yet still pays lipservice to the status quo. Fans of Bond will be left with new things to like about the character while newcomers will find plenty of action and dazzling set pieces to grab onto. Similar to Casino Royale, Skyfall‘s ending once again represents a new beginning for Bond, yet it’s one that’ll prove familiar to longtime fans of the series. Where the franchise jets off next is anyone’s guess; but, aside from a few minor missteps, Skyfall is a great place to land for now.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars