Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
(MGM; US theatrical: 8 Nov 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 26 Oct 2012 (General release); 2012)
By now, the entire franchise should be faltering, if not dead. After 50 years, nearly as many movies, and several changes in leading man, the saga of MI6 agent 007, also known as James Bond, should be stale…and for a while, it was. With Roger Moore behind the dashing British secret agent, the series went from the sensational (Sean Connery) to the merely adequate. Then a veritable revolving door of actors attempted to translate Ian Fleming’s famous spy to the screen. In the latest, Daniel Craig, the series got a shot in the arm both in performance and persona. Brooding, sexy, and undeniably damaged, this latest update of the character can carry even the most mediocre project (see: Quantum of Solace). With Skyfall, there’s no need for such heavy lifting. Both the movie and its macho center represent Bond at his very, very best.
After an attempt to retrieve a computer hard drive goes wrong, Bond (Craig) find himself on top of a train, battling for his life. An errant shot from a fellow agent (Naomie Harris) leaves everyone assuming the worst. In the meantime, M (Dame Judi Dench) becomes the target of a cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) with a score to settle from the past. She is also in trouble with the government, constantly criticized by her new boss (Ralph Fiennes) for her “old fashioned” ways. When MI6 is attacked directly, Bond makes a miraculous return and decides to stop this madman before it’s too late. Little does he know that he will have to revisit his troubled youth, and return to the home that began his eventual life as a muddled man of mystery.
Perhaps it’s time to give director Sam Mendes a break. Perpetually complained over as the man who robbed the rest of the field with his 2000 Oscar win for American Beauty (go back and Google the other nominees and see if said theory holds any legitimate weight), he has consistently delivered interesting and challenging films, from the aforementioned Academy fave to Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Away We Go. Skyfall is no different. It wants to take the entire James Bond concept and reboot it to fit a more modern, post-millennial ideal. Oh sure - we still get the standard sex and violence, but this time there is depth to the destruction, as well as an aura of melancholy and despair. You can sense that Skyfall wants to shake things up, to convert the formerly suave and sophisticated secret agent into something he’s rarely been on film - a real human being.
This is a Bond who drinks too much, whose eyes are red from an overabundance of liquor and regret. This is a Bond who lost his parents when he was young, whose status as an orphan made him perfect for recruitment and a license to kill. The backstory explains a lot - the bed-hopping, the presumed death wish, the struggles with authority. Before, it seemed like Bond was merely a well-connected bully, a man on a mission who could use any means at his disposal to complete his directives. Now, our 21st century version is more vulnerable and less mercenary. In Craig, there’s a sadness behind the eyes that strives to explain the endless martinis, the lack of a partner, and his effectiveness as a killing machine. We are supposed to view Bond in a different light, and Mendes’ makes Skyfall such a showcase.
So does his choice of villain. In Bardem, we get the kind of adversary that many post-modern movies love to throw at us - the crazy cool psychopath. But in this case, Mr. Silver (or Silva, depending on the interpretation) is not just insane…he’s intent. He wants his revenge and has spent years in pain and problem solving to get it. This is the kind of man who can manipulate the world of computers and counterintelligence to blow up buildings, set-up supposedly smarter adversaries, and defeat his enemies with brains instead of brawn. With his twinkling eyes and possible homosexual leanings (there is a terrific scene between Silver and a tied-up Bond that just reeks of unrequited lust) Bardem gets us to buy every facet of this character - his drive, his determination, and his dementia.
As for Mendes, well, he serves up the standard splash. The opening train fight is fabulous, utilizing elements who don’t normally see in such a setpiece. But then the rest of the film moderates its action. There are also some flashy fistcuffs in a neon-glow Shanghai skyscraper and a chase through the streets of London. But the best bit may be at the end, when we return to the title estate and watch Bond prepare to take on Silver and his henchmen. It’s all so very Straw Dogs. Meticulous, suspenseful, and epic in its conclusion, it’s a fitting way to put Bond’s past to rest once and for all. Better still, Mendes adds an aura of horror to the mix, turning the massive, decaying mansion into an unsettling piece of potential fear. For all the hate, the director is magnificent here. He takes a solid script that spends a lot of time in the interior and brings it to stunning, successful life.
That’s what makes Skyfall one of the best Bonds in years, if not ever. It’s a combination of the old and the new, the predictable and the completely unexpected. Some in the fanbase may froth at the liberties taken. Others will wonder why there aren’t more sexy Bond babes to ogle or more splashy Q-inspired gadgets for our hero to play with (at least one of those complaints is easily explained). For them, there is a seminal moment when our spy must rescue one of his own. Needing a diversion, he drives to a deserted part of town and trades ‘down’ his current ultra modern luxury vehicle for - well, why spoil the obvious surprise. In fact, it’s safe to say that this film both defies and redefines expectation. Sam Mendes and his talent have done the franchise proud. Where does Bond go from here? The Skyfall‘s the limit…and then some.