Before Daniel Craig was bestowed with the license to kill, I was never a James Bond fan. I thought the exploits of the MI6 agent were just too…quite frankly, stupid. To be fair I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but the few I did see did nothing for me; they were just cheesy artifacts, too busy winking at action and thriller tropes to be taken seriously as movies. Perhaps my biggest problem was that James Bond wasn’t a character; he was an idea, a male fantasy that didn’t have anything going on in his head and just beat up bad guys and slept with every partially lobotomized woman he met. After the CGI-mad clusterfuck that was 2002’s “Die Another Day” the franchise either needed to die or be reborn. “Casino Royale” was such a breath of fresh air; a movie that turned James Bond into a full-bodied, reckless character capable of getting his heart shattered into pieces. Daniel Craig was the perfect choice for 007. His work in “Layer Cake” and “Munich” showed he could be ice-cold and ruthless, but vulnerable at the same time. Unfortunately, Marc Foster’s shaky-cam and an incomplete script made the follow-up, “Quantum of Solace,” a massive disappointment that lost the thread that “Casino Royale” established so brilliantly. For the latest installment, “Skyfall,” the Broccoli family handed the reigns over to Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”), who was an esteemed if unconventional choice to continue the franchise.
But bringing in new blood and a renewed focus on the sensibilities established by “Casino Royale” were just what we needed. “Skyfall” is an immaculate, exhilarating piece of popular entertainment that succeeds by once again stripping the series to its very essence, but the most fascinating thing about it is that it’s a character study designed as an action movie.
The movie begins with Bond and a new female operative named Eve (Naomi Harris) in Istanbul chasing down a man who has stolen a hard drive containing a list of all the double-0 operatives in MI6. Bond chases him by train, car and motorcycle until he is accidentally shot by Eve and is left for dead in the river. Bond’s superior M (Judy Dench) doesn’t have time to mourn for him. She is dealing with an unknown enemy hellbent on destroying her and MI6, and her failure to protect her agents’ identities has forced the British government to investigate by sending a rep from the Prime Minister’s office, Mallory (a solid if underused Ralph Fiennes) to start a transfer of power.
Meanwhile, Bond is indisposed of, drowning his past and his current defeat in alcohol and women. James Bond is a broken man; plagued by gunshot wounds, bad legs and the greatest affliction of all, age. Him and M are in a world where they are becoming relics at the mercy of anyone who knows how to use a computer. Bond’s condition doesn’t improve when he comes back to the fold to find the stolen list; he’s weakened, he can’t shoot straight, and his own country is tentative to trust him and MI6 again.
Who wants to destroy M? What is “Skyfall,” and why does Bond bristle at hearing it during a personality test? To answer the second question would reveal one of the many surprises lurking in the excellent script by Robert Wade, Neil Purvis and John Logan. But the villain of this piece is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent with a personal vendetta against Bond and M.
Of all the Bond films, “Skyfall” is one of the smallest in terms of scale. There’s no grand plot to blow up the world or a plethora of ridiculous gadgets from Q,(who returns to the franchise in the form of the young, nerdy Ben Whishaw). “Skyfall” is about people at the end of their rope, who have to prove that they still have a place in the world. Mendes the director said “The Dark Knight” was a huge influence on his approach to “Skyfall.” Just like how Christopher Nolan showed Batman as a broken man trying to fix a broken world, “Skyfall” finally shows Bond as a flawed human being, with a haunted past and an uncertain future. The great Daniel Craig once again puts his own spin on the role of Bond, making him tenacious and unrelenting, but realistically so. There’s a weariness behind his ice-cold blue eyes and impeccably tailored suits. His tenuous relationship with M is also tested, as Bond begins to question M’s willingness to sacrifice agents for the prime directive. In a film that doesn’t have a traditional “Bond girl,” Dench tears into the role as M, making her a stubborn, tragic figure, finally letting some remorse seep in when her way of life is under siege.
Silva, a victim of M’s habit of abandoning agents, has let revenge mentally (as well as physically) warp him into a sadistic madman. Bardem plays Silva like the hellspawn of Liberace and Anton Chigurh, the now-legendary hit man from “No Country for Old Men,” which won Bardem an Oscar. We don’t see or even know Silva’s name until almost an hour into “Skyfall,” and his introduction; walking toward a tied-up Bond with an monologue on how to trap rats, drips with unsettling menace. He is easily the best villain the series has ever had because he wants to destroy the souls of M and Bond, not Earth. Bardem has the ability to make you think his character is over-the-top, without ever raising his voice. He is able to suggest the outlandish nature of his character through a haircut and speech patterns. It’s an astonishing display of feral, yet coiffed, malice.
Mendes makes this meaty, character-driven story come to life on screen, mixing his elegant, old-fashioned approach to character with a surprisingly sure hand in the action scenes The opening chase is cleanly edited and shot, a revelation in the shaky-cam era. He also uses long takes and tracking shots, making what is so incoherent in lesser movies so enveloping here. His partner in crime is the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. It’s hard to put into words how beautifully shot this movie is. The chase in Turkey is a sun-drenched blur, a casino in Macau is given a burnt-gold sheen, and a rooftop confrontation between Bond and an impossible informant is shot entirely in silhouette, with a backdrop of neon lights from the adjacent towers (my favorite scene of any movie this year), and the final showdown in Scotland, at a place tied to Bond’s past, is an overcast tapestry of fog and dust. Deakins and Mendes put effort into every frame in this film, which is why it is a career peak for both of them.
“Skyfall” is also a new peak for the James Bond series because it acknowledges that its characters have pasts, demons that feed into why they do what they do. Filled with surprises that change the way we look at these characters (including a fantastic cameo from Albert Finney). One of the final shots in “Skyfall” has James Bond, looking out at the London skyline. The series, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is like England itself. Stubborn, regal, and ready to face the future on it’s own terms. “Skyfall” is Bond redefined, by way of using the past as prologue for a revitalized future.