After fifty years and twenty-three Bond films, I can safely assure you that Agent 007 is still busily pursuing anonymous henchmen aboard moving vehicles, seducing women by simply turning around and looking at them, and refusing to ascend skyscrapers in the pedestrian fashion. But, like Casino Royale six years earlier, Bond has been revitalized and reinvigorated in nearly every way. Skyfall‘s motto may very well be out with the old and in with the new, but ironically the film’s ending – I shan’t say a word – leaves us with the sense that this is just the beginning, and that Bond is as fresh and as relevant as it was when Sean Connery walked into M’s office all those years ago in Dr. No.
The plot, like most Bonds, is of little importance. There is the obligatory opening chase sequence, which is smashing in both senses of the word. Bond is chasing an Anonymous Henchman who’s stolen a hard drive containing a list of all of MI6’s undercover spies, because highly impractical and risky MacGuffins like that are made to be stolen by Anonymous Henchmen. Never mind. We are taken through a tour de force chase sequence that slyly pays homage to the earlier two films in the rebooted franchise, Martin Campbell’s masterful Casino Royale and Marc Forster’s abysmal Quantum of Solace. The latter begins with a rooftop foot chase, and Skyfall one-ups it with a rooftop motorcycle chase. Later, Bond commandeers a crane, like he did so famously in Casino Royale – but this time, it’s situated atop a high-speed train. It’s as if director Sam Mendes is grinning and saying “just you wait until the next scene.”
Following Adele’s gravitating theme song, we proceed to the requisite scenes in which Bond reveals he is not, after all, dead (he’s simply been playing drinking games on the beach), and must go through basic training once more to prove he is fit for active duty. We are introduced to the crackerjack supporting cast, which finds several high-caliber new faces joining Judi Dench, who reprises the familiar role of acerbic MI6 head “M” with a new level of poignance. The poor woman has a lot of troubles heaped onto her plate all at once, it seems – she’s fending off mysterious cyber attacks which tell her to “THINK ON YOUR SINS”, in addition to Ralph Fiennes’ slinky new government bureaucrat who may or may not want M’s job. The rebooted series has finally introduced Q, who’s here played by Cloud Atlas‘s cerebral Ben Whishaw. The new Q is exceptionally young, which has given the screenwriters opportunity for plenty of wisecracks. The film’s most traditional Bond girl (played with spunk by Naomie Harris) is absent for most of the film, and auspicious though her character may be, one gets the feeling that M is this film’s leading lady, thank you very much.
The film proceeds as any in the series might. Bond travels to Shanghai, where he tracks the same Anonymous Henchman from earlier in the film and seduces the villain’s mistress (who’s played with scene-chewing insecurity by Bérénice Marlohe). 007 finagles his way into the villain’s island layer, and is introduced to the sociopathic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a personal vendetta against M who now leads the world in cyber terrorism. Bardem plays Silva with an aura of menace and anarchy not dissimilar to Heath Ledger’s now-iconic Joker portrayal. His opening monologue is well-written and chillingly performed, as is his rather sexually charged encounter with Bond. Well-done as it may be, this is all the stuff of Bonds past – an amiable, thrilling popcorn muncher, replete with a handful of dry one-liners.
Then the table is flipped upside down and inside out. Bond and Silva engage in a wild chase sequence throughout the bowels of MI6 and the London Underground, and this time, M is not safe behind her desk at headquarters. She is in the thick of the action, and indeed targeted by both her own government and by old enemies. There’s a fantastic scene in which M must submit herself to a public hearing dissecting her department’s many faults (look sharp for Harry Potter’s Helen McCrory as the committee head), and M reads poetry in a final appeal to the court while Bond rushes to save her from imminent danger. What on earth could top watching a Bond chase as you listen to Judi Dench read poetry?
Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s photographed Fargo, True Grit, The Shawshank Redemption, and a bevy of other beautifully crafted films, invest this Bond with a dark and obfuscated cinematic vision. The finale is remarkably different from each preceding Bond – they all took place during the day, or else in the interior of the villain’s spectacular lair – in that it is set in the middle of the night, and on Bond’s turf. This time, infiltration is abandoned around the two hour mark, and we are left with a finale that is gothic and emotionally draining. It is quite clear that the heroes are on the defensive.
For the well-watched viewer, Mendes has inserted a number of references and homages. An encounter with a Komodo dragon recalls Roger Moore’s visit to an alligator farm in Live and Let Die, and Raoul Silva’s prison cell eerily reminds us of Hannibal Lecter’s in The Silence of the Lambs. Many shots and ideas from the middle third of the film are lifted from Christopher Nolan’s trailblazing superhero epic The Dark Knight, and stuffy cinephiles may smile at the sewer chase from The Third Man.
What of Daniel Craig as Bond? It occurs to me just now that I have not mentioned him this entire review. He is now a natural as Bond, the audience fully accepts him as the character. Craig does not have Connery’s charm, nor Moore’s humor, nor Brosnan’s cool, but he has a method to his brutish bluntness that makes us realize how deep and vulnerable a character this is, or at the very least has the capacity to be. We buy him murdering Anonymous Henchmen, we buy him driving around the old Aston Martin, and we buy him trading quips with his gruff Scottish groundskeeper (none other than Albert Finney).
The secret of this long-running franchise’s continued success is its ability to adapt. It is willing to take risks and go down new avenues, to varying success. I’ve seen all twenty-three Bonds now, and I have seen a host of good ones, several bad ones, and numerous in between. I am glad to have seen them all. To watch a Bond movie is to revisit a place of mind, a place in which gambling and getting the girl is far more importing than saving the world, though 007 will always get around to that. With Skyfall, the series has given us fully fleshed-out characters, and a dark, adult new world for our aging hero. Who knows what horrendous megalomaniacs will befall our hero next? Whoever (and whatever) it may be, I will certainly be there.
FINAL RATING: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Dark, draining, and surprisingly deep, Skyfall is a new breed of Bond movie – and indeed, a new breed of thriller – that stretches the characters and the series to new heights. For those who’re keeping track, this one is almost as good as Casino Royale.