Sometimes fate can deliver a positive blow. Had studio MGM not have had a bankruptcy quagmire, the twenty third entry of the lucrative James Bond series may not have occurred during the series’ golden anniversary. Cinema-wise James Bond turns the big 5-0 this year. And what better way to celebrate than by delivering one of the best Bonds in the film canon. Having loved the 2006 release Casino Royale, where I acknowledged that the days of the “Cool, Unflappable Bond” were over, I would sour on its follow-up Quantum of Solace, proclaiming Bond to be “Bourne Again” – a playful dig at borrowing too much from The Bourne Identity playbook in terms of style.
Skyfall boasts a lot of prestige in front and behind the camera, from an Oscar-winning director and Oscar winners in two key roles, but the series has always been about the man who sports the tux while brandishing a Walther PPK in one hand and a martini that’s shaken not stirred in the other. Though lately, Heineken has become the secret agent’s go to beverage. (Got to love those product placement tie-ins.)
From the moment Daniel Craig made his appearance as Bond six years ago he’s been the subject of much discussion, ranging from trivial pursuits as sporting sandy blonde hair to not appearing as suave as some of the Bond forbearers. With piercing blue eyes and a face that looks like its been through basic training hell Craig as Bond shows a lot of wear, but he moves and reacts with confidence having found that stride of becoming an experienced double-oh agent.
Unquestionably, Craig is the best Bond since Connery. What he lacks in Connery’s suaveness he makes up for in sheer commitment for not trying to mimic Roger Moore’s silliness or Pierce Brosnan’s attempts at being a British John McClane. (Thankfully, we were saved from an obligatory “Yippee-kay-yay” but with “Queen Mother” attached at the end.)
When the decision was made to have Sam Mendes guide James Bond’s twenty-third outing it seemed like a strange hire. Yet, it was a step above Quantum of Solace’s Marc Forster. Both have helmed their fair share of prestige pics, however Mendes has a more impressive resume as far as styles and genres are concerned. Skyfall may be his first attempt at helming a franchise action movie, but he capably shows he can direct escapist fare.
From the opening shot to his staging of action sequences Mendes sprinkles this action-thriller with moments of artistry showing he has a firm grip on the character and his surroundings. The scene that will have moviephiles spellbound is a confrontation in the shadows with the electrified backdrop of Shanghai in the background.
Mendes has gone on record and said that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was an inspiration for the direction he wanted to take James Bond in Skyfall. Instead of just being one extravagant set piece after another, both the story and the Bond character have enough drama and pathos to drive the action. More than any superhero movie or action-thriller this year Skyfall is the total package. Mendes and company challenge the status quo by making a feature that at the very least defies perceptions while also adhering to what has made the series work so successful for fifty years.
With the Jason Bourne series heavily influencing Craig’s first two outings as Bond, Mendes gives the audience what they have come to expect before slowly transitioning back to the roots of the series. Some might see this as a regression, but the callbacks to the Golden Age of Bond will be seen a blessing to long-time fans who have remained trusty stalwarts.
Opening with a pre-credits action sequence in Istanbul that puts the rooftop foot chase of Taken 2 in its place – it climaxes on a moving train, and who doesn’t enjoy fisticuffs while a train is in motion? – the scene ends in shocking fashion with Bond being left for dead. When he resurfaces after things get dicey for MI6 there are no party streamers or balloons awaiting his return, just a “Where the hell have you been?” from M (Judi Dench).
Far from being physically or mentally fit to return to active service, Bond is thrust back into the world of foreign intelligence for Her Majesty’s Government to locate a hard drive containing the identities of all embedded field agents before it can be completely decrypted. The “MacGuffin” sees Bond hopping from London to Shanghai to Macau before being ensnared by the villainous Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva isn’t obsessed with world domination; he just wants revenge on his former MI6 employers, holding them responsible for his torture and imprisonment in China.
The Dark Knight inspirations show in Javier Bardem’s performance as Silva. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker the two villains are compatible to their hero counterparts in striking fashion, as if they were different sides of the same coin. Bardem’s commitment to the role – him dying his hair blonde is as disturbing as his Beatles hairdo in No Country for Old Men – like having the script translated in his native Spanish language so he could better understand the character, shows his dedication. Silva is a damaged man that acts over-the-top at times but his cartoonish antics don’t rival say Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies as a media giant who wanted to provoke a war between the U.S. and China so he could expand his empire.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a James Bond guy, having neither watched the entire series of films nor read the Ian Fleming novels that predate the start the film series by nearly a decade, but there seems to be a greater emotional resonance this time around. Casino Royale may have stripped Bond of his armor, as the character puts it, in his relationship with Vesper Lynd. But Skyfall further explores the M/007 relationship. As the story unearths new details about James Bond’s childhood, making the film feel that much more like an origin story (but not enough as totally reveal the mystery of 007), we have a greater understanding of the dynamic that exists between them.
Skyfall has a few wink-wink moments that has Bond driving a well equipped Aston Martin, trading barbs with a younger Q (Ben Whishaw), sharing glances with a fellow agent named Eve (Naomi Harris), and finding M’s boss, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), to be just another bureaucratic aggravation.
Proving that a picture is worth a thousand words Roger Deakins’ cinematography is nothing short of exquisite. Having lensed most of the Coen Brothers films and acted as a visual consultant for animated fare like Rango and Wall-E, Deakins brings with him an adherence to traditional filmmaking with a reliance on color and framing. The scintillating fight scene in Shanghai is but one prime example. The action choreography has an old-school approach that is nice and stable, which is a plus for viewers tired of experiencing motion sickness. Composer Thomas Newman who, like Deakins has been a frequent collaborator of Mendes, continues the old-school feel by incorporating the traditional Monty Norman/John Barry “James Bond Theme” – when the chords are struck it is for a moment that will leave Bond aficionados in a tizzy. Add Adele’s opening song, “Skyfall,” and you have a composition that is reminiscent of the Shirley Bassey numbers from films like Goldfinger and Moonraker.
All the callbacks to the cinematic history of James Bond aside, perhaps MGM’s financial woes were a blessing. It’s taken four years for us to get Skyfall and Sam Mendes just knocks it out of the park. Maybe this is a lesson for Hollywood to not be quick to capitalize and churn out a sequel so soon (Quantum of Solace arrived two years after Casino Royale), or at the very least seek out preeminent talent to direct. For a feature that is content to celebrate Bond 50 just know that three films into Daniel Craig’s run as the secret agent, Bond is back and he’s better than ever.
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan based off the literary character “James Bond” created by Ian Fleming
Notable Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney