Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Crime
Director(s): Sam Mendes
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
After spending a few decades as little more than a vehicle for mindless, cheesy entertainment and cheeky, if tiresome double-entendres, it became clear that the James Bond franchise was in dire need of reinvention. Along came Paul Haggis, fresh from his post-Crash success (debatable to this day) who, along with MGM, agreed on discarding the last 40 years of Bond and starting anew, creating a familiar character with more human qualities and weaknesses. The result was the Martin Campbell-helmed Casino Royale, a criticially acclaimed return to form for the series, displaying an arrogant, comparatively frail version of the titular spy in the form of a typically glum Daniel Craig. Restoring much of what made Bond such a memorable and enduring franchise, Casino Royale also laid out the groundwork for not only its successors but a possible direct sequel. That sequel, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, saw Marc Forster stepping into the director’s chair and discarding nearly every single change that was made with the reboot, instead constructing a generic action thriller with an obnoxious amount of quick cuts and an identity crisis. To deem it a disappointment would be a severe understatement.
Following the announcement of Skyfall, the 23rd film in the franchise, MGM seemed keen to hire someone with much more credibility (sorry Marc) to improve word-of-mouth while also ensuring a highly bankable run; following a tight financial struggle which nearly saw the famed studio shut its doors, this was meant as a rebirth of sorts. With Sam Mendes stepping in, bringing with him the talented Roger Deakins on cinematography, there was much speculation regarding whether this Bond film would push for something more than just box office numbers; after all, the franchise has only ever been nominated for a couple of technical awards. In many ways, Skyfall is the Bond film fans and film enthusiasts have been yearning for years, yet it feels much more significant than that. Where Casino Royale was the jump-starter the series needed to be taken seriously, Mendes’ film represents a push towards a more sophisticated, character-driven chapter in the spy’s long career, preserving what made the franchise so endurable and ushering in a new era marked by change and much-needed maturity.
Opening in Istanbul, Bond (Daniel Craig) is hot on the trails of a trained assassin, responsible for murdering a handful of agents and stealing a hard-drive belonging to MI6, the contents of which are unknown. Aided by a fellow MI6 agent named Eve (Naomie Harris), the pair pursue the hitman through the streets and railways before reaching a tall railway bridge. As Bond attempts to wrestle him down atop a moving locomotive, Eve, stationed nearby, can’t seem to get a clear shot; faced with a dilemma, M (Judi Dench) preemptively orders it, hitting and sending Bond plunging headfirst into the currents below. Despite surviving the fall, Bond begins to question his loyalty to his boss, who seemingly knows more than she’s willing to reveal. As MI6 and its staff become targeted in a string of attacks, and M grows more and more restless by the day, 007 must find the man responsible, even if it means unearthing a troubled history. Whereas the stories in the Brosnan-led era of the franchise merely served as excuses for elaborate, often unbelievable set pieces, Skyfall‘s more personal ambitions and comparatively modest action sequences grant the material more weight than previously, grounding its characters in a tightly woven narrative that, more often than not, feels refreshing and honest. That’s not to say Skyfall is an entirely brooding experience however; the film is rife with commendable comic relief and old-fashioned Connery-era madness (a certain restaurant scene will have Bond fans grinning with joy) while keeping a firm grip on its identity over its entire runtime. The fact that most of it takes place in Bond’s very own London, England is just the icing on the cake.
Of course, none of this would matter if Skyfall‘s performances fell short, though thankfully, Mendes’ hand is felt in this department. Any doubts regarding Daniel Craig’s take on the titular secret agent are quickly washed away by a performance that reveals more depth to the character than ever before; not since Connery was in his shoes has Bond been this cheeky and yet equally rugged and brutal. For the first time ever, Skyfall actually makes you care for 007 by maintaining his various, tried and true characteristics (his womanizing ways, his cheeky sense of humor, his cold and calculated plan of action) and establishing his flaws while searching deep into his past for clues into his tortured outlook on life. Craig’s distinct gaze and cold, monotone delivery work tremendously as he embodies the character and makes us remember why Bond is such a longstanding character. This is as much Bond’s film as it is M’s however, with Judi Dench taking center stage in the film’s conflict and delivering what can easily be characterized as her best performance in the franchise. Dench brings forth an urgency to the character which in turn solidifies her relationship with Bond while also providing her some actual legs to stand on; no longer is she simply confined to mid-mission comedy and witty quips. It’s a powerful performance that’s bound to get a few nods come awards season.
For many fans, a Bond film can ultimately go through a multitude of tonal and aesthetics directions; it’s the villain that keeps the film from being a colossal misfire or a resounding ricochet. With Oscar-winner Javier Bardem’s Silva, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan have intelligently backed away from the lazy and forgettable villain of its predecessor (Quantum‘s Dominic Greene) and created a fresh yet decidedly old-fashioned antagonist. Flowing with extravagance yet undeniably sly and unreliable, Silva is a textbook example of what makes a great Bond villain. For one, he’s entirely grounded in reality, eschewing the mindbogglingly elaborate and impossible plans of world domination brought forth by previous villains (Moonraker‘s facist Hugo Drax or Die Another Day‘s Gustav Graves) in favor of a venomous, intricate and ultimately flexible scheme. His ability to infuse any scene with discomfort and unease at the flip of a coin is absolutely spellbinding and Bardem is very obviously having a blast toying with 007 and M at every turn. Like Casino Royale‘s Le Chiffre however, Silva doesn’t get quite as much screen time as he so desperately deserves, considering his magnetic presence. Given the film’s story arc and where Mendes takes our agent however, this limited and tasteful dose ultimately benefits the film and leaves us wanting more.
The rest of the cast fair quite well too, ushering with them a suitable and refreshingly new atmosphere to MI6. Given that Casino Royale marked a stylistic and thematic reinvention for James Bond as a name, the writers were essentially given carte blanche to rekindle and essentially refamiliarize audiences with some of their most beloved characters of yore. Indeed, Skyfall marks the grand return of Q, Bond’s go-to for everything gadget and tech related, though there is a twist. Portrayed elegantly by Ben Whishaw, this new Q is a self-confident, reasonably cocky and exceedingly clever young man; the younger age and more assertive attitude result in some great, often hilarious exchanges between Craig’s 007 and Whishaw’s Q, as well as a believable chemistry. Naomie Harris portrays Eve, a new addition to the MI6 team who serves as Bond’s sidekick for much of the mission. What she lacks in experience in the field she makes up for in dedication and perseverance, ultimately saving 007 on a number of occasions. The pair also engage in numerous cheeky conversations, rife with double entendres that actually evoke laughter instead of groans (thankfully, none of them stoop to Christmas Jones levels). Harris does a fine job and efficiently secures her place within the team for films to come. Ralph Fiennes also lends his hand as a new character, though revealing any more would only fuel speculation.
Now that all that has been taken care of, let’s get down to business: Skyfall is simply put the most gorgeous film I’ve seen all year. Quite possibly the greatest aspect to benefit from Sam Mendes’ involvement with the franchise is the film’s cinematic scope. While the film’s ambitions mostly remain grounded and focused, Roger Deakins’ involvement guarantees a visionary, almost painterly quality to the film, injecting nearly every shot with dense layers of symbolism and meaning. Skyfall‘s third, meditative act greatly benefits from this, framing some of the film’s most jaw-dropping shots and sequences. This is Roger Deakins’ film and it shows beautifully. The gorgeous, foggy mountainside of Scotland serves as an awe-inspiring panorama of Western-influenced desolation and beauty, as well as a symbolic lack of clarity for Bond. This meticulous attention to detail makes for an adventure that’s both highly entertaining and surprisingly sophisticated. Having worked on some of the greatest and most iconic films of the last 2 decades, including nearly every film by the Coen Brothers, it’s time Deakins earns what he deserves; an Oscar. Given his work on Skyfall, this should be his year.
At 143 minutes, Skyfall, like its predecessors, feels a bit lengthy. Given how much richer and rewarding this iteration is however, it’s length is now more justifiable than ever before. Given that the market is seemingly over-saturated with mindless special effects-driven blockbusters and comic book epics, Skyfall is the rare blockbuster action film that could; a film for just about any film lover, no matter how casual or deeply invested. Anchored by a triumvirate of fantastic performances, a cheeky, timely sense of humor amidst a dark, personal tale of redemption and the mastery of the camera eye by Roger Deakins, this is the most interesting and reinvigorating Bond film in decades. In short, Skyfall is exactly what the Bond franchise needed to solidify its existence and legacy, proving that turning 50 doesn’t in turn mean slowing down; on the contrary, this is one to watch out for come awards season. You couldn’t ask for a better birthday present.