50 years ago a misogynistic, casually alcoholic British spy began his quest to bed every beautiful woman in the world and stop the occasional threat of world domination along the way. His name was Bond, James Bond and a legend was born.
The folks behind the most successful franchise in the history of film have been flaunting the historical significance of their latest chapter in the superspy cycle for months in a risky gambit that could have easily been a mistake. Sure, it’s always good to get the brand name some publicity, but by reminding audiences of some of the greatest action films to ever blow up things real good on the big screen, Skyfall comes out with bigger expectations than usually face the latest chapter of fluffy spy adventures. Having seen the film, clearly the folks behind this blockbuster knew what they were doing. Skyfall will forever more be mentioned in conversations ranking the greatest James Bond films and there’s a chance that it might even be the best one ever produced. The film might even qualify as being the best action movie of the 2012 and considering a little blockbuster called The Avengers was released in the calendar year, that’s really saying something.
Skyfall opens, like all James Bond films, in the middle of an action scene. Bond (Daniel Craig) is in the midst of a train-hoping chase with the fate of MI6 hanging in the balance (ain’t that always the way, sigh…). Another agent (Naomie Harris) has a sniper rifle aimed at Bond and the culprit and she has a shot, but worries James might get caught in the crossfire. M (Judy Dench) orders the shot anyways and Bond is hit, sent plummeting into a river and the theme for this movie kicks in. Bond isn’t dead of course (sorry for the spoiler if you’re an idiot) and he soon comes out of personal exile when the British secret service is attacked by terrorists and M’s life is directly threatened. This isn’t the fresh-faced rookie Bond of Casino Royale though. He seems to have gone through all of the adventures from the previous films since Quantum Of Solace and is beaten down, a relic of a former era. The MI6 is in hiding after the attack and Bond sets out to discover what all the fuss is about. He’s given a few gadgets from Q (Ben Whishaw) and sent out to discover possibly his most psychotic villain to date in Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva is a former agent with a personal vendetta against M and an internet-based army of terrorists who could be anywhere (no crocodile-filled underground layer this time). So Bond is seemingly overmatched, over-his-head, and outdated. He couldn’t possibly lose though. Dear god no. He’s James friggin’ Bond! Raising the stakes just means it’ll be all the more exciting when he figures out the way to win this time.
Going into Skyfall, the folks who own the James Bond have always been hesitant to give over their franchise to a name director, instead building up the careers of their own Bond specialists who tended to take turns and direct a handful of entries in the franchise. The likes of Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino have petitioned to get their hands on Bond over the years, but their requests were always turned down. That all changed this time when Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) was unexpectedly offered the job. The man doesn’t in any way attempt to reinvent the franchise. That would be pointless. Instead he takes the beats of the Bond formula and gently twists them to curb expectation, while also tipping his hat to nearly every Bond era along the way. The tortured Bond of the Craig years opens the film, but by the end he’s put on the slick demeanor of the Sean Connery/Roger Moore era and quipped more than lonely comedian trying to pick up a lady at the end of the night. The classic Austin Martin makes an appearance (complete with an ingenious ejector seat gag), the globe-trotting brings out plenty of pretty locations, and the martini is ordered shaken (not…well, you know). All the beats are there and yet the weight of the character from the current era never leaves. Through some unexpected plot developments (which I won’t dare spoil here), the villain’s plot this time becomes personal and Bond is actually challenged as a human being. Mendes digs into the soul within the spy posturing and all without losing the popcorn fun of the series. It’s a delicate balancing act and one that makes Skyfall the most emotionally satisfying Bond movie on the market as well as one of the most purely entertaining.
Daniel Craig makes a convincing case for being the best Bond by the time the credits roll. He can quip and shoot a gun as well as any of his predecessors while also finding an actual human being within that stylized exterior. Like the film itself, Craig does what’s required and digs a little deeper. Granted Connery probably could have done the same if given the chance, but he never got to and at least Craig was capable when that opportunity finally came around. Javier Bardem struts into the film as easily one of the most memorable Bond villains in 23 movies. Part Hannibal Lector, part Heath Ledger Joker, part Blofeld, and part Anton from No Country For Old Men, he’s a psychotic with a soul. You kind of understand him even when you hate him, and the way he seduces Bond in the inevitable you’re-tied-up-so-I’ll-explain-my-plan sequence is a deliciously subversive touch. Bardem almost succeeds in stealing the film away because he puts on such a fun evil song n’ dance and it’s testament to Craig that he doesn’t. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and especially Judy Dench all provide strong support as well, but explaining why would spoil some of the film’s finest surprises. Like Casino Royale there are amusing in-jokes and the plot twists a-plenty that lay the franchise foundations for this semi-prequel and I can’t spoil them in good conscience. All I will say is that there is an act three twist that will permanently alter the franchise in future entries and that M is practically the Bond girl this time out. That’s enough to say for now, if anything it’s almost too much.
Mendes handles the film expertly from start to finish. He may never have mounted an action scene before signing on to this at least $150 million blockbuster, but by the time the opening action sequence is complete, it’s clear the film is good hands. With genius cinematographer Roger Deakins by his side, every shot is beautiful whether it be a neon backlit fight in Shanhai or a dialogue scene in a rotting basement. Mendes’ skill with actors and storytelling also ensures the movie is consistently engaging even when there aren’t bullets flying, which isn’t a bad thing. Unlike the stark Jason Bourne-light tone of Casino Royale, there’s a nice dose of humor throughout, ensuring that even old school Bond purists will approve. Without getting too giddy with praise, it has to be said that is about as good as a James Bond movie can possibly be. That qualification is important though. Skyfall will be lavished with glowing reviews unlike any previous entry in the franchise and plenty of people will claim it transcends the series. Be careful what you believe before sitting down for the film. This is very much still a Bond film that hits all the expected narrative beats and has all of the dramatic limitations that implies. Expecting more would be silly, but within those conditions the film is an incredible success.
This will be a hard act to follow in the series and hopefully Mendes will be smart enough to quit Bond while he’s ahead.
This will be a hard act to follow in the series and hopefully Mendes will be smart enough to quit Bond while he’s ahead. There will inevitably be another James Bond movie and chances are the series will continue to thrive long after you and I are gone. The highs and lows in quality will continue, but at least a new benchmark has been set. Now that name directors have been invited into the party, they should be allowed to toy with the series as much as Mendes. There’s will be hits and misses, but imagine if say Matthew Vaughn was able to actually make a 60s set Bond film with modern technology and sensibilities like he grafted onto X-Men First Class or if Tarantino was able to make a mixtape version like Kill Bill with each sequence literally playing like a different Bond movie. There are endless possibilities and now that Mendes has kicked open the door, it’ll be exciting to see what happens next. It would be too much to say that Skyfall reinvents Bond, but it does at least seem to expand the possibilities of what can be done in the franchise. Given how much has been accomplished with the character in the 50 years before that happened, who knows what could happen in the next 50. One thing is for sure, Bond will clearly never die and given how good he’s been to us over the last half century, hopefully he never will.