Skyfall, the latest installment in the long-running saga based on Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, forces the British action-hero to dig into his own past if he intends to overcome a dangerous new foe. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty and Jarhead) ditches the inter-connected “Quantum” narrative of the last two Bond films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, in favor of an entirely new storyline that plays on larger connections to the overarching character canon and sets the stage for a more “refined” version of 007.
Considering many fans have celebrated Craig’s rough and gritty interpretation of the iconic character (currently enjoying a big screen 50th anniversary), did Mendes successfully produce a James Bond film with all the essentials (a smart story, memorable villain, and beautiful women) – while at the same time successfully balancing the updated franchise direction with the re-introduction of a few “traditional” Bond elements?
In Skyfall, Mendes easily provides one of the more inspired James Bond installments to date, painfully digging into the backstories of both 007 and M (Judi Dench) in an attempt to say something meaningful about fallible people instead of simply showcasing iconic characters in motion. Apart from its franchise appeal, Skyfall would still be a sharp character-focused spy drama with plenty of intriguing as well as thrilling set pieces; however, interestingly, the film’s various attempts to fit Bond into a more “customary” mold (especially his womanizing ways) are ultimately the weakest aspects of the endeavor. That said, while the subtle course-corrections over-complicate a relatively straightforward story, without adding much to the well-established character mold, they shouldn’t distract too much from the quality of the larger Skyfall adventure.
After a botched MI6 operation leads to a scramble across Istanbul, M gambles with Bond’s life – in a desperate attempt to procure a stolen data disk containing the identities of undercover operatives around the globe. Unfortunately, she makes the wrong call and with Bond missing in action, the disk is lost. Months later, when news of a deadly attack on MI6 headquarters catches up to Bond, who has been hiding out in a seaside paradise “enjoying death,” the 00 agent is pulled out of his self-mandated retirement to investigate the looming threat and recover the disk. Unfortunately, the time away from his secret agent life has left Bond worn-down and physically broken. Can 007 get up to speed in time to stop terrorist leader Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) – a dangerous man with an equally mysterious connection to M and the MI6 agency?
Despite an awkward pacing to the larger plot points and a core storyline that isn’t quite as unique (or smart) as its premise, in a franchise that rarely takes the time to consider Bond, the man, separate from his iconic characteristics (and numerous sexual conquests), Skyfall successfully digs deeper than most entries in the series – showcasing a version of the character that isn’t all polish and slick one-liners. Instead, Mendes offers a Bond that is actually capable of walking away from his responsibilities – drowning his anger and bitterness in the bottom of tequila glasses instead of chasing after evildoers. It’s an intriguing exploration of a familiar character’s limits (a subject that is rarely explored in the film franchise). It isn’t until Bond sees the flaming image of MI6 headquarters that he decides to put aside his grievances and get back to work.
Unsurprisingly, Craig revels in the chance to continue fleshing out Bond’s deep-seeded issues – instead of just hitting series action beats. As mentioned, the resurrected Bond presents a lot of fun opportunities for Craig to toe-the-line between his Casino Royale character, a man that would smash through walls to accost a fleeing bad guy, and a more “familiar” variation of 007 – basically, as Q (Ben Whinshaw) says while describing Bond’s new Walther PPK-S, “less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.” Still, for moviegoers who crave hard-hitting action set pieces, Craig is afforded plenty of rough-and-tumble butt kicking – especially during the film’s opening and finale sequences.
While the last few Bond movies have delivered competent adventures, it’s been a while since a modern Bond film included a villain that could stand shoulder to shoulder with memorable rogues like Oddjob, Goldfinger, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld. However, in spite of his homicidal tendencies, Skyfall terrorist Silva is very fun to watch – relying on a smart juxtaposition of charm and ruthless bloodlust to mirror Bond’s own demons. Unlike recent 007 villains who, even with their own unique quirks, are little more than human faces superimposed onto malevolent organizations, an extremely shaded performance from Bardem will, for many, remind them of the “love to hate him” experience of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight – cementing the character as a worthy addition to the list of James Bond scoundrels.
A new batch of supporting players also help to make everyone on the MI6 team relevant in the moment, not just pre-mission exposition machines. For example, the interactions between Bond and Ben Whishaw’s Q are especially entertaining – but the character’s utility isn’t just limited to equipping 007 with gadgets, he’s also integral to the larger movie narrative. Similar to Bond, Q, along with characters like Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and Eve (Naomie Harris), are developed human beings with their own personal arcs that interweave with 007′s secret agent antics. The result is a much richer world for Bond to inhabit – one that, subsequently, gives audiences an amusing collection of fleshed out personalities to enjoy.
Skyfall also makes a strong argument for the impact of practical effects – especially in an industry where eye-popping 3D visuals are increasingly becoming the go-to approach for blockbuster filmmakers. Few of the action set pieces rely on CGI fillers and the result is a grounded and immersive experience that, in lieu of over-the-top gimmicks, allows for a number of entertaining cat and mouse chases, hard-hitting hand-to-hand fisticuffs, and a surprisingly impactful finale that’s as big on emotion as it is explosives. Additionally, Mendes, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, convey a number of breathtaking images (especially in Shanghai) that rank among the most captivating visuals ever depicted in a Bond film (or quite possibly film in general).
Still, for all the film does right, Skyfall‘s attempt to bring 007 in harmony with Fleming’s iconic creation often work against the success of the experience – at times dropping nuanced character exploration in favor of showing Bond engaging in his usual “iconic” antics. There’s no shortage of sexual encounters in the film but one in particular, a mid-movie shower rendezvous, serves absolutely no purpose in developing the character or advancing the plot. Some viewers will no doubt defend the scene by saying, “Bond is a womanizer” but, given the insight that Mendes attempts to supply for the man behind the legend, it’s an abrupt shift when the director then subverts the man and recklessly glorifies the legend for no greater purpose.
Nevertheless, as mentioned, Skyfall‘s few shortcomings are not enough to derail enjoyment of the film. Scene to scene, moment to moment, the movie offers one of the richest and most interesting Bond adventures – even if the core premise isn’t quite as sharp as the various characters scrambling around the screen. For every awkward misstep in Skyfall, Mendes provides several standout moments – resulting in an especially entertaining and provocative 007 adventure.
If you’re still on the fence about Skyfall, check out the trailer below:
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Skyfall is Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. Now playing in regular and IMAX theaters.