Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan
based on characters by Ian Fleming
James Bond returns for the 23rd time (in an EON Productions film), the third time for Daniel Craig. Since he took the mantle of the most famous secret agent in the world (something of an obstacle to his anonymity, I’d imagine), the producers have cleverly allowed for a bit of self-awareness to creep into the frame. Not so much that it becomes a joke — see the egregious opening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when new Bond, George Lazenby, breaks the fourth wall with his, “This never happened to the other fellow.” But, after so many instalments, it’s fair to assume your audience will get the in-jokes and subtle references.
(And, I should probably say, there’ll be some mild-to-medium spoilers coming up.)
It’s also fair to assume audiences can handle something new added to the 007 formula. Sure, there are (at least) two ladies with whom he dabbles, there are the exotic locales, there is a martini, shaken (not… you know). There’s also a greater show of emotion from the Crown’s hired gun, an exploration of his relationship with his boss, and an acknowledgement he’s had a hard road — he’s not a young man anymore.
Most of this is fine, this tilling of the soil. Some of it goes a bit too far, but director Sam Mendes brings authenticity to all of it, to both the action sequences and the character work, making for an extraordinary entry in the Bond franchise. It won’t topple Casino Royale as the best of the Craig era, but it’s tons of fun.
While there’s no opening gun-barrel sequence — don’t worry, it’ll show up — the requisite jaw-dropping chase disrupting a world-class city? Check. However, Mendes gets one demerit point for shooting on the rooftops above the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It’s been done before: I’m pretty sure it’s where the 2009 Bond-esque thriller The International concluded. Bond is in pursuit of a man who has taken from MI:6 a hard drive containing a list of agents in the field. In trying to locate it, Bond is terribly wounded by a fellow agent, Eve (Naomi Harris).
Or so we (and his superiors) are led to believe. Actually he’s off living on a beach somewhere with a beautiful, nameless woman. He’s scarred, sure, but who wouldn’t be? Drinking games with scorpions make up his nightlife. An attack on the MI:6 building in London brings him back to the world. Someone has a personal beef against boss-lady M (Judi Dench), and our villain is a superior hacker who has the hard drive and that list. He’s got the secrets the agency fights so hard to protect. It’s making M look bad to the politicos, a situation outlined by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a new, hovering, suspendered suit.
Bond certainly has plenty of reason for griping with M, too. She ordered the shot that took him out. She sends her men off to die all the time. She said as much in Goldeneye. But Bond’s beefs don’t extend to this maternal figure. He’s too in love with duty. And maybe death.
We get to meet the new Quartermaster, or as we know him, Q. A much younger man this time out, nerdy even, but a rich character essayed by the wonderful Ben Whishaw, playing a laptop jockey with a lot of personality.
Mendes’ and the screenwriters’ knowledge of the Bond mythos makes for lots of fun through the running time, with plenty of nods to movies past. The ones I recognized included Goldfinger, For Your Eyes Only, You Only Live Twice, reptile hopping from Live & Let Die, Goldeneye exploding pen reference, and a bottle of 50-year-old Macallan Scotch, just to remind us of Bond’s anniversary. (Are there others I missed? Feel free to remind me.)
There are other references too, maybe accidental. How much does Skyfall borrow from Christopher Nolan films such as The Dark Knight? The fey villain (in this case, Javier Bardem’s Silva), allowing himself to be captured as a mid-movie centerpiece, all a part of his plan. The night shots of a Chinese metropolis from the air. And the deserted island city (actually located near Nagasaki, Japan), not unlike the final dream level in Inception.
This is not a complaint, mind you. Nolan has been inspired by Bond for years, it makes sense that the influence should boomerang. And further evidence that Nolan should direct the next Bond, bring it into The Spy Who Loved Me scale. It’s time.
So, yes, nothing I’ve mentioned so far is criticism. The action sequences are superb, Craig is more grizzled, more the single-minded dog of war than ever, while still managing to show vulnerability, even if it’s mostly his physical wear and tear and his wildly haunted eyes. The locations are well-established, especially the sequences in China (though I doubt very much they actually sent actors to Shanghai or Macau). The sets are convincing, either way.
And Skyfall has something the only passable Quantum of Solace did not: an excellent villain. Silva has Bond’s cleverness, combined with an abandoned child’s need for recognition. In some moments Bardem seems to be channeling the late, great Raul Julia, with added flourish. Watch how he throws grenades.
If there is a misstep, it’s in the final act. I’ll allow that the scripts since Casino Royale and Craig’s talent as a performer have given his character a bit more depth, but I think it’s a mistake to reveal too much about James Bond: you risk his universal appeal. It’s much easier to project yourself on a man of mystery, much easier to adapt him. At the end of Skyfall they take it too far, introducing a caretaker (a bewhiskered Albert Finney) and a homestead. The sentiment is slathered on too thick, borrowing heavily from Bruce Wayne mythos, of all things, while further diminishing the thrills with a somewhat ordinary final action sequence involving flashlights, unexpectedly deep and clear-watered, ice-covered ponds, and tears.
But it’s a testament to the skill of the actors and filmmakers; this ill-advised trip into Bond’s past doesn’t capsize the effort as a whole. A well-timed, well-delivered quip—”I always hated this place”—and exploding helicopters help save the day.
Longtime Bondophiles will find even more to enjoy in the final scene, one that sets up future installments with an eye to tradition. Craig is contracted for two more, so bring them on, I say. Bond 24 and 25 can’t come soon enough.