The movie James Bond is now 50 years old and wearing his years very well in Skyfall.
The most significant reset of the 23-film series that’s unconnected to a change of the actor playing 007, this long-awaited third outing for Daniel Craig feels more seriously connected to real-world concerns than any previous entry, despite the usual outlandish action scenes, glittering settings and larger-than-life characters.
Dramatically gripping while still brandishing a droll undercurrent of humor, this beautifully made film certainly will be embraced as one of the best Bonds by loyal fans worldwide and leaves you wanting the next one to turn up sooner than four years from now.
Bond watchers have been especially eager for Skyfall to arrive for several reasons, particularly to see if the Craig sequence of films can bounce back from the crushing low of Quantum of Solace after starting so high with Casino Royale and to evaluate what fresh perspective might be delivered by such big and unexpected talents as director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
The answers are “yes” to the first proposition and “quite a bit” to the second.
Whereas Casino Royale tasted like a fine old vintage served in a snappy new bottle, Skyfall seems like a fresh blend altogether, one with some weight and complexity to it. Much of this, to be sure, stems from Mendes, who, with series veteran writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with John Logan, yanks Bond, M and MI6 out of the world of colorful megalomaniacal villains and into the vexing world of shadowy terrorists and cyber warfare.
In the process, they also give Bond not only a few aches and pains, but a sense of mortality, exemplified by a credits sequence festooned not by silhouetted naked women but by images of the secret agent’s tombstone and of his being sucked to his doom underwater. Since it happens in the 10-minute action opener, it’s giving nothing away to say that — after an elaborate and logistically outrageous chase through the streets and bazaars and over the roofs of Istanbul, and then on top of a train into the countryside — M is seen writing her veteran agent’s obituary.
He has survived, of course, but his brush with death has been so close that Bond goes Jason Bourne for a while, holing up anonymously on a tropical beach with a babe and drinking himself to oblivion. But when the modern new London headquarters building of MI6 explodes in a terrorist attack, Bond reports back for duty to a boss who herself is being none too gently being shown the door by intelligence and security committee chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).
In fact, all British agents embedded within terrorist organizations have been compromised and are beginning to be killed, making M look incompetent and Bond seem a bit of a dinosaur whose wits and brawn are no match for high-tech warriors.
“So this is it, we’re both played out,” he says to her — prematurely, as it turns out, though Bond still is put through some arduous tests to re-earn his old job back. Bond never has endured so many rude remarks about his physical prowess since Sean Connery made his middle-aged one-shot return to the role in the ill-advised Never Say Never Again. For her part, M plays a more central role here than she has before, and Judi Dench, as usual, makes the most of the opportunity, investing her authority role with great dignity undercut with a sliver of insecurity.
The globetrotting continues to Shanghai, where the striking high-rises make a terrific nocturnal backdrop to Bond’s stealthy pursuit of the assassin/hard-drive thief he narrowly missed in Istanbul. From there it’s on to Macau, where the old Bond re-emerges in a tuxedo to drink his martini (very smartly shaken, not stirred, by a deft lady bartender) in a casino where he gets hot and heavy with the striking yet nervously neurotic Severine, who is given a distinctive preoccupied edge by Berenice Lim Marlohe. Trailing along behind to keep an eye on things and trade dry banter (and perhaps more than that) is field agent Eve, very engagingly played by Naomie Harris.
It is Severine who can take Bond to the man who’s causing all the trouble. In a scene of surpassing beauty and weirdness, by yacht the two approach a strange island city, from which the entire population has just fled. It has just been taken over by a strange tall man with dyed blond hair, insinuating humor and heavily armed henchmen. At the 70-minute mark, Javier Bardem makes his fabulously staged entrance as Silva, who, like many Bond villains of the past, is half persuasive and half lunatic, has delusions of exceptional grandeur and is partial to explaining many things to his captive before he means to kill him. He also has a theatrically sexual side that brings something new to the gallery of Bond villains. In all events, Bardem makes him a riveting and most entertaining figure.
Even if Bond is able to turn the tables on Silva and bring him back to London as a prisoner, that’s far from the end of it, as Silva is one resourceful chap whose advanced computer skills test the expertise even of the new Q, the MI6 weapons and technology guru now reimagined as a very young man and wonderfully played in full geek drag by Ben Whishaw. The scene in which he and Bond meet for the first time in an art gallery is an instant mini-classic.
Ultimately, there is a very conscious, even articulated effort to balance the old and new, the traditional and the modern in Skyfall — stylistically, dramatically and thematically. Longtime series producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli never have gone so far as to hire a full control-demanding auteur to direct one of their films, and while Mendes certainly is the most distinguished outside director they’ve ever brought aboard, he’s one as tradition-minded as he is innovative.
Many of the dramatic scenes would do justice to a nongenre film, and the same can be said of the quality of the acting. The traditional quips surface at times in low-key form; some of them are quite good, and they’re never corny. The action, much of it presumably staged by veteran second unit director Alexander Witt, is consistently strong (even if a motorcycle-and-jeep chase through the jammed streets of Istanbul reminds, as did a recent one through Manila in The Bourne Legacy, that motorized chases through thick urban crowds are never entirely convincing).
Tonally, the fundamental seriousness of the film places Skyfall at the other end of the Bond spectrum from the monkeyshines of some of the silliest Roger Moore entries, such as Moonraker and A View to A Kill.
The long climax, set at an isolated old house in Scotland presided over by a thickly bearded Albert Finney, plays out partly like a highly elaborated version of Straw Dogs, albeit with far heavier artillery. The moving and highly satisfying ending nicely tees up the ball for the next round.
Deakins’ cinematography is dense, colorful and impactful, noticeably a notch or two above the series’ norm. Production values are similarly at the high end of things, and Thomas Newman‘s score is far from generic, finding many moods while delightfully allowing room for Monty Norman‘s immortal Bond theme when the moment calls for it.
And, oh yes, there’s Daniel Craig. He owns Bond now, and the role is undoubtedly his for as long as he might want it. Perhaps a tad less buff than in Casino Royale and certainly more beat up, he entertains the ladies less here than perhaps any Bond ever has. But two other women, his boss and the queen, have first call on his favors, and he repays them for their confidence many times over — as he does the audience.
Opens: Friday, Oct. 26, U.K./international; Friday, Nov. 9, North America (Sony)
Production: MGM, Columbia, Albert R. Broccoli’s Eon Productions
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Lim Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenwriters: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Executive producer: Callum McDougall
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Stuart Baird
Music: Thomas Newman
Rated PG-13, 143 minutes