Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench
Not only does 2012 mark the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr. No it also provides us the twenty third installment of the Bond franchise with Skyfall. Fifty years is an accomplishment that deserves an infinite amount of respect and admiration, but it does make one wonder if the world has finally past by our beloved spy. Does a License to Kill have the same authority to it when a laptop with a proper internet connection can take down regimes, topple governments, and place a cog in the global stock trade? Furthermore the cinematic landscape has tremendously shifted in the last few years with the enormous popularity of films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight. Our heroes now are far more distinct and fantastical than a simple secret agent. Skyfall shows us not only is Bond still relevant his presence is needed now more than ever. Sometimes the old ways are best, and we see that theme played out again and again. Bond has made a habit of conforming what is popular and adjusting it to fit into its universe. Skyfall takes that idea to an entirely different level. By injecting top level filmmaking with high octane action Bond is ahead of the curve for the first time in a long time. Skyfall is far more than a return to form; it is an evolution of this franchise’s potential.
A great deal was riding on this film’s success, not only was it one of the few glimmers of hope for MGM studios, it is a telling point of Daniel Craig’s career as Bond. Casino Royale invigorated the franchise by bringing a strong core of reality and a darker tone of sensibilities. Much of that good will was lost with the universal disappointment of Quantum of Solace. Many hardcore Bond fans have always felt left in the cold with the Craig era as his films seem to be ashamed that they are a part of this franchise and markedly avoid many of the classic Bond tropes. Fortunately with Skyfall not only does it succeed on nearly every level it works as a united force that merges the Craig era with the Bond of yesteryear. What could have been a force fed mixture that reeked of pandering and self gratification turned out to be an elegant maneuver of homage and respectful remembrances. Certain call backs were louder than others, but it was a sobering to see this installment embrace what came before.
A big reason why this movie was able to combine these different elements was the fact it kept the story simple and straightforward. Judi Dench returns as M and finds herself, and all those around her, the target of a mysterious madman. The stakes are even higher because MI6 has lost a hard drive containing the names of every undercover NATO agent embedded in terrorist organizations. Bond must contest with this threat and a combustible government that questions his organization’s relevance and the competency of his leader. Although M is the focal point for much of the movie the crux of the story is still Bond’s. Daniel Craig is given the opportunity to show off his acting talent by playing a Bond that is broken, battered, and emotionally distant after a near death experience. Craig hits each of these emotions in stride making Bond more well rounded than ever before. He gives us a Bond that becomes soulless and worn towards his ‘Double O’ status. As he nears the brink of his own destruction he drives closer towards the void. His saving grace is when he becomes aware M’s and MI6’s predicament. With their fate threatened he emerges from the shadows to do what he does best.
I have always enjoyed Craig as Bond and this may be his best outing yet. He appears comfortable with every aspect of the role and is finally willing to have some fun with it. The transformation of Bond in this film requires someone with the capabilities of Craig. His grizzled undertones lend themselves greatly to this wrecked Bond. Not to be outdone by Craig is Judi Dench as M. The relationship between her and Bond is one that is tremendously complicated. They are constantly at odds challenging each other for control, but they always maintain this deep respect and slight admiration towards one another. Never is a kind word spoken between the two, nevertheless you know how they truly feel about one another. In these moments Craig and Dench are at the top of their game, because they didn’t water down their performances simply because they were in an action blockbuster. That mindset didn’t stop with them.
Director Sam Mendes knew when to allow these two actors to take control. Not many would peg Mendes as an obvious choice for a Bond film. His past works like American Beauty and Road to Perdition don’t directly correlate with this genre. Mendes quiets the skeptics by creating some of the best action set pieces of the year. Each action beat was distinct and uniquely original from the last. It started with an anxiety riddled pre-title sequence that was flawlessly choreographed. One of my favorite moments was a skyscraper silhouette fight that I did not want to end. It was as brutal as it was beautiful. The cinematography and art direction emphasized the atmosphere and tone of the varying locations. Mendes has made a habit of teaming up with talented cinematographers, and this film is no exception. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins provides a nonstop assortment of striking imagery that almost seems out of place in an action movie. The amber afterglow of the final climatic battle was superbly awe-inspiring. The imagery is so fantastic it becomes a distraction. You get so caught up in it you miss what is actually taking place on screen.
The film isn’t without other drawbacks as well. While it was fantastic seeing certain Bond tropes, like Q division return, there were times were it felt required to follow the Bond formula. The best example of this is Naomie Harris, who plays the newest Bond girl Eve. She was routinely shoehorned into moments out of obligation. Though she had chemistry with Craig they never figured out a way to properly use her. (Well until the very end) One person that was properly used was Javier Bardem as Silva. Within the first five minutes he is on screen he becomes one of the best Bond villains ever. His magnetism is alluring and his charisma is startling in how domineering it can be. Bond and Silva were two sovereigns unwilling to yield to one another. Their back and forth was great, and I just wish we got more of it. That interplay gets lost as the final act diverges from this cohesive plot to a straight forward action set piece. Sure it was entertaining to watch and gorgeous to look at. The issue was much of the film came off as if it was leading to something larger. Where we ended up was satisfying, but it left you wanting a little more.
Skyfall goes beyond being a shinning beacon for Bond franchise and turns into a testament of what is now possible in the action genre. There are certainly fingerprints from other genre films all over this, and it never shies away from the fact. Having the wiliness to use the baseline, established by films like The Dark Knight and The Bourne Trilogy, to springboard itself to a more distinct level allows it to standout in that crowded room. Much debate will suffice on where this film falls in the history of Bond films. I stay away from ranking a film that has just been released, but I feel safe in assuming this will go down as one of the most iconic Bond films ever made.