Review: Skyfall

James Bond is back to fight for queen and country in Sam Mendes’ wildly successful entry to the 007 franchise.

Despite the die-hard fans that insist Sean Connery is the end-all and be-all of the James Bond franchise, each actor who’s stepped into the role of 007 has brought his own spark to the series. Sure, Connery brought the suavity and the swagger, but Roger Moore gave a shot of self-conscious camp, Pierce Brosnan some extra-sophisticated cool, and the unfairly maligned George Lazenby was the first to give Bond some real emotional complexity (let’s not talk about Timothy Dalton).

Before Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s contribution was a little harder to pin down. Casino Royale was gritty and sly, but Quantum of Solace was such a muddle (through no fault of Craig’s) that it was impossible to actually see much of a trend besides an increased physicality.

 

But now, thanks to Craig’s long-awaited third go-round as the British super-spy, we have a clearer picture. Skyfall, a first-rate thriller that can’t quite reach the series’ top tier, confirms that this is a more invested Bond than ever. Emotionally invested, physically invested, mentally invested. Craig’s Bond commits to his choices — and all the loyalties, romances and death-defying stunts that follow — with an unprecedented resolve.

That investment also makes Craig the most vulnerable and human of Bonds and Skyfall takes that new-found trend to the extreme. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace dealt with the aftermath of Bond finally trusting a woman romantically (well, a second woman if we want to consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Diana Rigg) – Skyfall deals with the aftermath of Bond trusting…well, a different woman.

The film opens on a solid, throwback chase/fight sequence (where would this series be without trains?) with a shocking ending that challenges Bond’s allegiance to his employer, M (the always-sterling Judi Dench). When MI6 comes under a direct attack from a cyber-terrorist, Bond immediately joins the hunt, but his personal devotion to M has been shaken. More than that, his entire motivation has been called into question: what, exactly, keeps James Bond fighting?

One wonders whether Bond himself even knows the answer to that question, especially considering no one else seems to want him to continue on. 007 has had his doubts about MI6 in the past, but it’s been a long time since anyone in the organization questioned his capabilities. It’s rather ridiculous to accuse Daniel Craig’s Bond of being too old to carry on when Roger Moore held the job well into his 50s, but never mind. Skyfall wants to address the changing world of terrorism and national security more directly than any other installment in the franchise (this is essentially a feature-long riff on Dench’s lament of “Christ, I miss the Cold War” in Casino Royale), and the notion that a lone man can save the world is increasingly irrelevant.

 

So to keep Bond a force to be reckoned with, Mendes and his screenwriters smartly limit the scope of the bad guy’s plan. The days of global domination are over – this villain just wants personal vengeance. Javier Bardem’s Silva is wonderfully executed and the series’ best bad guy since Goldeneye‘s Alex Trevelyan, and that’s not entirely a coincidence: Trevelyan, the traitorous MI6 agent, was the last villain to serve as a useful foil for Bond himself. Silva is what Bond could become if everything went horribly wrong, and Bardem plays him perfectly: on the one hand, he’s completely psychopathic, but there’s just a sliver of empathy to keep viewers on their toes.

Challenging 007’s loyalty to M and place in England’s future is relatively unmatched stuff for the series, and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) is so eager to explore this tension (and focus on Craig’s brooding, stoic face) that he sometimes forgets to add a crucial element for any Bond film: fun. Skyfall is one of the darkest, most dour entries in the entire series. There are enough one-liners and innuendos to keep the film from ever dragging (Ben Whishaw’s new take on gadget-master Q is a particular delight), but everything just feels so frightfully serious for a series with characters named things like “Moneypenny.”

 

Mendes should be commended for assembling a wonderful cast to surround Craig. Bardem and Whishaw are standouts just because they’re clearly enjoying themselves, but Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris and Berenice Marlohe are also great, even with limited screen time or character development. Several of them also seem sure to return, a good sign that the series will continue to deliver on this same level. After two good-to-great Bond girls in a row in the last two films, it’s a shame that Harris and Marlohe feel so shortchanged in particular, but again, a defining trait of Craig’s Bond is generally viewing sex as more of a chore than a diversion. Hopefully the next installment can find a way to get some (relatively) strong female characters back into the mix.

This is also probably the best-looking Bond film ever, aesthetically. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has some fabulous set-pieces to work with, playing a lot with light and shadow to heighten the film’s mysterious, sinister atmosphere.

 

Skyfall is refreshing both for its unique take on the character and for a return to entertaining, competent action sequences after the confusing mess of Quantum of Solace. It doesn’t really belong in the same conversation as Goldfinger or Goldeneye, but it’s trying something almost completely different. The emphasis on moral ambiguity and psychological complexity makes Skyfall more like a Jason Bourne film in some ways.

But have no fear, Skyfall aims to appeal to fervent Bond fans as well as newcomers. There are plenty of references and homages to Bond’s storied history, and really it’s these little traditions that keeps us coming back for more. As long as that gorgeous little Aston Martin shows up again, Skyfall is golden.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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