Let’s get one thing out of the way. “Skyfall” isn’t the best Bond film ever.
I find people have a fondness in their heart for the James Bond they grew up with. If your immediate response to the question “Who was the best Bond ever?” isn’t Sean Connery, it is most likely the actor who played the secret agent when you were growing up. I have a fondness for Roger Moore because he was the first actor I watched playing Bond long before video and downloading made all of the films available at the touch of a button. It wasn’t until I was a little older and could catch them at a Repertory Movie Theater, the kind that showed a different double-bill every night - do they even still exist? - that I was able to see Connery in action. Connery is the penultimate, but Moore is my Bond. And all of this history affects how you view every film in the series.
For years, the producers and studio(s), have been claiming this Bond or that Bond would be a grittier, harder edged secret agent. Connery set the tone and made the role suave, debonair and a lady’s man. But as time went on, the edge wore away until it was almost non-existent. The arc of Moore’s films seems to have done the reverse. They started off tongue-in-cheek, become a little grittier and then crash-land back in Parody-ville with the unforgivable “A View To A Kill”. Timothy Dalton was supposed to be the answer, but his two films are considered among the worst in the series. They are grittier, but they are also devoid of charm and fun. Pierce Brosnan was a welcome breath of fresh air and “Goldeneye” delivered on some of the promises of an evolution. But his films are pretty uneven (Denise Richards playing a nuclear scientist?). So the promises of Daniel Craig’s new grittier, harsher Bond were met with skepticism by many.
I’m sure someone, somewhere thinks Timothy Dalton is great. I have yet to find them, but that person must be out there somewhere.
That said, “Skyfall” is the best Bond film in a long, long time.
It seems like each actor takes one or two films to get their feet wet, to get accustomed to the character, to become comfortable enough to inhabit the role. Craig started the process with “Casino Royale”, his first outing, which was very good, faltered a bit with “Quantum of Solace” and now returns. Three films in, Daniel Craig seems comfortable enough to both have fun and take a good hard look at his role and how he will define Bond. “Skyfall” stands head and shoulders above most because Craig explores some dark places, giving his portrayal a gravitas we haven’t always seen. But he is also comfortable enough to give a wink – wink, nudge – nudge to the actors who have come before him. It is a little thrilling to watch an actor fully invested in his character, making it his own, giving depth and meaning to the role.
“Skyfall” works so well in equal parts due to Craig, the film’s director, Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”, “The Road to Perdition”) and the writers, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (“Quantum of Siolace”, “Casino Royale”, “The World Is Not Enough” and the upcoming big screen adaptation of “Kojak” starring Vin Diesel), all smart enough to embrace the new direction Bond is headed in, while also acknowledging the past.
“Skyfall” goes back to Bond’s origins in more ways than one. Silva (Javier Bardem), one of M’s (Judi Dench) former agents is back and looking for revenge. He was once M’s favorite and feels that she abandoned him during a difficult mission. He returns to steal a computer file containing the true identities of secret agents who are undercover. When he gets it, he threatens to release a certain number of names on a timed basis, threatening their lives and the missions. M wants the list back and sends Bond after it. But Silva is too good and is always one step ahead, manipulating everyone into doing exactly what he wants. Finally, Bond takes M to his childhood home, Skyfall, the Bond family estate in rural Scotland. Silva wants M and Bond knows that she will prove too powerful a lure to resist, drawing the villain to a more level battlefield.
Throughout, Bond wrestles with his own issues with M. Early on, she makes a controversial call and this leads the secret agent to question his loyalty to his boss. Then, when Silva enters the picture, Bond recognizes that he and the blond uber-villain are actually a lot closer than he may have anticipated. Silva knows this and uses this knowledge to push 007’s buttons repeatedly.
Along the way, Bond meets a new Q (played by Ben Whishaw, “Cloud Atlas”, BBC’s “The Hour”) who brings a new, nerdy sort of computer geek-ese to the role. Ralph Finnes plays Gareth Mallory, a government minister who is keeping a very watchful eye on M and her department. And Albert Finney plays Kincade, the groundskeeper at Skyfall. All of these actors are welcome additions and add a lot of interest and considerable acting skill to the film.
I think Bardem’s performance is slightly overhyped. It is a good performance, but very similar to Anton Chiguhr in “No Country For Old Men”. Both performances are very good, and fit with the respective films – Silva is more lighthearted and playful – but both men have the same intensity, drive and uncompromising attitude towards violence and mayhem. Bardem is a welcome addition to the Bond universe, but his role has a ‘been there, done that’ feel to it.
No Bond film would be complete without beautiful women. Naomie Harris plays Eve, Bond’s partner in the mission they are engaged in during the opening of the film. She is a new kind of Bond girl; displaying considerable skill and intelligence, she could be 007’s equal. Berenice Marlohe, a French actress, plays Severin, a complicated, slightly enigmatic woman who seems to be Silva’s henchwoman. She spends some time with Bond and begins to have conflicting feelings.
From the opening moments, “Skyfall” contains some terrific action. Unlike in some of the previous films, all of the action has at least a foothold in reality and all of it is linked to the story. In some Bond films, 007 seems to wander into action scenes devised to show off some new outlandish type of action or new device, narrative be damned. The gravity machine sequence in “Moonraker” is a good example of this. In “Skyfall”, everything is connected to the MacGuffin, the computer list containing the identities of all of the secret agents working undercover. The film opens with Bond and Eve chasing a man through Istanbul, ending up on top of a train. When the list gets out of their hands, they soon learn Silva is behind the theft and will be publishing the identities. When Silva enters the picture, his plans seem to expand and encompass so much more, but they still start with the list.
Throughout the film, there are winks back to the early days of Bond. At one point, the action centers on a deserted island Silva now uses as his headquarters. The island is pretty interesting and the back-story is that Silva created a ‘scare’ clearing off all of the inhabitants, leaving behind scary Soviet-era looking apartment buildings and huge statues of former leaders. This is a nice little nod back to the overly elaborate lairs of past Bond villains like Blofeld and Stromberg. Late in the film, Bond and M rush to a secret garage and uncover Bond’s Aston Martin, complete with the ejector seat. There are more references, which are worked into the plot in a satisfying way, allowing old-time Bond fans to enjoy the moments while bringing the story arc closer to the early films.
When Craig was first announced as the new Bond, a lot of the publicity concentrated on his age. He was much younger than most of the actors who have played Bond, which led to the decision to ‘reboot’ the series. But in “Skyfall”, there is a lot of talk about how old Bond is, and jokes about how he should be retiring. It seems odd and out of place and even a little off-putting to be joking about his age when this very aspect was so highly touted as a positive just two short films ago. I really don’t believe they are using this as the framework to introduce a new actor; Craig just signed a contract for two or three more films as 007 and “Skyfall” has now broken all box office records.
My few quibbles aside, “Skyfall” is not just a terrific Bond film, but it is a great action film and will no doubt be considered one of the best of Craig’s forays as 007.