Welcome back to me! The blog is back from a mini-hiatus after the really long hurricane post from last week. If you haven’t read the piece yet, please do at this link. I think it’s one of the better things I’ve written for the blog, if I may allow myself a moment of total self-promotion. (Yes, I may.) We return now to more short-form pieces.
Today is also a day for a call to contributions to the blog. Send me your ideas, whether for guest reviews or things you’d like to see reviewed, at firstname.lastname@example.org. There are a couple of things in the works over the next few weeks, but I’m definitely looking for more ideas for segments, guest contributions and whatnot. Specifically the whatnot.
Let’s cut to the chase: Skyfall is one of the best James Bond films in the 23-movie history of the franchise. Maybe I’m not completely qualified to say this, because I haven’t seen every James Bond film – there are a few gaps in the middle years of the Bond franchise that I’ve yet to fill. (Future blog segment?) But there’s just no way that Skyfall isn’t definitively in the pantheon of great Bond movies. It’s too sharply acted, too beautifully shot and too wickedly entertaining not to be. After Casino Royale brilliantly reinvented the franchise and Quantum of Solace…well, did nothing to it, really, Skyfall takes a huge step forward with a nod to the series’ storied past.
(By the way, a note on Quantum of Solace…I did like the film after seeing it in theatres and don’t think its frequent criticism is totally warranted. That being said, it’s completely forgettable, and its flaws are certainly easy to see. Also, it’s called Quantum of freaking Solace. Even from a series which has a movie named Octopussy, that’s bad.)
Skyfall begins with a beautifully-shot chase scene in Istanbul that establishes two things right off the bat: 1) Roger Deakins’ cinematography, as usual, is going to be gorgeous. 2) Sam Mendes is a way better action director than Marc Forster, who helmed Quantum of Solace‘s shaky-cam nonsense. It also ends with Bond (Daniel Craig) plummeting to his death, making this the shortest of the Bond films. Wait, what’s that? He’s alive? Oh, carry on, then.
Soon after that opening, MI6 finds itself under siege from an unknown computer hacker. This puts department head M (Dame Judi Dench, as good as ever) in the line of fire, with government official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pressuring her to retire. Bond soon returns, of course, to save the day. It’s quickly apparent he’s a little bit rusty – but with a hard drive containing the names of MI6’s undercover agents on the loose, he can’t afford to be for long.
That’s the setup, and as is typically the case in these movie reviews, I don’t want to reveal any more than that. I may have said too much already. Most of the fun of Skyfall is experiencing its exotic locations, memorable characters and old-time Bond callbacks for yourself. A word on the last portion of that sentence – 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, exactly half a century after Dr. No‘s release in 1962. And while Skyfall certainly moves the franchise forward, it pays more of an homage to the series’ past than Craig’s previous two efforts. Old characters make new introductions, with Ben Whishaw’s fresh-faced Q making an excellent impression. The script, penned by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, makes plenty of fun references to previous Bond films, none of which I’ll review here. (The best, though, comes at the end of an exchange between Q and Bond in an art museum.) And there’s even a ridiculous moment in a Shanghai casino that feels so out of place, it has to be an homage to the general silliness of the Roger Moore films. In spite of this, Skyfall constantly feels fresh, rather than irritatingly glued to the series’ history.
Instead, Skyfall‘s content to write its own history – and that history will include a madcap villain, Silva, played by Javier Bardem. While Bardem’s portrayal may be a bit over-the-top, it’s a largely memorable take that leads to one of the franchise’s best villains. His introduction – a monologue about rats on a desert island, voiced in one long unbroken shot as he marches across a room – is simply mesmerizing. It’s a little bit of Anton Chigurh mixed with a lot of The Joker, which makes for a winning portrayal.
And you can’t help but wonder just how much of that portrayal is based on Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker from The Dark Knight, a movie which Mendes admits influenced the making of Skyfall. It’s eerie how similar the two films are in parts, especially from the middle of the film on. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan’s long talked about wanting to make a Bond film – but it may be superfluous now, because Mendes has done a better Nolan impersonation than whoever directed The Dark Knight Rises. (Oh, wait…that was Nolan? Carry on.)
There’s plenty more to like in Skyfall. Sort-of Bond girl Naomie Harris stands out in in the field and around the office, while the movie’s “true” Bond girl, played by French actress Berenice Marlohe, excels in a killer scene in Shanghai. The opening credits, marked by a strong Adele theme song, are mysteriously alluring. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is award-level good, with memorable shot after memorable shot from the movie’s first frame until its last. (The breathtaking Shanghai hotel sequence takes the cake.) And the third act, which I won’t even begin to spoil, is as rollicking and entertaining of a finish as a Bond film gets.
But all the gadgets and baddies and allies aside – this is Craig’s film. There’s been a lot of chatter about whether Craig is the “best” Bond – a question that’s impossible to answer. Sean Connery defined the role of Bond and turned him into the worldwide sensation the character has become. Every actor’s put a slightly different spin on our hero, but the other five Bond actors all owe something to Connery. So the highest praise I can say on Craig’s behalf is this – he has turned his personal portrayal of Bond into as definitive a take as anyone else in the series. Craig’s Bond is more vulnerable, more human, more raw than any actor who’s come before him. Sure, part of that take is due to the scripts he’s set up with and the stakes he faces – but when Craig feels pain, we feel pain. His Bond feels more like an actual person and less like a video-game character than any of his predecessors, and Skyfall, like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace before it, excels because of it. You can’t have this successful of a high-stakes action film without a terrific anchor, and Craig is at his best.
If you’re a James Bond fan, you’ll love Skyfall for myriad reasons. If you’re not a Bond fan, you can take out one of the reasons (all the past series’ references), but you’ll still love it. It’s beautiful, it’s bold, it’s funny and it’s well-written. “There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve lost a step”, says Mallory to Bond, early in the film. The character may have. The franchise? Anything but.