Movie Review: Skyfall [SPOILERS]
James Bond is an institution. Even if the iconic super spy is a British import, he’s well known and beloved the world over. With 50 years of Bond films, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s never seen a Bond movie, let alone someone who doesn’t like this series. Much like the other iconic piece of Brit pop culture, Doctor Who, Bond is constantly evolving and everyone has their favorite Bond. Skyfall is such a great Bond film – a great film in its own right -that I could see many people choosing Daniel Craig to hold the mantle of their favorite Bond. And you know what? It’s absolutely justified. Skyfall rights many of the issues prevalent in this new Bond reboot-continuity while keeping the harsher themes introduced by Casino Royale and re-introducing some of the series’ old, but essential, quirks. What’s on display is a better reboot of the Bond series than was present in the formal reboot of Casino Royale and absolutely one of the best 007 films ever created.
Prior to the first Daniel Craig 007 flick there was a lot of cynicism about the project. The producers made no secret that they were rebooting Bond and reshaping the series to be more in line with something like the current Batman series. Gritty, dark, hard edged; Craig’s Bond began as a blunt instrument (as Dame Judi Dench’s M described the character) who enjoyed a beer instead of the series staple martini. It would have felt like a grossly calculated moneygrab if Casino Royale wasn’t so damn good. Quantum of Solace on the other hand… felt like a cheap ripoff of the late 80s Timothy Dalton License to Kill. License to Kill is rightly derided as being a film that tries to Americanize Bond. Quantum was a terrible film, but perhaps we owe a bit of Skyfall’s success to Quantum. Without the cold critical reception Quantum received, we may have never received Skyfall in its current form.
In Skyfall, James Bond isn’t the cocksure top agent at MI6. In fact, early in the film the spy is sidelined by a serious injury and is presumed dead. He returns to his old job only when he learns of an attack on MI6 headquarters (information he learns from CNN, no less). He’s broken, unsure of himself, and bitter about his last mission. He returns because of duty, but he’s still at odds with a coldly calculating M who is used to using her agents as tools rather than humanizing them. But M desperately needs Bond as she’s coming under fire figuratively, from Parliment looking to blame someone for a botched mission, and literally by a villain who wants nothing more than to disgrace and kill the MI6 leader.
By resetting Bond’s abilities and making him unsure of his talent, we’re effectively getting a reboot of the series again. But this time the creative team is more willing to re-introduce classic Bond tropes and humor. Q (Ben Whishaw) is reintroduced, this time as a young computer whiz who makes light of classic Bond gadgetry, Bond drinks a martini (shaken, not stirred, though the script doesn’t force Craig to utter those lines), and many other important Bond staples return in this film. But lest you worry that the more self-serious tone of Casino Royale has gone away, don’t. Skyfall smartly weaves the old with the new, creating a Bond experience that takes its character, emotional growth, and the super spy antics incredibly serious. It’s a perfect blend of the classics with the temperment of the new generation Bond.
We get to learn more about Bond’s life, family, and childhood in Skyfall than in the 22 previous 007 films combined. James Bond is made into a character, rather than a caricature as was so often the case in the older films. And though the main thrust of the plot revolves around a reused GoldenEye plot point (a disgraced 00 agent returns for vengeance), it never feels like a retread. In fact, Javier Bardem’s scenery chewing Raoul Silva doesn’t personally know Bond (like Sean Bean’s 006 did), but knows the man better than anyone else. He can get inside Bond’s head and the things he says oftentimes make sense. You can see Craig’s Bond thinking through the offer to join Silva, and though we know Bond will never turn evil, Craig makes it easy to believe that Bond is willing to at least consider the offer.
Bardem’s Silva displays both the best and worst of Bond villains, at once incredibly talky (he’s introduced to us with an extended villainous monologue sequence), but coldly calculating. If there’s a fault to Skyfall, it’s that Bardem is introduced exactly halfway through the film when the film may have benefited from his introduction sooner. But that introduction… it’s glorious. The monologue might be cliche, but here you’ll hang on every word, every threat, every come on, that Silva makes. It’s enrapturing, and Bardem is incredible. Bardem imbues Silva with pitch perfect sociopathy. He is a man betrayed by his employer; the dark yang to Bond’s yin.
That we’re living in an era where a James Bond film can not only be a roller coaster blockbuster action film, but also an intimate character study is incredible. And that’s Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes deftly handles both sides of the production, including some incredible looking CGI effects and fast paced action sequences. But, and I never thought I’d be saying this, the reason this film succeeds is due in a large part to the emotional core, the themes that are explored, and the fantastic acting throughout.
Judi Dench’s turn as M has always been good, but the plot hinges on her performance. She’s cold, in the way her M has always been cold, but there is ample character growth for her. Naomie Harris is great as Eve, Bond’s fellow MI6 agent. Harris is fun and flirty, but sells the concept of being an agent, albeit one who has made terrible mistakes in the field. She’s a great addition to the cast. Ralph Fiennes as govermental bureaucrat Gareth Mallory also adds greatly to the ensemble (not to mention chalking up another role in a British pop series following his turn as Voldemort in Harry Potter). Albert Finney is great in a small but pivotal role that pops up in the third act.
I’ve loved the Bond films for as long as I can remember, but there’s always some catalyst that spurs my fandom back into high gear. In the 80s I was obsessed with The Living Daylights and watched it numerous times. In the 90s I, like many other gamers, fell in love with the N64 GoldenEye game, which made me return to the series with vigor. I haven’t felt that kind of love and reverence for Bond since that time. Casino Royale was good, but it fails where Skyfall succeeds. I’m in love with 007 again like never before.
Skyfall is not only a worthy successor to the most classic James Bond adventures, but also a necessary evolution of the character. Ironically, by embracing many of the classic Bond motifs, characters, and jokes that Casino Royale shunned, Skyfall becomes the reboot that the series was looking for. It’s film worthy of the lineage of 007 and hopefully it’s a sign of further greatness to come from this storied franchise.