BRIEF SYNOPSIS: James Bond returns in a visually lush and emotionally involving adventure that benefits from a strong script and one of the best casts the series has seen in its 50-year history.
PROS: Outstanding cast, specifically Daniel Craig and Judi Dench in the forefront as James Bond and M, respectively, with Javier Bardem as the truly insane Silva; kinetic opening sequence; exceptional screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan; Sam Mendes balancing action and character nearly seamlessly; Roger Deakins’s outstanding cinematography.
CONS: Thomas Newman’s serviceable but unmemorable score; occasional plot contrivances that allow events to become too convenient; underuse of Bérénice Marlohe; odd elements that may disturb the series’ continuity for some.
“Brave new world,” James Bond (Daniel Craig) muses after Q (Ben Whishaw, who steps into the role with the same assuredness and grace that John Cleese lacked) hands him his gadgets—a biometric gun that recognizes Bond’s palm print and a radio receiver that can locate him anywhere on the planet—for his upcoming adventure. The scene occurs at the National Gallery, where, moments before, Bond considers J. M. W. Turner’s painting The Fighting Temeraire and spars with Q about the differences in their age. “Youth is no guarantee of innovation,” Bond tells him.
It’s an interesting reversal; when Bond first visits Q Branch in Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger only three scant years before London started to swing, Sean Connery epitomizes the young, up-and-coming professional gentleman, while Desmond Llewelyn’s Q staunchly represents the Old Guard who cares little for the younger generation. As this standout sequence, one of many in Skyfall, demonstrates, it is now Bond who represents the older generation. Next to Whishaw’s almost anime-like stature and visage, Craig, sporting a gray beard and weary blue eyes, looks as old as the Temeraire itself.
It’s a remarkable change for a series that, since its inception in 1962 with Dr. No, prides itself on its Peter Pan Syndrome. The world may change, its geopolitics and boundaries may wiggle into new positions, but for the past 50 years Bond has remained fairly constant, a perpetual British fortysomething (though Roger Moore let his teeth grow long through the 1980s) with an adolescent nature. But time takes its toll; after an assignment in Istanbul leaves Bond with shrapnel in his shoulder and presumed dead, M (Judi Dench) finds her own job under threat from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who questions M’s relevance as well as the relevance of keeping agents in the shadows in the age of transparency. The Committee launches its scrutiny as an unknown terrorist launches an attack on MI6 that results in an explosion at its Vauxhall Cross headquarters. Someone, it seems, wants M’s personal and professional destruction. Bond resurfaces after “enjoying death” (involving taking shots while scorpions crawl along his arm) to go back into the cold and learn who is behind the attack. Bond’s investigation leads to a deserted island inhabited by Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who, it turns out, has a very personal vendetta against M.
It all sounds a long way from Bondmania’s heyday, when Donald Pleasance’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld could issue ultimatums in his Ken Adams’ designed hollowed-out volcano and Connery only had to fight off bad guys with a quick quip and an arched brow. Indeed, at times in Skyfall one forgets thinking of it as a James Bond movie, concentrating on it as a very good movie, period. For the first time in a long, long time, it works like a solid thriller rather than a series of set pieces tied together with tired tropes.
It helps that John Logan wrote the screenplay with Bond stalwarts Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, concentrating on character and story instead of action (though the plotting occasionally slips with a contrivance here and a convenience there). Action is there, certainly; director Sam Mendes showcases an outstanding chase that begins in a bazaar in Istanbul and concludes on top of a passenger train, a shootout in a steel-and-glass skyscraper in Shanghai, and a game of cat-and-mouse taking place in a London tube station. (And, under the watchful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins, the action has never looked better.)
However, this time the characters ground everything to such a degree that the viewer becomes emotionally involved in the outcome, which means that the actors must deliver performances far stronger than the series typically sees. From leads Craig and Dench to supporting roles by Fiennes, Albert Finney, Naomie Harris (as a field agent named Eve), and Bérénice Marlohe (alas, woefully underused), everybody contributes strong performances. This is especially true of Bardem, whose depiction of a Bond villain as genuine lunatic is refreshing after so many tired and mechanical efforts.
With such strong material, Thomas Newman’s score disappoints. Although he brings a modern sound to the series that, refreshingly, never drowns the picture with the overuse of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” (as too many of composer David Arnold’s did), it also seldom distinguishes itself.
This is Craig’s third effort as Bond, after the outstanding Casino Royale (2006) and the muddled Quantum of Solace (2008), and it’s safe to say that he now owns the role. His world-weary face betrays demons we’re not used to seeing, and the result proves fascinating. Yet even with his darker take (reminiscent of, but never copying, Timothy Dalton’s) on Ian Fleming’s character, he manages to keep things from getting too grim. A good thing, too. Skyfall may present a brave new world, but it’s one Bond still inhabits with grace and ease.