WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012.
“American Beauty” director Sam Mendes has just accomplished the impossible; he made a better James Bond movie than “Casino Royale.” That one set the bar for so high to where it should not have been a surprise “Quantum of Solace” was not as good, but “Skyfall” gets my vote for being one of the very best in the 007 franchise. This installment continues in giving us a darker and edgier Bond as portrayed by the excellent Daniel Craig, and it also brings back some of the things many felt were missing from the last two films like the gadgets, the one-liners and, of all people, Q.
“Skyfall” starts off with a bang as we catch up with Bond in Turkey where he is on the trail of a man who has stolen the hard drive containing the identities of undercover agents. While trying to retrieve the drive, Bond is accidentally shot by fellow British agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and presumed dead. But being this all happens at the movie’s beginning, we know he will not stay dead for very long. While we watch him use his presumed death to go into retirement where he gets drunk off his ass while remaining deeply resentful of M’s (Dame Judi Dench) order for Eve to “take the bloody shot,” MI6 is suddenly destroyed and his love of England forces him to return to active duty. Upon his return, he soon discovers M’s nemesis has a very personal connection to her which makes him all the more dangerous.
This film does take its time to get going, but in retrospect it was worth it. Craig’s Bond has never been a superhero, but instead a vulnerable agent with weaknesses he cannot hide from others. As we watch him retrain, Craig shows us his Bond is deeply troubled and almost bent on self-destruction. It’s his duty to the country of England which manages to keep him relatively sane. This is Craig’s third outing as 007, and I still think he’s the best thing to happen to this franchise in a long time, and he looks to be having more fun this time around as he cracks a joke or two.
Thankfully, Craig never lets 007 descend into camp or tries to turn him into a standup comedian with a gun. While his take on this iconic role feels like it been deadly serious, seeing him loosen is a real gift as he has long since come to own this character. In a perfect world, Craig would get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but since the other actors who inhabited Bond never did, it is unlikely he will break tradition in this circumstance.
Now when it comes to my favorite Bond films, they usually are the ones where things get very personal for 007 and those around him. When this happens, they become more emotionally involving and exciting for me to watch as there is more at stake than just defeating a villain bent on world domination. This is especially the case with “Skyfall” as it delves into the past of its main characters in a way I don’t think any Bond movie has done before. The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan (“Hugo,” “Coriolanus” and “Gladiator”) places most of its emphasis on relationships, especially on the one between Bond and M. It is that emphasis that makes this film all the more riveting to watch.
Dame Judi Dench, who has played M since Pierce Brosnan first played 007 in “Goldeneye,” benefits here especially as her character is given a more severe complexity than what we have seen previously. Dench has always been superb as M, but ever since Craig came into the series she has been a fireball as she starts out with a powerfully brazen attitude which never ever lets up. But here we see the seams in her controlled nature as the past catches up with her in an especially nasty way. Dench nails every moment she has in “Skyfall” perfectly, and she makes M an especially fascinating character to watch this time around.
“Skyfall” also has the advantage of having not just one, but two terrific Bond girls: Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe. Harris, best known for her roles in “28 Days Later” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, shares a sizzling chemistry and playfulness with Craig, especially in the scene where she gives him a very close shave. As for Marlohe, she’s a knockout as she makes her character of Sévérine as enigmatic as she is beautiful. When Bond asks for the name of her employer, the look of utter fear which crosses her face is an unforgettable moment as it sets up the grand introduction of this film’s Bond villain.
The Bond villain of this piece is Raoul Silva, and he is played by Javier Bardem in a deliciously evil performance. It should be no surprise how brilliantly unnerving he is here as this is the same actor who won an Oscar for playing Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” But when it comes to Silva, he is an especially twisted soul to witness in action. This isn’t a villain bent on world domination, but instead on avenging a betrayal which made him what he is today. Bardem actually doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the film, but he has an unforgettable entrance where he tells a story involving rats. The Bond villains always have great stories to tell, and Silva’s proves to be one of this franchise’s most memorable.
And yes, we do get to see the return of Q, and he is played here by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). Whishaw is splendid in the role as he skillfully underplays this classic character to where he makes it his own. Unlike the late, and still missed, Desmond Llewellyn, this Q is not quite in a position to admonish Bond on a regular basis. Whishaw, however, is able to match wits with Craig and hold his own in a way Q has not always been able to do previously, and he is a lot of fun to watch as a result.
Mendes remains a masterful filmmaker as he manages to balance out the action and the story in “Skyfall” to great effect. I also applaud him for not letting this Bond adventure turn into a clone of a Jason Bourne movie. This proved to be a big problem with “Quantum of Solace” as the shaky cam got to be a bit too much, but Mendes is perfectly aware that while Jason Bourne is Jason Bourne, Bond has been around long enough to where he doesn’t need to copy anyone. The opening sequence gets things off to a thrilling start, and it shows how Mendes has a talent for filming adrenaline pumping action scenes as he does in directing actors to great performances.
“Skyfall” also features a terrific music score by Thomas Newman and one of the best Bond theme songs in a long time performed by Adele. The title song brings back the classic Bond song sound which singers like Shirley Bassey made famous with “Goldfinger,” and it fits the movie’s story perfectly. While I miss David Arnold who has composed the scores for the Bond movies since “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Newman’s work here is exceptional as it sounds unlike any score he has done previously. It’s always a thrill to see a composer step outside of their comfort zone to do something a little different.
But another star of this film I have to single out among others is its cinematographer, Roger Deakins. While I was previously familiar with his work in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Revolutionary Road,” the lighting in “Skyfall” is infinitely beautiful to where I am certain few other cinematographers could never accomplish like he did here. Whether it is Bond’s memorable entrance in Istanbul, his time in Shanghai or the climax in Scotland, he gives us visuals no other director of photography could ever give us.
I don’t think I have ever seen a 007 movie I didn’t like, and even the worst of them prove to be very entertaining to watch. Having said that, it is such a thrill to see a Bond movie where all the elements come together in such a truly fulfilling way. “Skyfall” is not only one of the best Bond movies ever, but also one of best films of 2012. It took four years to get one to the big screen, but it was well worth the wait.
* * * * out of * * * *