Sumptuous and splendid, Skyfall takes James Bond in a whole new direction for his 23rd official big-screen adventure. Looking exclusively at the way the film concludes, one might think we’d gone back in time to the Bond of the 1960s, but what precedes it is very much a Sam Mendes character piece. The stakes are incredibly personal, and as such, the megalomaniacal foolishness that typically comes with the territory gets thrown out the window. It’s replaced with a frightening sense of chaos and legitimate questions over characters’ survival. It’s a great film on so many levels, and though its highs don’t quite match those in Casino Royale, it’s one of 007’s finest hours and arguably Mendes’ strongest film to date.
Excepting brief sojourns to Istanbul and Southeast Asia, Skyfall takes place entirely on the home front. MI6 is under attack, and its most effective agent is out of the picture. Presumed dead after a failed mission in Turkey, Bond (Daniel Craig) elects to lay low, stay of the grid. But his loyalty toward M (Judi Dench) draws him back into the game as she faces official inquiries over a disastrous security breach that occurred right under her nose.
Skyfall is easily the least action-oriented of the Bond films; Only the pre-credits train fight stands out. Mendes has loftier things in mind, and he makes up for the lack of action with stunning character development. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were dealing with Bonds who were uncharacteristically weak, but Skyfall‘s Bond makes them look like Sean Connery’s Bond at his most infallible.
And it’s a much different kind of weakness. Bond faces no heartbreak in Skyfall; His relationship with Naomie Harris’ Eve is—excepting one extra-close “shave”—strictly professional. Instead, we’re dealing with someone who can’t adapt and isn’t equipped to face the challenge at hand. He’s lost a step, and though, as one character reminds him, there isn’t any shame in admitting so, Bond is far too proud for that. Even more frightening, though, is the technical sophistication today’s villains—as well as its heroes—are utilizing. Dismantling a government, devaluing a currency, blowing up a building—all done with the click of a mouse. And to stop enemies like this, whiz kids like Q (Ben Whishaw, relishing the opportunity) are significantly more valuable than brutes like Bond.
Then, of course, there’s Judi Dench’s M. The Dame gives perhaps the finest supporting performance this franchise has ever seen. She facing questions about her relevancy, as well, and the evidence against her is quite damning. Men and women are being killed on her watch; In fact, the more she tries to evade Javier Bardem’s Silva—a prized former agent who claims to have been betrayed by M—the more people are killed. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but she carries on the only way she can—with quiet dignity and a bulldog’s tenacity.
Speaking of weaknesses, Silva doesn’t seem to have any. Yes, he has a physical disability; His “betrayal” by M caused him to try suicide by cyanide, which failed and left him with a disfigured face. When it comes to effectiveness, however, you haven’t ever seen a Bond villain like him. It’s been a weakness of a series of late, but Mendes and screenwriters Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan put Silva one step ahead of MI6. What ensues has been compared a little to The Dark Knight, and it isn’t hard to see why. The stakes aren’t as high as they were with The Joker in Nolan’s film, but the fear in the eyes of our heroes is very real.
Skyfall tends to drag at times—a consequence of its lack of memorable action sequences—but even during its slower moments, you’ll be completely arrested by Roger Deakins camerawork. The Shanghai and Macau sequences especially will take your breath away. Another newcomer to the series is composer Thomas Newman, who blends Bond music of old with his own original work brilliantly.
It’ll be curious to see where this character goes next because this is such a monumental piece of work and it also puts a bow on all the rebooting that’s taken place since Craig stepped into Bond’s tuxedo. A straightforward action-adventure seems like it’s in the cards, but that’d almost betray the character Craig and company have established—a character that maybe isn’t your father’s idea of James Bond, but one who nonetheless feels more fully formed than any previous incarnation. It’s almost hard to imagine him leading the charge against some diabolical supervillain who’s hellbent on world domination.
But wherever he goes, you’ll want to follow. Skyfall is a sensational motion picture—exactly the kind of film big studios should be striving to make. It’s powerful, but crowd pleasing. It’s complicated, but exciting. It looks great, but its effects are practical. It’s old-fashioned, but very much of our time. And it proves that, in his 50th year, Bond is still golden.