“This is the end”, croons the voice of a familiar British pop-culture phenomenon over the opening credits of Sam Mendes’ newest film. And given how often the smoky, serene voice of Adele waxes poetic about endings & heartbreaks, we almost buy it. But we don’t, for two reasons. One, because this film represents a newfound creative urgency in one of the biggest pop-culture phenomenons of the last century. What phenomenon, you ask? Well, that’s reason number two why I called bullshit on Adele: because we’re dealing, here, with Bond. James Bond. This is a character who, for five decades and twenty-three films, has been reinvented and reshaped with the times. That’s why he’s special, and that’s why he’s tricky. Nevertheless, “Skyfall” overcomes countless possible issues of theme & identity, to become just about as perfect as a film of this kind can be. So often in the past, as with great entries like “Casino Royale”, “From Russia With Love”, and “Goldeneye”, people tend to preface their praise with ‘it’s a great James Bond film’. “Skyfall” is different. It is simply, a great film.
Daniel Craig is back in his third rendition as the cold-hearted spy, and I’m fairly certain any talk of past, superior Bonds simply doesn’t exist anymore. Other actors have all had their own welcome twist on the character, be it with a dash of campy humor, devilish charisma, or weathered age. But Craig liberates the character from the very term ‘character’ — try for a change, ‘human’? He’s as vicious and brutal as he’s been before here, but seems to be re-contextualizing himself to fit into the saga at large. Indeed, 2012 marks 007’s 50th screen-anniversary, and so “Skyfall” is littered with throwbacks to films, characters and vehicles past. And perhaps just as much as Craig’s Bond debut, 2006’s “Casino Royale”, “Skyfall” reshapes the character dramatically, but here’s the twist — it develops him into what we know. The past two films have developed him as a killing machine with little patience for wisecracks or dalliances, but with this one, Craig subtly morphs into the gadget-wielding, self-idolizing lady-killer we’ve always known this character to be. This film exists at an intersection between throwback fantasy and pulpy, brutal reality. How the franchise will move from here will be fascinating.
It’s often said that action films are only as good as the villains, and the plot that these villains present. “Skyfall” is a knockout in this regard. And who exactly is the mastermind terrorizing our protagonist? Javier Bardem, whose villainy has been exploited before to masterful ends and an Academy Award in “No Country for Old Men”. But where his villain in that film was a silent, devilish presence, making his mark on victims with a silenced cattle gun (*shudders*), Bardem’s Bond villain, Silva, is just the opposite. He’s blond. Bold. Effeminate, even. During a memorable confrontation, Silva boyishly tickles the inside of Bond’s thighs — what other bad guy has touches and layers like that?
He has the power to annihilate entire economies with the stroke of a keyboard, but he has no interest in that. What does he want to do? In short, terrorize James Bond and murder his boss, M. Returning as M is Judi Dench in her seventh, greatest take on the character. Without revealing too much, she reveals a poignance and complexity at her character’s core that I can’t get enough of, and that previous films certainly didn’t show enough. I often complain that action films, by making the stakes as big as possible, lose an emotional grip on us. Audiences’ emotions are more attuned to root for an individual over a city. “Skyfall” recognizes this, and the truly personal nature that Silva takes only reveals itself in the film’s final 30 minutes. And Jesus, what a sequence it is.
“Skyfall”‘s action, while sparse, is as cleanly executed and eye-popping as last year’s similarly invigorating “Mission Impossible” installment. The opening sequence, in which Bond traverses across Istanbul via motorbikes, cranes and trains to catch his target, is pretty damn wild. It’s that mission’s unfortunate conclusion, when Bond’s co-worker accidentally shoots him off the train, leading to an assumed declaration of death, that he begins to fall into darker territory. While a recluse, Bond takes up a boozy, painkiller-fueled vibe — taking much of the film’s first half for the guy to confront his mortality, pick himself up and brush himself off.
As he travails around the world in search of Silva, the stakes only raise higher. A protracted chase sequence across London, through cars, courthouses and, I dunno, the world’s most renowned transportation system, is utterly brilliant. (And, if my memory from a recent UK visit serves me right, freakishly accurate to real-world geography.) And without revealing the context or location, again, “Skyfall”‘s conclusion is utterly haunting, with cinematographer Roger Deakins shifting from warm Scottish hues to muted blues, adopting by the end a nightmarish, fiery color palette.
I’ve yet to fully explain all of “Skyfall”‘s little (and massive) joys — how freakishly sexy Bond girl Berenice Marlohe is, how hilarious Ben Whishaw is as tech-savvy smartass Q, how good Thomas Newman’s score is. But perhaps some of these are best reserved for your experience, for all of “Skyfall”‘s 146 minutes proudly, boldly make the case for James Bond as one of the most vital characters in the history of the movies. And the thing is, we already knew that. But never like this. A-