In Skyfall, the third James Bond film since the 2006 series reboot, Casino Royale, Bond does go back in time, but not in the way you might think. The title Skyfall evokes images of the world’s satellites crashing down at the hands of Quantum, hell bent on world domination in the way Bond villains have done in the past. But the 50 year old franchise is not ready to return to the bad old days just yet. Instead, Skyfall treads where no Bond movie has tread before.
Daniel Craig returns in his third outing as the secret agent with a license to kill. Craig has already proven himself to be the most physical Bond and now, under direction from Sam Mendes, he proves himself to be the most human. Craig has shown the vulnerable side of Bond before, but Skyfall strips away even more of our hero in an ambitious film that feels like yet another series reboot.
* SPOILERS *
The cracking opening sequence in Istanbul begins with a mission going very, very wrong. British agents are down, a list of undercover operatives has been stolen, and Bond is in pursuit of the thief for so long, that he eventually runs out of ammunition and throws his pistol away in disgust. By the time Adele belts-out the best Bond theme in decades, everything has fallen apart. A split-second decision from M (Dame Judi Dench) has left our man shot, missing and presumed dead. The list of agents is out in the wild and the British government is looking to clean house at MI-6. M looks out her window at a rain-soaked London as her world crumbles around her.
When a terrorist attack from Javier Berdem’s psychopathic villain strikes too close to home, Bond drags himself out of his self-imposed death and reports for duty. But he’s a mess, physically and psychologically. He’s wounded. He’s aging. He tries to re-qualify as a double-oh agent, but fails. M’s new boss (Ralph Fiennes) tells her that Bond should be sacked. “It’s a young man’s game now,” he tells Bond. The service’s new Gen Y quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) explains further, telling Bond that he can do more damage to the world’s terrorists from behind his keyboard in a single morning, than Bond can in a year. Later, Bond hears this same speech from his enemy, also a man from the old days, but one who has adapted and survived.
At the heart of Skyfall is the relationship between Bond and M, the last two old dogs of a dying kind of shadowy espionage, confronting their own sticky personal history, but ultimately coming together as they are put under siege, first figuratively and then literally. Under intense scrutiny by Her Majesty’s Government, M retorts with a Tennyson poem that is a statement about her and Bond’s place in the world. Wait a minute, there is no crying in baseball and there is no poetry in James Bond…is there? There is now and I admit that it gave me chills.
Skyfall is the first Bond movie to be shot digitally and cinematographer Roger Deakins turns out maybe the most beautiful Bond film ever. Bond chases his quarry to Shanghai, Macau, and then London, each time giving Deakins a unique palette to work from, visually demarcating each chapter of the story with stunning style. Thomas Newman replaces David Arnold (busy scoring the London Olympics) and produces a restrained score with fewer blaring horns and more synthesizer pads to create a nervous undercurrent throughout the film.
The third act of Skyfall begins in the glowing, icy mists of Scotland and ends in the darkness of Bond’s childhood memories. As far as I could tell, the slightly long ending might as well have been filmed in 1962. There are no clues to the contrary. An icon of the series returns from the Sean Connery days, first as a quip and a chuckle, and then as a bark with the kind of gravity never imagined by the original filmmakers. It was a glorious moment and the best homage yet in the Craig films. Back in time, indeed.
This is the most serious of the Bond films, yet Mendes and return writers Neal Purvis, Rovert Wade, and John Logan allow more humor than in recent years. The balance is almost perfect. Almost. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace was a two-part story that had Bond falling in love and then seeking solace after his lover’s death, first through revenge and then by confronting his fear that his love had perhaps been unrequited, a lie. Skyfall has our wounded orphan examining age, mortality, weakness, vulnerability, and his duty to Mother England, even though she doesn’t want him. So, what’s next? Are we going to see Bond in group therapy, finding 12-step meetings in every exotic locale he visits? Not bloody likely. As much as I loved the new character development, the tone at the end of the movie seemed clear – James Bond will return and he will be back to business. I can’t wait. Until then, Skyfall stands as one of the best in the longest running franchise in movie history. Well done, old man.
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