PLOT: After being badly wounded on an assignment and presumed dead, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is living a quiet life in exile- spending most of his time hanging out on the beach, sleeping with the local ladies, and drinking himself into oblivion. He’s roused out of his rut by news of an attack on MI6- courtesy of a baddie called Silva (Javier Bardem) with a grudge against M (Judi Dench).
REVIEW: Now THIS is the follow-up to CASINO ROYALE we’ve all been waiting for! Despite the incredible buzz, I tried to remain cautiously optimistic walking into SKYFALL. I’ve been a Bond fan ever since New Year’s Eve 1989- when, as an eight year old, my dad let me stay up late to watch THUNDERBALL on ABC. Scratch that- I’m more of a Bond fanatic than a mere fan. The way some of you get about Marvel, DC, STAR TREK, or whatever else is the way I feel about 007 and the major link I have to the world of fandom. Suffice to say, I was going to be a demanding audience for SKYFALL, especially after the bitter taste left in my mouth by QUANTUM OF SOLACE.
Yet- despite being one of those fans that are sometimes impossible to please, I can honestly say that SKYFALL, to me anyways, is the ideal Bond film and one of the best films in the fifty-year life of the Eon franchise. Like CASINO ROYALE, it’s a thoroughly modern take on the character, but one that’s very true to it’s roots (I can imagine Ian Fleming being quite pleased with it- although minus a Ouija board that’s probably impossible to say for certain).
In the hands of Sam Mendes, SKYFALL does away with a lot of the things that rubbed fans the wrong way about QOS. In the action department, he wisely dials it down. A bunch of huge action set-pieces back to back is empty spectacle. A few thoughtful ones spread out in a way that allows a good story to develop, as it does here- is perfection. The biggest action sequence is probably the first, in the Istanbul-set pre-credits sequence, involving a rooftop chase which is like the parkour sequence in CASINO ROYALE but with motorbikes, followed by a big fight on-top of speeding train. From there, Mendes eases us back into the world of 007, re-introducing us to Craig’s darker, more human take on the character. This portion of the film is capped off by a really well written re-training sequence which, for probably the first time in the franchise’s history- proves that Bond is a human being and capable of being run down emotionally and physically.
Here, we’re introduced to a new 21st Century “Q”, as played by Ben Whislaw, who- sporting a cardigan, a skinny tie and a mop of hair is just as much the antithesis of Bond as the late, great Desmond Llewelyn was back in his day. Ralph Fiennes also makes a strong impression as a conscientious higher-up from MI6, named Mallory, who takes issue with M’s crass disregard for the safety of her own agents and brutal methods- which are all but defined by Bond.
The second chunk of the film takes Bond to China, and here, SKYFALL is almost retro, paying homage to all of the things that made the series great- with a colorful villain, a cool lair, gorgeous locations, and even more gorgeous ladies- in the guise of Bérénice Marlohe as Sévérine, who has a memorable rendezvous with 007 in the shower. What makes this section of the film really shine is the incredible photography by Roger Deakins, with a gorgeous, almost avant-garde fight scene set in a Shanghai skyscraper that’s one of the few truly original looking action scenes I’ve seen in a Hollywood movie for some time.
About an hour into the film, we’re finally introduced to Javier Bardem as Silva- and yes, the buzz is correct in that Bardem is truly one of the best ever Bond-baddies- and certainly deserves an honest-to-goodness Oscar campaign, with him being easily as memorable here as he was in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I don’t want to give too much away about him- as that would spoil the fun of the movie, but his introduction is a classic, with Mendes’ giving us a static long shot that gradually moves in as Bardem gets closer to us- settling in on a close-up. It’s startling, and sets the tone for the last hour or so of the film, which takes a bold departure from the formula.
It’s this section of the film that’s going to get people talking, and without giving anything away- I will say that it’s unlike anything ever done before in the series, but- to me anyways, that’s what makes it great. By this point, SKYFALL has already delivered everything a fan could possibly want from a Bond film, but now- it gives you something a little different, leading to one of the best finales in Bond history and a strong starting point for the next stage of the Craig-Bond franchise.
As for the man himself, Daniel Craig is great as always, and he seems to be relishing the strong dialogue courtesy of new screenwriter John Logan (who shares credit with Bond stalwarts Robert Wade and Neal Purvis). Truly, Craig is a new Bond for a new generation- and he absolutely owns the part (although Sean is still my favorite, and likely always will be). Judi Dench has her most substantial role yet in the series- with her almost being a second lead. Albert Finney also has a gem of a part later in the film as a grouchy, shotgun packing Scottish groundskeeper from Bond’s past (almost a pseudo-Alfred) in a role that I’m almost certain must have been written for Sean Connery (it would have been a really great way for him to cap off his amazing career).
The only area SKYFALL comes up short is probably the babe department, as there’s not really any official “Bond girl”, with Naomie Harris as the flirty Eve not really having enough screen time for that. Alas, at an already jam-packed 143 minutes, it would have felt tacked-on. I know, I know- no official Bond girl in a Bond movie? Usually I’d be up in arms, but this isn’t your typical Bond.
A lot of people are comparing SKYFALL to THE DARK KNIGHT and yes, the similarities are there. Heck, a scene where Dench reads a passage from Tennyson that’s superimposed over an angry Silva loading a gun in a car as the London skyline is reflected in his window seems like it would have been right at home in a Nolan movie. But- even so, Mendes puts his own distinct stamp on the franchise and I hope he can be encouraged to come back for more. Along with ace 2nd unit director Alexander Witt (who also shot CASINO ROYALE), Mendes eschews the BOURNE-clone motif of QUANTUM, going for a more traditional approach, with long takes in the fight-scenes (no quick cutting whatsoever) and clear, easily discernible action scenes. Hallelujah. Mendes regular Thomas Newman is also on-hand to shake things up a bit, taking over scoring duties from David Arnold, and his score is the series’ best in a long time (possibly since the John Barry days) with the Bond theme getting a lot of play after mostly sitting out the last two films. Meanwhile, the theme song by Adele is one of the best ever- and the credits, have a nice retro-Maurice Binder style feel, which I loved.
Suffice to say, I was absolutely floored by SKYFALL. Certainly, Bond fans have to walk in with an open mind, as this is not your typical installment. You know how in the old days of the franchise it seemed like the films either followed the FROM RUSSIA, WITH LOVE prototype or the GOLDFINGER prototype? This one, after a long absence, features the FRWL variety. The result? One of the best Bond movies ever.