Fifty years after his cinematic debut in Dr. No, James Bond is still alive and kicking. Following the awful Die Another Day and the rise in popularity of the Bourne series a decade ago, the prospects for 007’s continuing dominance of the spy-actioner genre looked bleak. Bond had become too corny, too clichéd, too dated; meanwhile, Bourne was new and sexy and fresh. It’s no wonder that the filmmakers behind the last two films in the Bond series rejected all of the hallmarks of the franchise, favoring instead the gritty, frenetic approach of their competitors. With the Sam Mendes-helmed Skyfall, however, Bond once again embraces all of the hallmarks and symbols that made him so iconic in the first place. Ironically, by firmly embracing the cinematic heritage of Ian Fleming’s secret agent, Mendes and crew have crafted a spy thriller that’s ultimately fresher and more engaging than any action vehicle that’s been released in the past few years. Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond movie, it’s a great action movie, too.
This time around, Daniel Craig’s cold-hearted, hard-drinking spy finds himself pitted against, Silva (Javier Bardem), a flamboyant ex-MI6 agent dead set on settling an old score with M (Judi Dench). But Bond isn’t going it alone this time: After being absent from the franchise for a decade, brand new incarnations of Q and Moneypenny return to offer their assistance. In fact, a lot of things that have long been absence from the franchise have returned with a new gloss: the catch phrases, the vodka martinis, the gadgets, the larger-than-life supervillain, even Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin.
Skyfall opens with Bond in Istanbul, hot on the trail of an assassin who’s just bumped off a couple of 00 agents and made off with a hard drive containing a plethora of government secrets. The following foot chase becomes a car chase which becomes a motorcycle chase which turns into a shoot out on top of a speeding train. Following an inventive sequence where Bond commandeers a giant Caterpillar and rolls it across several flatbed rail cars, he engages his target in physical combat and quickly finds himself overpowered. The agent accompanying 007 (Naomie Harris) is ordered to fire on the fleeing assassin. She misses and hits Bond, sending him flying from the train and into the river below.
From this pre-title sequence, it quickly becomes apparent that Sam Mendes lacks Martin Campbell’s (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) ability to capture elaborate, impeccably choreographed action on the screen, but it’s also clear that Mendes has eschewed the incomprehensible, shaky-cam bullshit that made the mediocre Quantum of Solace such an eyesore. Instead Mendes adopts a no-frills, no-nonsense approach in shooting Skyfall’s action sequences. It works.
Given that the closest Sam Mendes has ever come to directing an action movie was 2002’s Road to Perdition, I wasn’t surprised that Mendes failed to surpass Campbell’s flair for visual spectacle. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that Skyfall would turn out to be an all around better film than any action movie since The Dark Knight anyway. After Silva, a villain composed of equal parts Julian Assange and Alec Trevelyan from Goldeneye, begins releasing the identities of British operatives on Youtube, Bond returns from the dead to offer his services to his old employer. Then things get interesting.
This particular entry is considerably more coherent than the typical Bond movie. As a result of the constant barrage of exotic locations and massive action sequences that these movies demand, even the great ones tend to feel somewhat schizophrenic and scattershot; it never matters why James has to go to the Bahamas, it’s simply enough that he goes there. But here we’re given a story that’s remarkably well structured, with every scene naturally building on the next. For once it makes sense why Bond would globetrot from London to Shanghai to Macau. This is thanks largely to the sharp screenplay from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan.
Further, Mendes effectively mines the emotional content of the story for maximum effect. Here, we’re treated to a James Bond who has been left visibly damaged by his failure at the beginning of the film, and we’re given a sympathetic villain with a straightforward, understandable motive for revenge on MI6. Javier Bardem creates a supervillain that’s somehow utterly unlike the coldblooded psychopath of No Country for Old Men and yet somehow equally unsettling. As the besieged M, Judi Dench, who has largely been wasted in prior installments, has finally been given material worthy of her talents. And, for the first time, Daniel Craig seems particularly smooth and at ease in the role of the iconic 00 agent.
In addition to being one of the better written, better acted movies in the fifty year franchise, Skyfall also holds the distinction of being the most gorgeous Bond movie to date. Roger Deakins, the brilliant cinematographer behind No Country for Old Men and The Shawshank Redemption, lends his considerable talents behind the camera. Scenes set in Shanghai are bathed in striking neon blues and greens. Sequences set in Macau are filled with warm oranges, reds and yellows. A finale set in Bond’s family estate in Scotland is suitably cold, lifeless, and gray. Each passage of the film bears its own distinctive look and mood.
However, what’s most striking about Skyfall is that the filmmakers behind Bond seem to no longer be apologizing to the movie going public for making Bond movies. The Paul Greengrass-esque gloss that’s coated the previous two installments has been abandoned, and Sam Mendes has defiantly tapped back into the conventions of the series, breathing new life into them. It works; Skyfall embodies everything I love about this series.
At one point, an elderly character played by the great Albert Finney bluntly states, “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” You’re goddamn right they are.