James Bond is a hero of a simpler time. And yet, somehow, he continues to cling to the popular consciousness with such grace and style that there is a very good chance that, 50 years from now, we will be celebrating the centennial anniversary of the film series (the character himself actually celebrates his 60th anniversary next year). The franchise maintains, and each time a bad film – or even a run of bad films – threatens it, something comes along to reinvigorate the franchise. Judging from Skyfall, the series is as healthy as it has ever been.
In other words, Bond is an institution. Whether you are a fan or not, the character is so ingrained in the public zeitgeist that it’s impossible not to at least be somewhat familiar with him, even if you have managed to avoid the 22 films starring the character (more, if you count those not produced by Eon Productions). Everyone that considers him or herself a fan has a favorite actor to take on the role, and each of the actors represented a slightly different take on the character. Craig’s character has been more hardcore and brutal, but also a slightly less confident Bond – at least compared to the others. That is in line with the current thought process behind the films though, which offer a rebooted Bond for a new age. And as such, Craig’s stories have been defined by that.
Casino Royale was a great re-introduction to the character and a solid debut for Craig. The character was a bit different than we were used to, but also compelling enough to win audiences over. Quantum of Solace, on the other hand, stumbled a bit. The character was a continuation of his previous experiences rather than the static entity we’ve come to know. And the plot felt a bit thin, with forgettable bad guys and unremarkable visuals. It certainly wasn’t a bad movie, but it was a forgettable one that somewhat dampened the shine Casino Royale brought back to the property. Skyfall reignites that shine – and the Bond brand should be able to bask in the afterglow for years.
Detailing the story of a Bond film is somewhat redundant, and it would be more of a disservice to go into the spoilers in what is a traditionally spoiler-free series. In general terms though, the plot takes a break from Bond hunting “Quantum,” the elusive organization that was responsible for the nefarious goings on of the first two Craig films, and instead focuses on a missing MI6 list, which contains classified information that could cost several lives. The villain of the film, Silva (Javier Bardem), has his own agenda, and it is personal. While again, the details of the film aren’t exactly a mystery, it is worth keeping what few spoilers the film has under wraps.
In terms of tone though, the story is fairly dark, and the action flows quickly. In Skyfall, Craig’s Bond retains that unique flair his version of the character has that differentiates him from the other Bonds, yet he manages to merge it better with the past incarnations of the character than in his previous outings. He continues to go through the odd rampage, but he also is more controlled while fighting an assassin on a moving train roof, while wearing a $6,000 tailored suit. There is also an actual narrative arc for Bond in this film, although it is less about discovering himself as it is rediscovering Bond. It is Craig’s best outing in the role, and that is due in no small part to his foil, Bardem.
Javier Bardem is one of the top actors in the world today, and he knows his way around a villain. Unlike his award winning performance as the taciturn, bolt-pistol wielding assassin Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Bardem revels in this role. He is alive and electric at all times, and the character’s emotions often bubble to the surface. In many ways he is a polar opposite to Bond’s cold exterior. He also radiates a bizarre and unsettling menace. Although it isn’t truly an accurate comparison due to the characters’ motivations, the closest approximation, at least in some ways that are better left seen than explained, is Heath Leger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to see Bardem also receive a supporting actor nomination. That’s obviously just speculation, but the performance is on that level.
The rest of the cast, including Dame Judi Dench – who has a much more significant part to play – and Ralph Fiennes both acquit themselves well. It is also nice to see the return of Q (played by Cloud Atlas’ Ben Whishaw), who quickly makes the character his own.
As with the return of Q, there are several homages to the Bond films of the past. This movie is more than the newest offering in the series; it is the 50th anniversary of the franchise. The way it all works together without being heavy handed is a credit to screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but also to director Sam Mendes, who manages to take several exceedingly bleak and gray settings and make them visually appealing, and keep the pacing moving at such a clip that you don’t mind the sudden shifts around the world, or the rise in action to the fall of exposition and back again.
Skyfall manages to find that balance of modern action film sensibilities and blend it perfectly with Bond, who is, for all intents and purposes, a superhero. Craig also seems more comfortable in the role – or at least the writers seem to have a better sense of where his Bond fits with the other Bonds. He isn’t the laid back, martini-swilling swinger of Connery’s day, nor is he the suave, gadget reliant Bond of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure. Yet in this film he finds his place and you can see where those Bonds and his fit together.
Even without Craig’s smooth performance that begins low and ends high, and even without Bardem’s memorable turn as the exceptionally bizarre antagonist, and even ignoring all the moments steeped deep in Bond lore (including a few surprises about Bond himself), Skyfall is just a well-constructed film, shot with confidence and glee by Mendes.
Due to the contextual issues of judging a modern Bond film against the now-legendary films of yesterday, it is almost impossible to say where Skyfall lands on the list of best Bond films, at least without just abandoning all pretense and judging based on personal preference alone. But it isn’t too far a stretch to say that Skyfall is an excellent anniversary present for Bond fans, and is among the best of the Bond films ever made.