There have now been 23 James Bond movies — well, 25 if you count the unsanctioned 1983 Connery vehicle Never Say Never Again or the 1967 Casino Royale spoof with David Niven and Woody Allen — and not a one of them looks as exquisitely beautiful as Skyfall. Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty” and the exquisite “Road To Perdition”) not only brought his A-Game to the dog-eared 007 franchise, but he also brought celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, and quite frankly you’ve never seen a James Bond movie look so electrifyingly good. From the haunted Scottish highlands to the LED-backlit Shanghai skyline to Macau and London and God-knows-where in between, Skyfall is presented as breathtakingly visionary cinematic adventure that oh, also happens to be a superior James Bond movie and a rich, satisfying film.
Daniel Craig returns in his third outing as the most celebrated literary and cinematic creation of Ian Fleming, after the triumphant 2006 Casino Royale reboot and the mostly dismal 2008 Quantum of Solace epilogue. Skyfall is not a direct sequel to either of those movies; you can walk into the latest movie cold and not miss a beat. Still, there’s an evolution of character, one which Craig has made entirely his own. If Casino Royale represented the unforged, “blunt instrument” Bond, and Quantum the “revenge-driven rogue agent” Bond, the 007 in Skyfall is the “seasoned, then shaken, then intensely personal” Bond. Not since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have we gotten this deep into Bond as an actual, flesh-n-blood human being (while still being the mythic, nigh-superheroic cinematic creation he can’t ever avoid, nor should he). If Connery is the high watermark — and he is — his Bond was still all about the mission, the quips, the gadgets, and the ladies. You never really needed to know that he was an orphan or even that he was in fact Scottish. While it worked for Connery (and for the most part Roger Moore, whose quippy, smirky Gentleman Spy approach I still adore), that kind of surface-level conceit doesn’t play as well for contemporary audiences. Well, for those who want something meatier than big explosions, snarky one-liners, and the type of ridiculous hyperkinetic Michael Bay editing that plagued Quantum of Solace.
Skyfall plays out like one of the better Ian Fleming novels that Ian Fleming never wrote. It breathes as a full-fledged story, a whip-smart literary adaptation of a book that never existed. While there is plenty of action that will satisfy even the most Ritalin-addicted of audiences — including a breathtaking set-piece set in a Shanghai high-rise in almost total darkness, haloed by LED reflections punctuating the atmosphere — the focus is foremost on character and story, and unfolds like the telling of a fine espionage novel. The MacGuffin revolves around the theft of an encrypted hard drive that contains the identities of dozens of spies, agents, and informers infiltrated within terrorist organizations around the world. The villain, Raoul Silva — a mysterious agent played with equal parts razor-sharp intelligence, personable quirkiness, and sadistic menace by a magnificent Javier Bardem — threatens to expose several agents a week, EVERY week, as a means to exact revenge with the intelligence community, but especially MI-6 and its intrepid leader M (Dame Judi Densch, who needs no declaration of awesomeness from ME, thank you very much), with whom he apparently shares a past connection.
The surface plot is reasonable simple: Bond has to retrieve the hard drive and capture/terminate the baddie. But agents are disposable in the espionage world, and Bond discovers this early in the film. The themes of family, responsibility, and consequences resonate throughout the entire movie, as a betrayal of sorts puts Bond into a crisis of confidence for nearly the first two acts of the film, and Daniel Craig shoulders the dramatic load admirably. These swampy moral ambiguities not only affect his relationship with M and another MI-6 field agent Eve (“stunning” is not strong enough to describe Naomie Harris, either in the looks or performance departments), but also bringing to light and calling into question the entire raison d’être for MI-6. Are the kind of espionage heroics represented by Bond outdated, counterproductive, even immoral? The very public loss of the top-secret hard drive and the ensuing public relations/national security fiasco has forced M to be seated before Parliamentary hearings, led by Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), ostensibly questioning her means, approach, and ability.
In between all the mechanisms of plot and story, as the game pieces are slowly being set up, director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan effortlessly weave in all the elements we come to expect from a Bond adventure: exotic locales, exciting action sequences, mysterious femme fatales, a stunning theme song by Adele over a ridiculously cool opening credits sequence, and a WHOLE lot of shout-outs to previous Bond flicks. Some of them are fairly subtle. Some of them are basically recognizable. And ONE of them practically made the entire audience stand up and cheer REAL loud. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s that good.
The best thing a James Bond movie can do — besides thrill and entertain — is bring something fresh, new, and different to a 50 year, 23-film series that has practically prided itself on sticking to a classic, tried-and-true formula, often successfully but even more often to its detriment. What Mendes and his screenwriters have done with Skyfall is craft a film that works as a grand cinematic story first and foremost, then as both an archetypal Bond flick and a natural extrapolation of Fleming novel tropes, and finally as a superlative piece of popcorn entertainment. All the pieces are in place, and as the closing credits so reliably promise, “James Bond will return.” And after Skyfall, you’ll be ravenously waiting for it.