James Bond officially reaches the big 5-0 this year, at least in America when the 1962 British adaptation Dr. No opened nationally in spring 1963. (It opened May 30, 1963, at downtown’s Loew’s State, now the Landmark). And yowza, what a birthday present Skyfall (MGM/Columbia; 143 minutes; widescreen; PG-13; 2012) has turned out to be! The 23rd chapter concerning the adventures of author Ian Fleming’s smooth spy has scored big time with audiences, critics and especially longtime fans, as this Bond bonanza simultaneously goes back to the basics (hello, our old friend Aston Martin!) while also looking ahead to the franchise’s future.
Much deserved credit for Skyfall’s mega-success must go to Sam Mendes, the noted Broadway director and Academy Award-winning auteur behind artier fare such as 1999’s American Beauty and 2002’s Road to Perdition. With those flicks on his resume, Mendes seemed like the absolute last guy fans would want in charge of their hero, yet he has paved the way for this series’ most stunning achievement in years.
Actually, this Bond market has been heading in the right direction since 2006’s reboot Casino Royale introduced actor Daniel Craig as the lean and mean agent provocateur. Some fans say that the series stumbled with 2008’s Quantum of Solace, a direct sequel to Royale that was marred by a too-flashy visual approach by director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) that disengaged audiences from the action.
But that was then and this is now. Mendes skillfully guides Skyfall’s even-steven mix of rock-sturdy characterizations, which you’d expect from this drama-oriented director, and hellzapoppin’ thrill sequences, which are surprisingly dynamic and fresh from a guy who has avoided the action genre.
For a film that celebrates the series’ golden anniversary, Skyfall is all about transitions, with new players added to the roster and other performers bidding farewell. The plot kicks off with a gun-toting Bond literally coming out of the shadows (a thematic thread that becomes evident later) as he investigates the shooting of a fallen colleague. Seconds later the chase is on as Bond commandeers a motorcycle to pursue his quarry through an Istanbul bazaar and atop rickety roofs, followed by a quick detour as both parties jump aboard a whizzing train. Longtime MI6 honcho M (Judi Dench) is monitoring the activity from London headquarters, with newbie agent Eve (Naomie Harris) on the ground helping out in Turkey, until an errant bullet puts Bond out of commission.
Meanwhile, the film’s diabolical villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), is stirring a ruckus with British Intelligence, since he has orchestrated the pilfering of a hard drive that reveals the identities of undercover agents. It’s bad enough that British bureaucrats and MI6 upper management, including the high-ranking Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), want M to retire from her post. Yet it’s even worse that Silva has his own vengeful reasons for payback, as the still-recuperating Bond—who is plenty perturbed at M in regard to that aforementioned bullet—learns during this assignment.
Mendes oversees the changes in the franchise with both sobriety and humor. Take the subplot involving British politicians who don’t understand the necessity of old-school undercover agents like the rough-and-tumble Bond. They are viewed as anachronisms in a modern age where drone strikes, as one example, often accomplish similar goals, albeit on an abstract, impersonal level.
On the other hand, Skyfall viewers will meet new gadget guru Q (Ben Whishaw), a whippersnapper hacker with a droll delivery. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” he pooh-poohs to Bond prior to the Silva mission. “We don’t go in for that anymore.”
Skyfall doesn’t make room for the traditional Bond girl, either, although actress Berenice Marlohe makes a sultry impression as Severine, a mystery lady with a sad childhood story who is forced to work for Silva. As with most women who encounter Bond for a dalliance at the movie’s midway point, don’t expect the Severine character to linger for the closing credits.
Instead, Mendes offers some new twists involving the standard mano-a-mano confrontation between good and evil, especially since the Silva baddie is played with such sinister relish by Javier Bardem. The high point concerns a homoerotic exchange between Bond, who’s tied up at the moment, and Silva, who spins some mind games as he caresses 007’s below-the-belt attributes. “What makes you think this is my first time?” Bond parries, as if he’s in a Noel Coward drawing-room comedy.
Mendes also emphasizes the enduring professional relationship between M and Bond, particularly in Skyfall’s final half-hour as the pair square off against Silva’s army. Viewers will be treated to some glimpses into Bond’s own past (“Orphans always make the best recruits,” M says), and actor Albert Finney turns up late in the game as Kincade, who turns out to be something of a quasi-father figure. The casting of Finney, whose career dates back to the British “angry young man” feature Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and his character’s thematic DNA connection to Bond, is an adroit touch in a movie that’s brimming with them. After all, Kincade declares at one point, “The old ways are best.”
Still, it’s the plight of M, aging yet not ready to be put out to pasture, that is the real emotional center of the script devised by frequent Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with an assist by Gladiator’s John Logan. Judi Dench gives her longtime role all she’s got, which is considerable (she’s been in the franchise since Pierce Brosnan’s debut in 1995’s GoldenEye), as her M leaves the series with a steely sense of dignified grace.
Dench’s performance neatly dovetails with the fine work by Daniel Craig, who now inhabits a unique comfort zone as Bond: He’s able to shift emotional gears within his elegantly cruel badass without missing a beat.
Everything else is icing on Skyfall’s birthday cake, such as powerhouse singer Adele’s warbling of the Shirley Bassey-esque title song. There’s also a lovely bit during the opening 12-minute sequence when the sartorially splendid Bond hops into a train compartment, thanks to the hole he ripped open on its roof with a construction vehicle (don’t ask, just watch), then momentarily adjusts his cuff links before continuing the chase.
Best. Bond. Ever? Well, maybe not for the generation of moviegoers who caught up with the Sean Connery exploits on the big screen. Yet the artistic and crowd-pleasing triumph of Skyfall certainly demonstrates that nobody does it better than the folks behind this slam-bang espionage franchise.
Now available as a home-video platter from MGM-20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Skyfall’s quick turnaround from November release in the multiplexes to DVD status owes mostly to cross-promotional timing. All previous Bond actors are due at the Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 24, for a birthday salute, including Craig, Roger Moore, one-shot George Lazenby, two-flick Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and even the reclusive Sean Connery, not seen in local cinemas since 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,
The movie itself is offered as a DVD-only incarnation that has some behind-the-scenes featurettes as well as a Blu-Ray/DVD package that has more making-of vignettes as well as two separate commentary tracks, one with director Mendes, the other with longtime producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Skyfall is presented in a 2.40:1 letterbox format, preserving the sumptuous widescreen framing accomplished by director of photography Roger Deakins, whose visual style has enhanced many Coen Brothers productions.