Dir. Sam Mendes
4.5 out of 5
As much as the James Bond series is heralded as the quintessence of big-screen action, it’s been equally concerned with reaction. For all the recurring iconography – the cars, the gadgets, the women – its individual iterations have featured their own malleable interpretations of the character. When Casino Royale rebooted Bond for a post-9/11 world of conflicted Jason Bourne-like heroes, it was the latest instance of a marketplace-motivated reinvention. An unprecedented 50-year cinematic run proves that this is a successful model: Bond, the man for all time.
But Bond is also a man of his time. And this is a time of paranoia, of grim responsibility, of fearing the enemy within. So it comes as little surprise that Skyfall channels the spirit of dense, dark contemporary action films – most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But instead of just doubling down on gravitas, Skyfall retains 007’s droll wit and deft touch to create a Bond film that not only manages to rise above most of its predecessors, but also stands as the rare entry that successfully trumps the films from which it borrows.
The film begins its plunge into gloom early, when Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed dead after a botched attempt to recover a top-secret list of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations. Then a bomb rocks MI6 headquarters in London, pushing the organization into makeshift digs in an underground bunker and rattling M (Judi Dench), who appears to be the target of an unseen adversary. The trail of evidence leads a rejuvenated Bond – after a brief beachfront retirement – to China where former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is pulling the strings of a sophisticated techno-terrorist plot to exact revenge on his former employer.
It helps that, with Silva, Skyfall eschews the type of world-domination megalomania usually endemic to Bond villains. As a crazy man with a simple goal, Javier Bardem gives another brilliantly unnerving performance that would trigger an avalanche of Oscar buzz if it wasn't smack in the middle of a populist popcorn flick. He’s a terrific foil for the icy calm of Daniel Craig’s 007, whose haunted eyes barely conceal that’s he’s similarly motivated by a subterranean anger and a thirst for vengeance – emotions that are kept in check by professional safety valves such as his junior field colleague Eve (Naomie Harris) and a reintroduced Q (Ben Whishaw), a cocky, boyish techie whose idea of nifty gadgetry is quaint and dignified. (“We don’t go in for that sort of thing” is his response to the anathema of an exploding pen.)
For a film that’s essentially a variation on the “this time it’s personal” thriller template, Skyfall is genuinely engaging, blitzing through a robust 140-minutes with sly humor, compelling conflicts, and cleverly-placed callbacks to the Bond legacy. That legacy, though sometimes laced with silliness, is the main advantage that director Sam Mendes has over the many contemporary action films that are obsessed with playing it completely straight. This Bond’s flaws may be more apparent, but that stiff upper lip remains wryly in place as he defends queen and country and quite a bit more in his final confrontation with Silva. Befitting a film that satisfyingly blends elements of blockbusters past and present, Skyfall’s old-fashioned heroics are an ideal, no-nonsense précis for a brave new world of action epics.