Arriving on the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Skyfall contains more in-jokes and references than we’ve ever seen in the series. Even so, it’s also a major departure and shifts into a pure battle for survival for the hero and his mother figure M (Judi Dench). Following the energetic but cold action of Quantum of Solace, the right move for Sam Mendes is shifting to a more personal story. He’s an established craftsman who gracefully directs the action, but the intimate moments bring life to this story. Daniel Craig is known for playing Bond as a tough and hardened killer, and that ruthless determination remains here. However, he reveals the vulnerability at the center of the character with each successive role. Nobody does it better when it comes to catching a villain, yet he’s damaged enough to avoid becoming a superhero. Like Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, this Bond falls (literally) to his apparent death but returns to London when duty calls. He is wounded and has lost his faith, but that isn’t enough to keep him from working to protect his mentor.
Although it’s one of the longest Bond films at 145 minutes, Skyfall really moves and doesn’t feel bloated. One of the main reasons is the stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, who’s worked with Mendes in the past on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. The gorgeous images bring an epic scale to the production in attractive locations like the modern skyscrapers of Shanghai and the vast landscapes of Scotland. The first half sends Bond on a spy mission to locate Silva, and we’re intrigued to find out more about the man behind the curtain. His desolate island fortress brings an Old West feeling to their meeting despite the technology. That tone returns for the concluding siege, which has more in common with Rio Bravo than any Bond film. Screenwriters Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan throw in so many references to other movies that it’s nearly impossible to catch them all. Looking specifically at the franchise’s past, there’s a throwaway line about the exploding pen from Goldeneye, a lizard scene reminiscent of alligators in Live and Let Die, and the return of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger. While comments about the ejector seat in that car are basically fan service, they’re subtle enough to avoid feeling out of place. We also have a new Q, played with just the right nerdy sarcasm by Ben Whishaw. His art museum meeting with Bond is one of the most enjoyable scenes.
Skyfall delivers top-notch entertainment because there’s so much talent involved in the cast and crew. When Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney are playing small parts, you know this is an excellent group. Mendes is clearly one of the best directors to ever shoot a Bond film, and he delivers a stunning visual product. Considering this film in terms of the overall franchise, I’m not ready to give it an ultimate ranking. There’s so much to consider after one viewing that it will take a while before my final verdict. It’s that surprising complexity that shows just how far the series has evolved from the Brosnan days. Mendes finds a way to have some fun while still delivering serious drama. That delicate balance is tricky to pull off yet feels just right in this very entertaining movie. Craig can stand confidently with the past Bonds and has made the character his own with this third feature. It stands alone as a complete film while building solid groundwork for future installments.