When Skyfall was released in fall 2012, many James Bond fans considered it among the best of the series. Few could anticipate during the low points of the Brosnan era that we’d reach a place where people seriously considered Best Picture potential. While a nomination didn’t happen, the discussion showed quite an evolution for the franchise. Bringing powerhouses like Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes on board introduced more legitimacy, and expanding Judi Dench’s role created a dramatic arc for Bond and M. Sam Mendes brought renewed confidence behind the camera, and Roger Deakins’ photography and Thomas Newman’s score enhanced that work. It’s a challenge to compare this film to the series’ early movies because they live in such different spheres. I reviewed Skyfall after its original release, and this post will dig further into how it diverts from the model while still being a Bond film. There are a few issues more noticeable on a second viewing, but it remains a stunning film.
Looking back to 2006, Casino Royale arrived with less fanfare and managed to convert many Bond cynics. I was ready to write off the series after Die Another Day, so it was a revelation to even a cynical long-time fan. Craig took the character seriously, and that approach has permeated all three films with him as the star. There was a slight misstep with Quantum of Solace two years later, though it wasn’t as sharp a dive as many believe. The first Craig film set the bar so high that nearly anything would be considered a step backwards. When you add that to a dreary story and too much fast-cutting from Marc Forster, it opened the door for cries of “worst Bond ever!” and other ridiculous statements. The people that make that claim have not watched Diamonds Are Forever recently. Even so, there were questions prior to Skyfall about where the series was headed. Could it be fun but not veer back to silliness?
Diving into the MayhemThe story opens with a blurry shot of a figure at the end of a hallway. It pays homage to the gun barrel sequence that was a Bond standard until the Craig era. Once the haze clears, the shadows obscure most of his face as he steps into a hotel room. It’s quite a mysterious entrance for a character we know so well. Sam Mendes and his team of writers seem determined to make Bond an interesting guy once again. When he leaves the quiet hotel room and steps into the bustling streets of Istanbul, the non-stop chase begins. It’s interesting to note that the most high-flying action sequence opens the film in a similar vein to the relentless chase early in Casino Royale. Mendes isn’t worried about losing the audience because he believes that the character beats are strong enough later. This opening thrusts us into a daring world where Bond and his fellow agent (Naomi Harris) must do anything to prevent the list of agents from falling into the wrong hands. This MacGuffin make the chase more relevant than the normal mayhem.
What makes this scene work is how closely it risks drifting into comedy. It never veers into “Bond drives a tank” territory from Goldeneye, but watching him use a construction vehicle on board a moving train heads in that direction. A main reason this sequence thrills is because of Newman’s score, which speeds up and slows down with the action. Another is the vulnerability of this Bond, who gets shot twice during a short period of time. He’s also evenly matched with the villain, who responds to Bond’s moves and escapes in the end. Watching Bond fly off the cliff and to his apparent death ranks among the most impressive pre-credits events in the series. We know that Bond can’t die right at the start, but the fact that he’s so close sets the tone for the entire movie. He’s broken and weakened by this experience, and that makes his path that much harder down the road.
This Is the End…I’ve grown weary of the Bond credit sequences, which have started to follow such a predictable formula. They’ve improved in the Craig films but still have felt out of place for the most part in the more realistic world. Skyfall is the exception to this rule, however. The imagery begins within the water and flows seamlessly towards the visions of death, hell, and the afterlife. There are a few attractive women the mix, but they’re hardly the focus of this sequence. Instead, we’re left with a claustrophobic feeling that the walls are closing in on Bond as he gets older. How can this guy survive in a new world order? Death is just around every corner, and escaping it (for him and M) may be quite a challenge this time.
A key reason for the credits’ success is the title song, which ranks among the series' best. Adele’s powerful voice fits perfectly with the tone, which feels epic without getting too bombastic. Its construction is fairly simple, yet it works because it isn’t trying to be edgy or popular. Instead, it heralds back to classic tunes like “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball”. This is definitely by design and fits with the approach to the film as a whole. It’s trying to deliver a modern action film while paying tribute to the glory days of the franchise. Adele is modern yet able to stand alongside Shirley Bassey without seeming out of place. It’s hard to say the same thing about Sheryl Crow or even Madonna in this musical style.
It’s a Young Man’s GameThe first hour is intriguing because we don’t rush into the action following the chase in Turkey. Bond is a broken guy who spends his days drinking, taking pain meds, and having sex with a beautiful woman. He seems to get little joy out of any of it; he’s nothing without the job. Back in England, M is facing serious heat while MI6 faces a terrorist attack. Both come from the old-school game and may not have a place in the new world. Their new Quartermaster is a young computer genius, and shrewd gadgets don’t have the same place in this world. What did you expect, an exploding pen? This clever wink to a painful device in Goldeneye is one of many nods to longtime fans within this movie. Of course, they may not be ready for a Bond that’s closer to The Dark Knight than Goldfinger. Even with the family back story and more personal villain, there’s still enough to make this a Bond film.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however. Bond first ventures to Shanghai for one of the most visually stunning moments on screen in 2012. The fight within the shadows is a truly remarkable moment, and the giant video screens in the background contrast sharply with the old-school fight. Bond’s weakness again impacts his skills and nearly leads to a spectacular fall with a rising elevator. Nothing’s easy for a guy who needs a massage and physical therapy more than anything. He can still hold his own in a fight, but the brutal instrument of destruction that we saw in his earlier outing isn’t there. Bond’s more likely to break a rib crashing into a wall than smash through it, and this vulnerability serves the character well.
Not Suited for Field DutyThe Daniel Craig films have moved forward their characterizations of women, particularly Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Even so, there’s still a sense that the franchise is trying to have it both ways. Naomi Harris does a convincing job as Eve, who’s a capable ally for Bond in the field. Even so, she’s essentially a set-up for the kicker that her last name is Moneypenny. Harris feels like a real person, which is a major step in the right direction. Her part in the movie still feels a little too thin, however. She’s still miles ahead of Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), who makes a grand appearance and then goes out so quickly. It’s the classic case of Bond girl who betrays the villain and is killed. The difference is that she’s with the bad guy because of fear. Severine doesn’t need much convincing from Bond to help him. Her character is mostly around for a quick shower scene and to prove the villain’s nastiness.
The counterpoint to complaints about the women is Dench’s remarkable work as M. She brings such grace and strength to the part and deserves the opportunity for an expanded role. I’m completely on board with her character right from the start, and she stands up well to Bond and Fiennes’ Mallory. Is that enough to offset the limitations of the others? It’s a start in the right direction, yet I still feel like more could happen. Craig and Mendes prove that taking chances pays huge dividends, so why not do more? I’m hoping they can build on the modest advances this time and keep moving forward in the future.
Rats in a CageOne of the most brilliant moves in Skyfall is holding back a clear shot of Bardem’s Silva until the 1:12 mark. Characters talk about him in fear and just build the tension for the memorable arrival. The long shot from behind Bond as Silva slowly approaches is incredible. He recounts a lengthy monologue while slowly approaching the camera in a lengthy shot. It’s easy to forget just how little he’s actually on screen because he leaves such an impression. Silva’s plan is essentially very simple (make M suffer and kill her), but he stays complex because of Bardem’s devilish performance. His delayed appearance recalls an even later arrival for Dr. No back in the first Bond picture. While he’s working outside of normal reality, Silva’s also a smart guy who won’t go down easily. He’ll keep pursuing M right to the bitter end.
A less inspiring move is having Silva employ the familiar strategy of allowing capture to enact his plan. Wouldn’t it be easier to just do the same thing without the theatrics? Of course, he wanted the chance to confront M and make sure she realized he was the villain. This plan would seem more novel if it wasn’t also used in The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It could just be a poor coincidence, though I doubt that’s the case given the inspiration from Nolan’s film. Another question mark is the moment when Silva attacks Bond with an unoccupied train car. How would he know that Bond would be there? On a repeated viewing, I decided that the car was meant to be a distraction regardless. Silva used it as a tactic to slow down Bond, but that wasn’t the original goal. It’s a bit of a stretch, but that’s my best guess.
A unique part of Silva’s role is that he actually succeeds in his plan. Bond kills him with a knife to the back, but the damage is already done. There were some obstacles along the way, and Silva didn’t fire the shot. However, the result was the same. That doesn’t mean that Bond fails completely, however. There was a danger of major collateral damage from Silva’s vendetta against M. By choosing to leave the city and face the enemy on their own terms, Bond and M had to realize they might not survive. The risk was needed to stop the threat and serve the greater good. That’s the real victory beyond killing Silva. MI6 and Bond are still in place to defend against the next threat that arises to take them down.
James Bond Will ReturnWe’re still more than a year from the next Bond release, but that’s okay. The four-year gap before Skyfall made me appreciate it even more. Craig is 46 years old, so there could be a point where he decides the physical toll is too much. Thankfully, his confidence in the part has only grown with each successful film. There are a few moments of levity within the darkness, particularly in Bond’s cat-and-mouse pursuit of Silva in the London Underground terminal. We also get the chance to revisit the famous Aston Martin car, which leads to a fun exchange with M about the Goldfinger ejector seat. In the final battle, Bond’s angriest moment comes after the car is destroyed, and Craig’s face is pitch-perfect.
Skyfall’s coda has a gorgeous shot of Bond standing over the city ready to fight evil after the loss of M. Their personal connection is a rarity and brought much-needed heart. What’s interesting is the way this experience leaves Bond with a new dedication to his job. When his new boss Mallory asks him if he’s ready to get back to work, it’s clear that the broken man is gone. When the gun barrel arrives and the phrase “James Bond will return” appears, it feels earned because he’s been put through the ringer. The classic shots of the red door, Moneypenny, and M giving a new mission set us up for a more familiar Bond installment. Of course, I doubt the next film will be a complete throwback. Mendes and Craig will continue to take the franchise in interesting ways while keeping the past in mind with each new step. They’ve set the bar very high, and will take something remarkable to surpass it.