Working a mission in Turkey, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in pursuit of a man who holds a stolen hard drive with the identities of every MI6 currently working deep within terrorist organizations. In pursuit with the threat the man could get away, Bond is accidentally shot by a fellow agent when M (Judi Dench) fears the hard drive will get out in the open. Feared dead, Bond disappears, only reappearing months later when MI6 Headquarters is attacked in a terrorist bombing. The culprit? A former MI6 agent and brilliant mind with technology and computers, Silva (Javier Bardem). The former agent is looking for revenge, and his sights are set on M herself. Severely wounded in Turkey and wasting away via pills and booze, Bond has his work cut out for him if he hopes to stop Silva from releasing the list of MI6 agents on an international level.
Like any Bond movie, that plot synopsis is about as concise as I think I’m going to get it. Moral of the story? It’s a gem. After the average but mostly disappointing Quantum of Solace, the Bond franchise gets back to basics for its 50th anniversary and 23rd film overall. For starters, they found the right man for the job directing, Sam Mendes of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Jarhead, Road to Perdition and many other non-Bond like movies. He brings a different eye to the franchise. The script from a trio of writers as well is about as good as it gets, but more on that later. As a visual medium, ‘Skyfall’ is a stunner, not just a great-looking Bond movie, but a great-looking movie in general. Credit there goes to Roger Deakins, director of photography. Also worth mentioning, composer Thomas Newman’s score, nothing flashy, but it’s different enough to be interesting. Of course, having the James Bond theme from Monty Norman never hurt any score….EVER. So again, it’s the little things that we might not always think of, but the behind-the-camera angle works perfectly.
I have long said Sean Connery is the best James Bond of the six actors who have portrayed him with Craig (his legacy still to be decided) in close second. After Skyfall, that opinion has changed. I think it’s a push. As I mentioned in the Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace reviews, Craig is able to make James Bond, 007 himself, a real-life, 3-D human being. He’s not some indestructible hired killer without emotion or feeling. Following the thrilling pre-credit sequence where Bond is shot, we see James at his lowest. When he comes back to MI6, we see an agent who has lost some of his edge, his hard-earned ability gone. Now, he must fight his way back to some sort of 007 normalcy. The story develops, and we see more of his character as Bond gets some development, including the first-ever (that I can think) revelation about his childhood. No real spoilers here, but the final 30-45 minutes delves into the myth of the Bond character like no others have even tried. I can’t wait to see where the character goes next.
This next statement is nothing new. Countless other reviews have made the point, but it’s key. It’s 2012. There is no Cold War, no enemy Russians hell-bent on destroying the free world. Worldwide, international villains are harder to identify. So what is MI6 supposed to do? It’s not Russkies vs. Brits anymore. These villains are different. M, her actions, and MI6 come under fire in ‘Skyfall.’ What’s the point of them even being around? Does a modern world need individual agents patrolling the world in the shadows (as M so simply and eloquently puts it)? Bond fans can now answer in unison…YES. So in that sense, Mendes, Craig and Co. get back to basics. In a world unlike anything we’ve seen before, maybe we need agents like Bond more than ever. That’s where I think Skyfall is special. Much of that extraneous “stuff” (for lack of a better word) is stripped away. This is Bond at his simplest. A highly-trained agent with a gun and a radio transmitter, nothing else. No gadgets, no gimmicks. The best part? Nothing else is needed.
So let’s dive in. Mendes assembled one impressive cast to work with here. Craig as mentioned is basically perfect as the very-human Bond. Judi Dench is given her most fleshed-out part as M, MI6 head of agents who must now defend every single one of her actions. Not surprisingly, Dench does not disappoint with more screentime. Already previously identified as one of the great villains of all-time from No Country for Old Men, Bardem is a breath of fresh air in the Bond villain department. His Silva quickly moves into the top 3 or 4 Bond villains. It’s not a stereotypical bad guy part though. We learn more about his back story, more about who he is and what drives him. Also making Bond aficionados happy, Ben Whishaw is cast as Q, Bond’s quartermaster, supplying him with everything he needs. Ralph Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, a government higher-up associated with MI6 and working to help M. Naomie Harris plays Eve, another agent working with Bond while Berenice Marlohe is memorable in an underused part as Severigne, a link to Silva. Rory Kinnear is solid too as Tanner, M's assistant who works with Bond to get back his edge.
With a story focused on character development and a great visual appeal, fans need not worry. The action is incredible. The pre-credit sequence chase via foot-motorcycle-train gets things going at a lightning pace. Adele’s theme song – Skyfall, listen HERE – is a winner too. What works about the action is that it flows so well and effortlessly with the story. Bond fights a rival assassin in Shanghai in a back-lit skyscraper in a sequence that seems almost art-house in style. I don’t want to give too much away in terms of the action, but I’ll leave it at this. It works. It just does. It is stylish without being flashy, and thankfully leaves that hyper-active editing behind with Quantum. We can see the action, and that makes all the difference. The best is the end, a showdown with Bond, M, and Kincaid (Albert Finney, a scene-stealer as a man from Bond’s past) shooting it out western-style at an isolated Scottish manor house with Silva’s small army of machine gun-wielding henchmen.
In making Skyfall, I think the producers/creators made a wise decision. They didn’t try and change a successful franchise. They take what works and build off it. In that way, it comes across as a quasi-homage to the best Bond movies while still carving out its own identity. We see Bond’s original Aston Martin (ejector seat included), we learn more about Bond, and in the end, we have a final scene with two key points and sort-of twists. Again, no real details here. Enjoy and discover the movie for yourself. The point though is simple. While advancing the series, franchise and character, they’re sticking to what works. There is a simple perfection when these movies work well (Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, Goldeneye, The Spy Who Loved Me), and Skyfall gets it done on a huge scale. A great movie, and another great Bond story. I can’t wait to see where 007 heads next. Check out the trailer below.
Skyfall (2012): ****/****