Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, Ian Fleming (characters)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judy Dench, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Ola Rapace, Albert Finney
Before we proceed, let’s get this out of the way first: For a Bond, a James Bond film, the 23rd entry in the 50-year-old secret-agent series, SKYFALL, is nothing less (and sometimes more) than superlative. It offers an overabundance of vicarious pleasures and a surprising amount of, if not gravitas or profundity, then genuine, camp-free, something missing from the vast majority of pre-Daniel Craig Bonds. SKYFALL, however, is still a Bond film, with everything that implies. While it rounds out a loose trilogy that introduced Craig as Bond and reintroduced Bond to moviegoers and critics who believed or sensed that as a character, Bond was no longer relevant, SKYFALL is still part of an open-ended series, a franchise, and as a franchise certain needs, certain demands have to be met for continued viability in the global marketplace. More, of course, anon.
When we meet Bond (Craig), he’s in Istanbul with an inexperienced MI6 field agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to recover an encrypted hard drive containing the secret identities of NATO agents embedded in hot spots around the globe. In the wrong hands (they’re always wrong hands), the agents’ missions, including some, perhaps many, related to efforts to infiltrate terrorist groups, will be not only compromised, but will result in their immediate capture, torture, and (public) execution. The “exotic” setting and the high-adrenaline chase involving cars, motorcycles, and a bruising fight atop a speeding train, hew unsurprisingly close to the familiar, if not unwelcome, Bond formula established five decades ago. And it still works. The opening sequence also sets expectations, expectations SKYALL meets more often than not over the course of its two-hour-plus running time.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again. Bond’s target, Patrice (Ola Rapace), a highly skilled mercenary (are there any other kind?), escapes with the encrypted hard drive/ Bond ends taking a metaphorical and literal fall. While everyone, including M (Judy Dench), Bond’s maternal (and matriarchal) mentor, assumes he’s dead, Bond’s off recovering from his physical wounds. As CASINO ROYALE established six years ago, Craig’s Bond consistently sacrifices his body for whatever mission M sends him on. Regardless of whether he wins or loses a fight, he almost always emerges bruised, battered, and bleeding. Craig’s Bond is almost as vulnerable emotionally as he is physically. He may work alone, but he creates and maintains attachments, primarily to M, but also to the Bond Girl du jour, Eve for one, Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a mystery woman Bond encounters in Macau later on, for two. M faces the inevitable: Retirement on a government pension at the behest of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
After a bomb explodes in MI6’s London headquarters, leaving eight dead, Bond decides to return from his unexpected retirement. Bond quickly surmises that M was the original target. Evidence eventually points to an ex-agent, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who M once mentored and supervised in Hong Kong before the British handover. Silva neatly (perhaps too neatly) embodies Bond’s dark shadow. It’s probably not a coincidence that he dyes his naturally brown hair blond, perhaps to mock his successor as a field agent and M’s favorite. In short, Silva has mommy issues. Then again, Bond does too, but he keeps them mostly in check. M represents emotional and professional stability. For Silva, she represents betrayal and rejection. As Bond and Silva move toward their inevitable confrontation, the trail takes Bond to Shanghai, setting up a silhouetted fight scene inside an empty office building that serves as a reminder that Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins is behind the camera, a short trip to Macau for gambling and romance, and, ultimately, back to England.
Mendes occasionally lets narrative momentum sag, not atypical for Bond films where overcomplicated plots and monologuing villains tend to be the norm. Perhaps hoping to make up for lost time (QUANTUM OF SOLACE hit theaters four, long years ago), The first Oscar-winning filmmaker to direct an entry in the series, Sam Mendes (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, THE ROAD TO PERDITION, AMERICAN BEAUTY) overstuffs SKYFALL with incident and action beats. Taking his cue from the James Cameron school of storytelling, he fills SKYFALL with multiple climaxes, including one set in Scotland that offers a glimpse of Bond’s pre-007 life, an appropriately downbeat denouement, and since we’re talking Bond here, a brief, open-ended epilogue that promises Bond will return (as if there was any doubt). It’s that epilogue, along with the Bond formula beats that periodically threaten to make SKYFALL indistinguishable from its lesser predecessors.
Bond’s fans aren’t likely to be disappointed, but anyone hoping for a Bond that reaches the Platonic ideal of Ian Fleming’s singular creation might be. More discerning moviegoers will find something else to give them pause: SKYFALL’s gender politics. Whether it’s strongly implying that Silva’s villainy owes something to his bisexuality or homosexuality or the cold, callous way that Bond puts a female character in harm’s way to get closer to Silva, it’s clear Bond and his rights-holders haven’t fully joined the 21st century. Despite those misgivings, however, there’s little doubt SKYFALL belongs in the upper echelons of the Bond canon. And with Craig signed on for three more films with the promise of an ambitiously continuous story and a deepening of Bond’s character, Bond’s fans have much to anticipate in the next half decade.