I come to you as a newly minted James Bond fan. I haven’t seen every Bond movie, but I have seen many over the years... and I’ve never quite ‘gotten’ it. There are things I like in some of the Bond films, and I appreciate the classical Bond ‘elements,’ but I have found most of the movies in the series to run the gamut from weirdly lethargic to impenetrably silly. Every time a Bond fan extols the virtues of the Bond films I wish I could see what they saw.
I finally have, and I saw it in Skyfall. From the opening, which is a lengthy action scene that ranks among the best escalating chases I have ever seen on film, to the ending, which pushes a bunch of Bond buttons that even neophytes will find awesome, Skyfall thrilled me. While director Sam Mendes said he took cues from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, nobody bothered to tell screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, who have served up a funny, fun script that manages to be emotionally weighty while still being a blast.
Right at the beginning Bond is taken out of action. Thought dead and feeling betrayed by M, he hides out on a beach for three months, drinking and boning (for those worried about the Heineken placement in the movie, he drinks it here, during his dissolute phase). But when MI6 is directly attacked, Bond returns to Britain to find M under fire not just from a mysterious terrorist but from forces within the government, who think human intelligence is outdated.
Casino Royale was great, and I found myself fully invested in the Bond reboot, if not quite identifying as a 'Bond fan.' Quantum of Solace shook my faith, but I like Daniel Craig as Bond; I like his rough features mixed with his sharp intelligence, the way he looks handsome in a tux but also ready to burst through the seams and fuck someone up. The first two films in the series saw Craig’s Bond finding his way, but in Skyfall the way has been found. This is a full Bond, delivering one-liners and sleeping with every woman he meets, killing henchmen and fixing his cuffs. Craig has found the fun swagger that marked the Connery and early Moore Bonds, but he grounds it with a psychological realism. There’s a pain and an edge to him in Skyfall, but it’s not overwhelming. It’s simply informing who he is and the choices he makes.
The film perfectly balances these sides of Bond, and that perfection is embodied in the appearance of the classic DB5 Aston Martin in the film. Some slight spoilers follow: in Skyfall we learn that Bond has a DB5 Aston Martin sitting in a lock-up, and it appears to be the same one from Goldfinger - right down to the gadgets. This is an in-joke of sorts for Bond’s 50th anniversary, but it’s also a slight bit of insight into the character - this souped up car is how he views himself, even in this realer world reboot. And he’s had it sitting in this garage, just waiting for the right moment to finally unveil it.
While Casino Royale took its cues from the Bourne films, Skyfall gets back to more of the fun Bond elements. The villain has an island hideaway. There’s an absolutely incredible fight scene in an Asian casino that culminates in a pit filled with Komodo Dragons. There’s a helicopter gunship firing on a Scottish castle. But Mendes keeps the scope just this side of overblown, an extraordinary balancing act. This is a movie that realizes you can have fun while also being serious.
Javier Bardem epitomizes that. He’s having fun as Silva, the bleach blonde, sashaying villain who is Bond’s mirror image. Bardem goes broad, but he, like Craig, finds the psychological realism inside this character who could otherwise be silly. Balance is the mantra of Skyfall, and Bardem balances the menace of Silva with his delightfully weary reactions to all of Bond’s superspy antics.
One of the things we’re probably going to talk about in the months and years after Skyfall (because Skyfall is a movie we’re going to be talking about as a high point in the Bond franchise for years to come) is Silva’s seeming homosexuality. Like a scene where Bond has Naomie Harris’ character shave him as foreplay, there’s a hint of an uncomfortable old-fashionedness to this, and you would be forgiven for wondering ‘Isn’t this the kind of thing the series was rebooted to avoid?’ But Skyfall deals with Silva’s sexuality (and Harris’ shave) nicely, recasting these elements through a more modern lens.
In the case of Silva’s sexuality it feels integral. Silva is Bond’s evil double, the mirror image of 007. He needs to be equal to, or better than, Bond in every way, and sexuality is a big part of Bond. That Silva is able to use sexuality against Bond is fitting, and it works in a way it couldn’t with a female villain, where Bond could just get the upper hand by breaking the tension with a good fuck. That said, Bond’s way of handling Silva’s sexual advances may prove controversial for old school fans, but is amazing when viewed through a 21st century lens. Bond is truly modern.
The film is markedly non-modern in other ways. There’s a new Q, played by tousle-haired, geek chic Ben Whishaw, but Q’s arsenal isn’t as high tech as it once once. The relationship between Q and Bond is prickly and fun, with each of the two men coming to eventually respect each other (despite Q’s rather enormously moronic actions in the second half - Skyfall is a great film, but it coasts over some huge plot holes on charm alone), creating a working relationship I’m excited to see followed up on in the future.
There’s much more Dame Judi Dench in this film, as M’s way of handling her MI6 agents becomes the focus of the story. The film is utterly unsentimental about her and the hard decisions she’s made over the years, weighing the lives of individual agents against larger security concerns. Dench is an iron lady in Skyfall, but she masterfully lets the regret and doubt creep around the corners of her steely resolve.
Skyfall is more focused on the characters than the action, which means that there are fewer big set pieces than one might expect from a film like this. There’s a long chase scene in London that plays very old fashioned - it ends with a shoot out where people duck into doorways and pop out and shoot blindly - and a gorgeously shot fight scene in a Shanghai office tower and an explosive finale, but there’s never anything as big and involved as the opening sequence. Which is fine, because Skyfall is focusing on these characters, and that London chase is gripping and tense and filled with an atmosphere of real doom. Something very bad might happen to these characters, you believe, and because you like them this is is upsetting.
Speaking of that gorgeous Shanghai fight, I have to take time to single out Roger Deakins, whose cinematography is nothing short of groundbreaking. Shooting on digital, Deakins has managed to create a lush, colorful, rich look for the movie. Halfway through I realized this was shot on an Alexa and I couldn’t believe what I had been seeing - images with texture and life, and night scenes that were expertly lit to avoid the pitfalls of the medium. Too many old school DPs get tripped up by digital cameras, but Deakins not only triumphs, he utterly wrestles the digital image into a presentation as good as film. Skyfall is a movie that will assuage some of your fears about our digital future.
As the end credits of Skyfall come up, an on-screen title card acknowledges Bond’s 50th anniversary and promises “James Bond Will Return.” I have never wanted a return to happen so quickly; the last minutes of the film bring us to a place that finally, truly feel like the James Bond that fans have prattled about for decades. All of the pieces are in place, the reconstruction is complete, and Bond is back. He’s proven why he’s important, he’s shown his place in the modern information age, and he’s reclaimed the idea that great action and great characters can be in a movie that’s goddamned fun.