Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomi Harris, and Ralph Fiennes
Directed by Sam Mendes
After the disappointing mess of the last one, I struggled to find enthusiasm for a new Bond film. Casino Royale raised my expectations so high, and Quantum of Solace dashed them so completely, that I didn’t want to hope that the series could recover. Still, everyone told me the movie was fun, at least, and described it as a return to form. Some people even seemed genuinely excited about it. So I compromised and saw it at the dollar theater.
And I was blown away.
I don’t want to oversell it for you, but Skyfall is a damn good movie, and as an action movie and a Bond movie I’d say it’s even legitimately great. This has partly to do with the gorgeous cinematography, which is master-class work by Roger Deakins, but the screenplay and direction are also leagues beyond what we’ve seen before in the Bond franchise. Instead of the excessive chase scenes and clumsy plotting of the last film, Skyfall takes us back to the character of Bond, makes him human again, and gives us a bonus: a story about M.
I’m not the first to say that Skyfall is as much about M as it is about Bond, but it bears repeating. Beyond the flash and colors, beyond the grim deaths and reintroduction of classic Bond elements, there is an emotional core built around Bond, M, and the relationship they share. M clearly has a personal investment in Bond, complicated by both his inherently rebellious nature and the nature of the work, which requires her to send him into danger, perhaps to his death, over and over again. This is set against the changing nature of intelligence work, and the literal aging of the characters of Bond and M, to create a very satisfying story, and a worthy marker for the Bond franchise’s 50th anniversary.
The basic plot involves an existential threat, not to the world at large, but to the more limited world of Western espionage. A list containing the names and whereabouts of NATO spies has been stolen, presumably to be sold to the highest bidder. Not only does this place lives at risk and jeopardize dozens of intelligence operations, it also causes the British government to question the competence, and even necessity, of their top spy, M. Simultaneously, Bond is shot and out of pocket for months, and only intervention by M keeps him on the active duty rolls. Meanwhile, the one behind it all begins a campaign of harassment against M, indicating that this may be more personal than mercenary terrorism. The agents dying in foreign lands, far from home, may be merely collateral damage to a villain looking to settle a more intimate score.
This idea of human beings as collateral damage runs through the entire film, especially when you realize that the goal is not about money, or power, but revenge. The plot forces you to consider the high cost of the kind of life, and the kind of world, that requires a person to sacrifice other people for Queen and country. It’s an indictment of M’s entire life. And into this comes Bond. I don’t think any other Bond film has made me feel quite so strongly Bond’s place as a tool of the Secret Service. Past Bonds have always seemed more like gentleman adventurers, doing a favor for the Crown while out on a holiday. Even though he’s probably the most rebellious and irreverent Bond we’ve ever seen, and a highly competent agent, Craig’s Bond is clearly in service to M, and knows no other home but this service. The relationship between them, the care they have for each other, even after all Bond’s been through, after all she’s asked of him, gives this movie the emotional weight that’s missing from nearly every other film of its type. I care about their pain, emotional as well as physical. I care, and so, despite the film’s length, I never get bored.
Admittedly, it did occur to me, a few times, to wonder how long I’d been in the theater. Skyfall feels long, but without the multiple endings that marred Casino Royale, I’m not sure what could be removed, exactly, where the fat could be trimmed. The callbacks to classic Bond, while occasionally too cute, are not gratuitous, and are subtly handled. Some of the longer establishing shots might be cut down, but I’m loathe to sacrifice any of that beauty. I left the theater feeling like I’d just seen a work of art, with images from Macao, Turkey, and the Scottish moor all imprinted in my brain. Skyfall is long, but, ultimately, worth every minute.
Several people described Skyfall to me as the most “Bond-like” of all recent Bond films, and I guess I can see what they mean. It’s all here, everything we want and expect from Bond, from Q to Moneypenny, from car chases to explosions, from unflappable hero to memorable villain. But there’s something more here that takes Skyfall beyond being a good action movie or a good Bond movie. Alongside everything we expect is a good story, carried by sharp writing, smart direction, and flawless performances from Dench, Craig, and Bardem. Skyfall is beautiful, and a very good movie, in which a venerable action franchise is commemorated with a story rich in believable characters, emotional depth, and mature themes that reward reflection. I never thought I’d say anything like that about a Bond movie. It’s tempting to be cynical about this being a long-lasting change, but in the meantime, I’m happy to have been surprised, and looking forward to watching Bond again.