Skyfall opens, as do all James Bond films, with an action sequence. Bond chases a villain through a Turkish marketplace, then onto a train, then onto the top of that train, and although the sequence is gripping and masterfully put together, it feels a bit tired. Two films after having our expectations of Bond reshuffled with Casino Royale, we have become accustomed to the new rhythms of the franchise. But Skyfall has a trick up its sleeve: the opening sequence is just a teaser. Director Sam Mendes is establishing the old Bond before he literally and figuratively kills him off, only to be resurrected with startling depth, a newfound sense of purpose, and a helluva lot of fun.
In both form and function, Skyfall straddles the line between old and new. Bond is mistakenly thought to be killed in action and finds himself enjoying the freedom that comes with it, but he is called back to service when a terrorist attack leaves MI6 on the defensive. A government committee is questioning the need for the antiquated spy agency, so M (Judi Dench, who makes the most of a much larger role than usual) sends Bond to find the culprit before the government shuts them down. In a sense, Bond is out to prove his utility to the world, and, like Mendes, he relies on tricks both old and new to do it.
While dealing with the pesky business of plot exposition, Skyfall leads with its arresting visual style. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has done some brilliant work (The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, and almost every film by the Coen brothers), but never before has it seemed so vital. Sequences like a hand-to-hand fight scene staged in silhouette and the darkly glorious final battle on the moors of Scotland help make this most visually poetic Bond film yet.
The film goes deeper into Bond’s motivations than ever before; indeed, the climax is a lyrical action sequence that illuminates and, potentially, disposes of Bond’s demons. The purpose of the Bond reboot that started with Casino Royale was to find authenticity in a character that had been slipping for several years, if not decades, into parody and caricature. Skyfall is the reboot that Casino Royale should have been. It is a meditation on the past, with many winks and nods to prior incarnations of Bond, but its themes and values are truly of this era.
Like many films released this year (such as The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Brave), it is built around strong female characters. M is crucial to the plot, and her strength in particular is what carries the day. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a new female agent (Naomie Harris) who is Bond’s equal in many ways. Indeed, this is the second film in a row in which Bond’s romantic adventures are merely an afterthought.
Similarly, Bond has always told us who our enemies are. Bond was, of course, a product of the Cold War, but now a complex world requires a more nuanced villain. In line with the Bourne movies and recent political dramas, Skyfall shows us a world in which the enemy is within. No longer is Bond fighting a megalomaniacal billionaire with plans for world domination. Skyfall’s villain is a creepy, wounded cyberterrorist with ties to MI6; in his addled mind, he is seeking vengeance for the government’s past sins. Javier Bardem, as the best Bond villain in years, brings those complexities to life in a frightening and even soulful performance.
In the end, the only problem I can find with Skyfall is that it leaves us nowhere to go with this character. Part of what has sustained Bond for the last fifty years has been that he always kept everyone – including us – at arm’s length. His charm was his elusiveness. But now that we know so many of his secrets, will he remain of interest to us? Legends never die, but humans have a shelf life.
History tells us that Bond will find a way to remain relevant, but I doubt that we will see another Bond film of this caliber for quite some time. If the next time we see our hero, he is simply leaping thoughtlessly from tall buildings, bedding exotic beauties, and looking awfully good in a tuxedo, well, I suppose that will be enough for some. For now, enjoy Skyfall, easily the most entertaining film of the year.
My Rating: See it in the Theater