(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on November 8, 2012.)
This is kind of a new foray for me. How does one actually rate and review a James Bond movie? Do you treat it like any other movie, or are these movies held to a different standard due to their cultural status? This is the first movie of this kind that I’ve had to cover, and I’m kind of frightened at the prospect. Well, let’s start with the obvious: Skyfall is a hell of a good time at the movies, with every cent of its $150 million-dollar budget being used and captured with masterful clarity. Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have made a very great-looking film (note: Skyfall is the first Bond movie to be shot 100% digitally) and have made an indelible mark in the James Bond canon. Yet I can’t help feeling that Skyfall needs to be held to a different standard – the kind not only set forth by the previous two Bond movies, but other real-world dramatic action films like The Dark Knight and Heat.
The events of 9/11 pretty much ensured that terrorism was no longer a joke; like everything else in the world, movies changed with the climate. We started seeing more serious takes on genre pictures; in 2002, The Bourne Identity came along and knocked everyone to the floor with the cold, calculating nature of its hero (or anti-hero, depending on how you look at it). More bluntly brutal, real-world-based action movies with serious actors came along, and in 2006, Eon Productions unleashed Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale to much critical and audience acclaim (and a little soon-forgotten derision – does danielcraigisnotbond.com mean anything to you?). No longer was James Bond the womanizing, martini-swilling, happy-go-lucky, shoot-first-and-pun-later secret agent; he was portrayed as an everyman with a hefty job to do and a weary soul. Those of us that were tired of the jokester Bond films were finally sated with this brooding Grendel who actually ran out of bullets at the appropriate time and had to reload, who hurt when he was punched or kicked, whose conscience bothered him when he had to kill or maim in order to get his way… basically, he was one of us. All the trappings – and they were, indeed, trappings – of the Bond genre were discarded like yesterday’s trash; here was a new Bond for a new world.
Skyfall is a delightful addition to Craig’s Bond pantheon. It is a deeply pensive and ponderous movie, and it spends a lot of time doing something that not a lot of Bond films do: it shows you its thoughts. As Bond is a man of action, the previous movies almost never slowed down enough to let you see what he was thinking – each scene was just a means to get to the next location. Here, we actually get into Bond’s head to see the wheels turning, which Craig’s previous films started doing. Craig’s taciturn Bond doesn’t give up a lot of one-liners, although there’s a little more humor in this installment than the previous two outings. There’s a lot of rumination and unspoken thought that goes along with all of Bond’s physical action; we’re left with a lot of silence, which plays a large character in this movie, and that’s a good thing. While fast cars, beautiful women and high-tech gadgets are fun, they only serve as distractions from the story, and I’m happy to say that Skyfall is blessed with an abundance of story.
It’s also blessed with one of the best wild-eyed and crazy villains any Bond film has ever seen. Javier Bardem plays former MI6 agent Raoul Silva, whose revenge-driven machinations have finally come full circle; Skyfall encompasses much of Silva’s final endgame. Bardem is wonderful as the evil mastermind Silva, whose plans and schemes are nothing short of brilliant. He’s not just a one-note villain like Ernest Blofeld or Max Zorin; he thinks laterally, he is miles ahead of MI6 once things start happening, and you can actually feel the insanity coming off of him. Also, that insanity is accompanied by the smarts and genius of a madman – a madman who feels just as at home pulling a trigger or clicking a computer mouse. His description of how he takes care of his perceived problems through his computer provides all the insight into the character that you’ll need: he sees people as mere pawns in his game, not as human lives.
The aesthetics of a Bond movie are usually defined by its set pieces and its outrageous action. The opening sequence of Skyfall is as exciting as movies get, with jaw-dropping stunts and natural-looking fight scenes. Locations are merely a backdrop as Bond crosses the world from Istanbul to London to Shanghai; each locale’s natural beauty and excitement are brought forth with Roger Deakins’ gorgeous photography. He also captures the fight scenes well, with enough room for the viewer to appreciate what’s going on, instead of getting in close and nauseating the audience with the dreaded shaky-cam. My only problem with Skyfall is that certain beats go on for maybe a second too long. A lot of time, we’re left hanging looking at the aftermath of a conversation, an altercation, or even just establishing that Bond’s drinking a Heineken (yeah, that didn’t get annoying…); while I appreciate the want for a slower pace to fully appreciate certain situations, it felt a little overindulgent and unnecessary at times.
But what Skyfall gets right is the stakes; this time, the ante has been raised to its ultimate limit, and there’s no stopping until the closing gunbarrel sequence. As a movie, Skyfall succeeds. As a Bond film, it fits perfectly alongside the previous two movies, and there are more staples tying it to the older Bonds – among other things, the reappearance of Q (the sharp-tongued Quartermaster, played by Ben Whishaw), a few intentionally awkward attempts at pithy one-liners, the inclusion of a certain office room, and a non-human former Bond companion (I won’t say what it is, though). Word has spread that Daniel Craig has signed on for two more Bond films; the ending serves as a great kickoff point for the rest of his reign as 007.