Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
So read the final lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a rousing hymn from a hero who, despite what the slow decay of time has left him with, despite his bruised and battered exterior and despite his diminished strength, vows to soldier on until the end finally finds him. The lines also play a central role in “Skyfall,” the 23rd official James Bond film, the third to feature actor Daniel Craig in the iconic role and the first to celebrate the franchise’s 50th year on the big screen. Spoken by M (a terrific Judi Dench) in a build-up to one of the film’s many explosively tense set-pieces, the lines reflect on our hero and on the state of espionage in general. In his 50 years, the questions of age and entropy have never figured into the equation for James Bond, even when the actors playing him had long lost their youthful vigor (Roger Moore was pushing 60 in his last franchise appearance). In “Skyfall,” however, those themes are instrumental, coalescing around a lead actor who has always excelled at imbuing agent 007 with a tortured darkness and a haunted past.
Left unfit for duty after the film’s pre-credit sequence, Bond disappears until the threat of a treacherous cyber-terrorist brings him out of his alcohol-fueled retirement. Much like with this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” our hero’s return to service isn’t as seamless as one would hope and Bond needs to shake off some rust before he can resume field work. Shortly though, M sends him back out in pursuit of the sensitive list that he and fellow agent Eve (a sassy Naomi Harris) lost at the film’s outset. The list, which threatens to blow the cover of every MI6 agent currently embedded in terrorist organizations around the world, is of paramount importance, leaving M—and MI6 as a whole—under the scrutiny of government control (embodied wonderfully by “Harry Potter” vet Ralph Fiennes). Bond’s search leads him to Raoul Silva (a fearsome Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a personal vendetta against M and a drive that won’t stop until he sees her dead.
Last week, as I counted down my favorite Bond films, I noted that none of them had departed further from the “fast cars/cool gadgets/hot girls/villains bent on world domination” formula than “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” “Skyfall” quickly and efficiently usurps that title, twisting—or simply dispensing with—those elements as it goes. Much of the credit for the shake up must be given to director Sam Mendes (an Academy Award winner for “American Beauty”), an unusual directorial choice who makes “Skyfall” more edge-of-your-seat action thriller than thrilling action film. That’s not to say that there aren’t some truly stellar action sequences (Bond still has a few tricks and one-liners up his sleeve, after all), but rather that the film spends as much time ratcheting up the tension with dialogue as it does with fistfights or shoot-outs.
Javier Bardem kicks that tension up another notch (or six), blending his Academy Award winning performance as Anton Chigurh (the horrifying antagonist from 2007’s “No Country For Old Men”) with numerous other Oscar-winning villains, from Heath Ledger’s Joker to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector. Bardem’s character leaves the script with its only major flaw (his ability to anticipate, with remarkable accuracy, the complex actions and reactions of his foes is a little too lazy and on the nose to be believable), but his performance transcends these moments of cliche and Silva instantly ranks among the most threatening and memorable Bond villains because of it.
But the best thing about “Skyfall” isn’t the breathless action sequences or Bardem’s cold and murderous villain. Nor is it Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, Adele’s sweeping theme song or the plentiful references to older films (though each of these qualities elevate the proceedings to a fitting 50-year celebration). No, the finest aspect of “Skyfall” (and what sets it most apart from its predecessors) is the way it handles the relationship between Craig’s Bond and Dench’s M. Bond protects M with fierce love and loyalty, qualities that perfectly mirror Silva’s darker intentions. As the film barrels into its final act, Bond and M go on the defensive, withdrawing to a dark and misty Scottish mansion for a climactic battle. (I won’t give away the full implications of the setting, but suffice to say that it further illustrates aspects of the Bond legacy that have, until now, only floated around in the background.)
With the help of a grizzled old gamekeeper (a welcome Albert Finney, though the role was clearly meant for Sean Connery himself), Bond and M set about booby trapping the house for an inevitable onslaught. For generation Y-ers like myself, the sequence will carry a funny reminiscence to Chris Columbus’s “Home Alone” films, but the real echoes radiate back to Sam Peckinpah’s original “Straw Dogs,” from the haunting darkness of the scene to the grimly high body count. As is evident right away though—or at least as soon as Silva blows up Bond’s prized Aston Martin DB5—the battle here is innately personal.
One of the best things about “Quantum of Solace,” as convoluted and confused as it got, was the way Craig was able to play up Bond’s bloodthirsty, revenge-seeking recklessness. Here, he’s up against that same kind of vengeful drive coming from the other side, requiring him to draw on his deepest resolve and resilience to defeat his enemy. The resulting climax feels graver and higher stakes than any that have come before it, a funny irony for one of the few Bond villains who never threatens wide-scale harm or world domination. Bardem’s specialty is getting under the skin of heroes and audiences alike, his ability to manipulate personal weaknesses and to instill in us all an image of what we fear most. He absolutely does that here, with every precious minute of his screentime, and even Bond’s victory over him (which does inevitably come) doesn’t feel as triumphant and grand as we want it to.
In the early Bond films, Connery would dispatch his enemies almost without breaking a sweat and then, as the credits began to roll, swiftly bed whichever woman had served as that film’s primary Bond girl. Here, nothing feels so black and white: the traditional Bond girl (Bérénice Marlohe) is written out of the story halfway through and re-cast, in a different light, by the motherly presence of Judi Dench. Dench was ingenious casting right from the start (she first appeared in 1995’s “GoldenEye”) and it was no surprise that the producers chose to keep her around when they rebooted things a decade later. She’s played an even more important role since then, building an enjoyable onscreen rapport with Craig’s Bond that none of the previous films had. Their relationship has always been a complicated, oscillating one, ranging from smiling affection to broken trust, from M’s reservations about Bond’s womanizing detachment, his dangerous ego and his reckless disregard for all rules and regulations to her concerns for his safety. But even despite M’s often-cold rebukes of his actions, we’ve always gotten the sense from Craig’s Bond that his respect for her is unparalleled, that perhaps, she’s the one parental presence in the life of a man who was orphaned at the age of 11. “Skyfall” hits all the notes of their relationship perfectly, from loyalty to sacrifice to heartbreak, and the result is the weightiest Bond film yet.
But is “Skyfall” the best James Bond movie to date? It’s certainly close. The film isn’t as slick and well-rounded as “Casino Royale,” and many fans will still call “Goldfinger” the series high point. But “Skyfall” takes the James Bond character into uncharted territory, and for a franchise that has been around for half a century, that’s something to be proud of. This Bond has just the right mix of explosive bombast and haunting introspection to appeal to blockbuster and art house moviegoers alike. It’s got the prestige talent needed to acquire awards buzz (in a perfect world, the spectacular ensemble and the range of technical craftsmen could make the film a wildcard Best Picture nominee) and clever nods to 007’s past that will make it an instant classic for die-hard fans. More than all that though, “Skyfall” is an incredibly enjoyable and emotional movie-going experience, the kind of visceral thrill-ride that many viewers (myself included) will want to see again the moment it ends. And from the final scenes, which lovingly recreate the atmosphere of the Connery films, fans will be counting down the days until Bond 24 hits theaters. Here’s hoping Mendes will stick around.