Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, is a bit of an oddity. It’s certainly enjoyable, but it’s also very different. It signifies a bit of a clean slate for the series, it has a unique villain, and it deals with some interesting questions about Bond’s place in the world (and, by extension, the relevance of James Bond movies in our current times). It contains the same globe hopping, martini drinking, explosion filled extravaganza we expect from Bond, but the last half hour contains something completely new.
Skyfall opens with a spectacular chase through Istanbul. Bond and a female agent are after someone who stole a hard drive containing a list of undercover agents, and the chase goes from foot to motorcycle (Bourne alert!) to train before it’s done. But it all goes wrong: the man with the list escapes and Bond is shot by accident and presumed dead. MI6 is bombed and the list is slowly leaked, resulting in the deaths of agents, and it appears Judi Dench’s M is being targeted for some kind of revenge. The message “Think On Your Sins”, directed at her, keeps popping up for her to ponder. She faces an inquiry at the ministry, and is pressured to retire by a committee chairman played by Ralph Fiennes.
This is the world Bond returns to, out of loyalty to M, voluntarily giving up the relaxing retirement his supposed death had afforded him. But he’s lost a step. His stubble has more gray in it than anything else, his marksmanship is off thanks to the bullet wound in his shoulder, and though he acts as if everything is fine, he collapses in pain when no one is watching. He’s become a bit of a relic, an outdated instrument whose very existence is questioned in this modern world.
But another relic, one from M’s past, is out for revenge. Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva, a former favorite of M’s, who was abandoned by her in order to save multiple lives. He looks upon himself and Bond as the last two survivors of a different age, and when Bond is captured Silva caresses Bond in a way that implies he’s attracted to Bond. (Note: I wasn’t particularly happy with the way the audience reacted in my screening of Skyfall to Silva’s first scene. They seemed to find the idea that Silva was attracted to Bond to be funny in and of itself, which seemed odd to me. Bond’s response, “What makes you think this is my first time?” however is a brilliant line, deserving of laughs.) Silva is a tonally odd character, with oddly bleached hair and a deformed mouth from a malfunctioning cyanide capsule, who is more akin to Heath Ledger’s Joker than a typical Bond villain.
The first half of the film is very good, with some well directed action by non-action director Sam Mendes, an interesting mystery and the pleasant return of the classic Bond theme music. But once Silva shows up Skyfall starts to feel somewhat off. While an interesting character, he doesn’t seem to match the tone of James Bond movies, especially not the realism of the previous Daniel Craig outings. His nefarious plot, designed solely to get revenge on M, is far too complex to work with the clockwork precision that it requires.
Skyfall gets lots of things right, though. Q finally reappears, after being missing for all of Daniel Craig’s tenure, and as performed by Ben Whishaw he’s now a young supergeek who tells Bond that they don’t go in for things like exploding pens anymore. Ralph Fiennes is great, as always, and Naomie Harris makes for a Bond girl who is more of Bond’s equal than we’ve seen of late. The climax of the film takes place at Skyfall Lodge, an old estate, and is unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond movie. It’s intense and personal and interesting, and feels new and visceral and decidedly low tech. Albert Finney shows up in a surprising roll (originally envisioned as a Sean Connery cameo) and the whole thing ties in very personally to Bond and M’s journey together.
As I said earlier, the ending feels like it gives the series a clean slate, and even hints at a return to a more classical Bond movie than we’ve seen from the Daniel Craig era. (The Aston Martin DB5, complete with 1960s gadgets, makes a wonderful cameo in the film.) As for Craig himself, he’s become quite comfortable as Bond, and he seems to enjoy the part despite his recent comments in several magazines. His Bond still owes a lot to Jason Bourne, but this new Bond has matured and cooled, seeming more focused and exact than the brute force “blunt instrument” of Casino Royale.
Some reviews have called Skyfall the best Bond film of all time, which is ridiculous. On it’s own I’d put it in the middle of the pack, far from Moonraker at the bottom, but nowhere near Goldfinger. I think, in the end, its legacy will change depending on what comes after. If the series progresses in the direction hinted by the final few minutes of Skyfall, then this will be hailed as the great turning point, if not it will merely be an interesting oddity. On its own, Skyfall has merit, and does some things we haven’t seen before, which should always be praised even if some of those things don’t work as well as others. And after 50 years, to be able to salute the past and embrace the future, it’s hard to get much better than that.