April 2024

Skyfall (2012)

DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes


Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Rory Kinnear, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace



While Martin Campbell started the process in 2006’s Casino Royale, with Skyfall, Sam Mendes has truly finished what Casino Royale started—rebooting James Bond as Christopher Nolan did with Batman and J.J. Abrams did with Star Trek, taking the series back to the starting gate as if the previous films never happened. Casino Royale, star Daniel Craig’s debut—which was well-received—took 007 back to the basics, whittled down to the bare bones, with no gadgets, no Moneypenny, no Q, the quipping and sexcapades kept to a restrained minimum, and 2008’s Quantum of Solace—which was generally regarded as a disappointing follow-up—continued in this vein, but Skyfall truly completes the circle of the old and the new, keeping the “new” series’ restraint and seriousness (by Bond standards, at least), while adding a few familiar ingredients that were MIA in its two predecessors back into the mix. Most notably, Skyfall can stand on its own as an individual film. Familiarity with the events of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace is not necessary.

Skyfall begins as many Bond adventures do, with a high-octane and over-the-top action sequence, with 007 (Daniel Craig) and fellow field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) chasing an assassin called Patrice (Ola Rapace), who has stolen a hard drive containing the names of undercover agents scattered around the globe. This time, however, there’s a twist: Bond’s icy boss M (Judi Dench) follows along from MI6 headquarters, and when Eve has a shot, albeit an unclear one, M coolly orders her to take it. Eve hits Bond, Patrice escapes, and our hero falls to his seeming death before the opening credits play. Of course, it’s no surprise that Bond survives, but in the meantime, a bombing of MI6 headquarters and the blowing of five agents’ cover and their subsequent executions by the terrorist cells they had infiltrated puts M in hot water explaining the worst security breach in modern British history to a panel of government officials presided over by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who forces her into early retirement. Determined to set things right before she’s ousted, M turns to the resurfaced Bond, pushes him through physical exams he’s not ready for, and sends him back out to track down the mastermind behind the attacks. A few scenic international locales, a fight scene with Patrice in a Shanghai skyscraper, and a fling with exotic Severine (Berenice Marlohe) later, and the trail leads to former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (a bleach-blond Javier Bardem).  Silva’s goals are smaller-scale and more personal than most Bond villains; he’s not after world domination, but personal revenge on M for a past connection. Along the way, Bond makes the acquaintance of a young, techno-geek Q (Ben Whishaw), who hooks him up with his trademark Walther PPK and Aston Martin but scoffs that exploding pens are old-fashioned.

As far as I can see, there are, essentially, two James Bonds. One, based on the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the film series, is a cold-blooded professional assassin, serious and largely devoid of emotion. The other is the suave and dashing super spy action hero who survives over-the-top adventures (with a little middle ground between the two). What you make of Skyfall and Craig himself depends on which Bond is “yours”. Some welcome Craig with open arms as the first Bond since the early days of Sean Connery—and maybe Timothy Dalton—to take Bond back to his cool, cold, relatively subdued and serious origins, while others long for the tongue-in-cheek charm of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan and the nifty gadgets and wildly over-the-top action scenes. It is not my place to say which version is “better”–if there is such a thing between such widely varied interpretations—simply to review Skyfall on its own merits.

As in his previous two outings, Daniel Craig plays James Bond with a cool, aloof, no-nonsense demeanor of single-minded purposefulness. Craig’s portrayal isn’t 100% devoid of the occasional wry observation—he has a dry and usually bitingly sarcastic sense of humor—but he’s far more straight than the oft-quipping Moore and Brosnan. For the most part, Craig’s Bond is all-business. He’s not above a steamy shower interlude with Severine, or a little playful flirting with Eve, but the mission holds most of his steely-eyed attention.  By now past the intoductory stage, Craig strides through the proceedings with confidence.  Both his fans and detractors should know what to expect from him by now, and he reliably serves up more of it.

 The supporting cast is solid, with Oscar winners Judi Dench and Javier Bardem leading the way, and Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes along for the ride. First taking the role in 1995’s Goldeneye (Brosnan’s first 007 outing), Dench has been the only constant through the last seventeen years of Bond films, even staying on when the series was otherwise completely rebooted and Brosnan was replaced by Craig, uttering dry one-liners and occasionally cutting 007 down to size with her incomparable stern demeanor, but never has she had the screentime or the focus she has here. M is practically as central a character in Skyfall as Bond himself, and Dench finally gets to develop her iron lady into a full-fledged character of morally dubious past actions and a deeply-buried vulnerability.  Javier Bardem’s diabolically tech-savvy, sexually ambiguous Silva doesn’t show up for a while, but when he does, sporting bleach-blond hair, prissy mannerisms, and creepy anecdotes about creative ways of exterminating rats, he’s chillingly unsettling.  Bardem’s screentime is limited, but while he’s not above a little lip-smacking scenery-chewing, his Silva is both more restrained and better-motivated than many of 007’s run-of-the-mill megalomaniac foes.  In keeping with Skyfall‘s combining of the old and the new, it supplies an updated Bond villain for the modern age; it’s not that he doesn’t use bullets and bombs, but his most powerful weapon is his laptop, and he comes with a decent backstory of being legitimately wronged and damaged.  Naomie Harris’ Eve is an above-average “Bond girl”–although her screentime is likewise limited–she’s tough and sexy, and doesn’t go down the clichéd path of falling into bed at a glance from 007.  While Bond and Eve trade some flirty repartee and some teasing sexual tension, that’s as far as it gets, and their scenes are all the more intriguing for it: their “close but no cigar” flirting while she helps him shave is sexier than his shower hookup with Severine. Ben Whishaw is the movie’s other small pleasure as Q, rebooted as a boy genius in nerdy glasses and cardigan sweaters, whose swapped barbs with Bond about the relative virtues of youth and age is one of the movie’s most amusing scenes. Ralph Fiennes, whose name in a Bond movie’s credits might make you expect to see him as the villain, plays against type as a man Bond dismisses as a “bureaucrat”, but might have more to him than meets the eye. And finally, Albert Finney pops up in a role for which the filmmakers unsuccessfully sought a cameo from the retired Sean Connery, as the elderly caretaker of Bond’s family estate in the desolate Scottish countryside. Connery refused to come out of retirement, and Finney is a serviceable substitute, but it’s hard not to wish for the extra juiciness that would have come from Connery saying some of his lines, and dispensing wisdom to Craig’s Bond.

 Skyfall‘s production was delayed for four years due to MGM’s bankruptcy issues, taking so long to move forward that it worried the 43-year-old Daniel Craig, who has admitted in interviews that preparations for the physical demands of his role get more difficult with every installment, but Craig and attached director Sam Mendes (who previously helmed Road to Perdition, also featuring Craig) stuck with the project until it got off the ground. Mendes, generally regarded as more of an “artistic” filmmaker than an action movie director, handles the action sequences smoothly and without falling back on the overused “shaky camera” approach, keeping the action clear and coherent. He—and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan—also take steps to make Bond timely and relevant, acknowledging that neither Bond or the actor playing him is a young man, and taking the latest Bond villainy into the realm of cyber-terrorism. As Q dryly remarks to a dubious Bond, “I could do more damage with my laptop in my pajamas before my first morning cup of Earl Grey than you could do with a gun”.

 Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures picturesque sweeping shots of the film’s various international locales, including London and Shanghai, and composer Thomas Newman regularly works the classic Bond theme into his score. Most importantly, as much of a reboot and a different approach as it might be, Mendes pays various nods to the Bond mythos. Q and—we eventually learn—Moneypenny are included, we see Bond get his trademark Walther PPK and Aston Martin—Newman appropriately chooses Bond getting behind the wheel of the Aston Martin as the moment when the classic Bond theme really kicks in for the first time—and Mendes and Deakins film a great shot of a freshly clean-shaven Craig striking an iconic Bond pose in the classic tuxedo, fireworks bursting behind him, during 007’s visit to Shanghai, that any Bond fan should appreciate. Moments like the first appearance of the Aston Martin are to Skyfall as Leonard Nimoy intoning “I have been and always shall be your friend” was to 2009’s Star Trek reboot, the kind of audience-pleasing moment that gives fans grins and goosebumps, and the epilogue is about as perfect a closing scene to a Bond movie as Batman and Gordon’s first rooftop rendezvous was to Batman Begins. The opening number, appropriately titled “Skyfall”, performed by Adele, would have sounded right at home in older Bond films from the ’60s or ’70s.

 We get a few extended action sequences, but as with the overall tone, the action is more restrained and low-key than what Moore and Brosnan’s over-the-top outings accustomed audiences to. The biggest action setpiece is at the very beginning, with Bond and Patrice fighting on top of a train and at one point Bond commandeering a giant Caterpillar and crushing three VW Beetles.  This sequence is fast-paced and complex, and might be the best action scene of the year.  Then we have a fast and furious hand-to-hand fight between Bond and Patrice, silhouetted against the city lights of Shanghai, that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jason Bourne movie, a subway chase between Bond and Silva that includes a spectacular train derailment, and Silva and his men’s final assault on Bond’s isolated family estate of—wait for it—Skyfall, where he and M are dug in and waiting for them. This final sequence is comparatively subdued to most Bond climaxes, even when a helicopter gunship crashes into the manor house, and the Skyfall sequences offer hints of a troubled childhood that shed a little light onto Bond’s cold and aloof demeanor without overdoing it. The climax also gives Craig the ironic position of being one of the coldest and eventually most emotional Bonds; the denouement is nearly the only time since 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service that we have ever seen Bond cry. 

I don’t find Skyfall quite as rousing as some of its most enthusiastic admirers–it’s tone is sometimes almost too low-key and restrained for its own good–but it largely succeeds at what it sets out to do.  Bardem has chilling moments, there are a couple spectacular action sequences, Dench is her reliable self, and I enjoyed the supporting turns of Fiennes, Harris, and Whishaw and would be disappointed not to see more of them in following installments.  Like Craig’s other 007 outings, this take on fiction’s most famous super spy won’t be everyone’s perfect Martini, but those with open minds and at least some knowledge of the Bond mythos are likely to find much to appreciate here.