Skyfall, the 23rd installment in the James Bond franchise, works until it doesn’t and then it works again. Loaded with chase sequences and harrowing shoot-outs, there is no lack of action, and the nods to previous entries in the franchise are frequent and welcomed. The globe-trotting plot finds director Sam Mendes moving the action from a train chase in Turkey, to skyscrapers in Shanghai, to golden dragons in Macau before setting the final stages in London and a trip to Scotland.
The threat begins as a hard drive has been stolen containing the identities of all undercover MI6 agents around the world. The thief’s plan is to reveal five names a week as the story of a slow burning revenge comes to light. A face and a name is soon put to the man responsible, but his full identity I’ll leave for you to find out. I will say, however, Javier Bardem turns in a nasty performance as the film’s villain Silva, playing a man with a gruesome history who isn’t afraid to display all that haunts him and the past that guides him.
Judi Dench returns as M, the head of MI6, and gives a fantastic, tough and heartfelt performance as she has come under fire from Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). The loss of the hard drive is a bungle that will have the entire organization looked at closely and someone has got to take responsibility.
Bond’s allegiance and M’s resolve is tested as Daniel Craig and Dench bring three film’s worth of time together to something of a resolution. Bond’s history comes into play and his relationship with M — a suitable initial for “mother” — could hardly play out in any other fashion.
Entered into the fold are Naomie Harris as Eve, an agent teamed with Bond in the film’s thrilling opening; Ben Whishaw as Bond’s new Quartermaster (aka Q) who’s done with dispensing exploding pens and similar trinkets; and I really enjoyed the performance of Berenice Marlohe as Severine, this installment’s version of the Bond Girl.
Some may take umbrage with the way yet another woman is largely used as a sex object for Bond to play with once his mission is completed, but there are some strides taken to make Severine more of a complicated character. Whether you’re offended or not, I personally found something to like about Marlohe’s performance. Her line delivery and smoky voice were not what I expected, neither was her ability to emote behind the facade of a strong-willed femme fatale. Severine is undoubtedly a sex object, Bond does take advantage of her vulnerability, and you may be offended, but Marlohe shows some talent as an actress at the same time.
Where I’m most conflicted is in Skyfall‘s overall narrative arc. The character development on the part of Bond, Eve, M, Mallory and even Q is spectacular franchise establishing material. For that matter, Skyfall is just as much of a franchise restart as Casino Royale, only this time Bond’s age becomes a factor as much as his brash approach to his job. All of that works to perfection, but I found myself most troubled when looking closer at the film’s villain and what he really brought to the table.
Bardem as Silva isn’t as paper thin as so many Bond villains before him. He’s cold, calculated, smart and out for revenge, but his moves and character are a bit confused and conflicted. What’s his end goal? To ruin or to kill? The answer would seem to be both, but his decision making along the way leaves me puzzled and his coincidental plans are sometimes hard to believe and other times counterproductive.
From the screenplay (written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) to Mendes’ execution, when Mendes said he took direct inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight he wasn’t kidding. In so many ways the film could be looked at as a re-configuring of The Dark Knight all the way down to the disgraced hero, massive chase sequences and several other ways I won’t divulge here so as not to spoil the film, but suffice to say, the pattern of destruction shown by Silva isn’t too far off from that of Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Additionally, for as much as Skyfall is The Dark Knight it also owes a debt to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, but, again, I don’t want to say any more and will leave the rest for you to explore on your own.
Beyond the story, script and performances, Mendes has certainly assembled a team that raises the bar when it comes to technical proficiency on a Bond film. Thomas Newman provides a signature score, though he does his very best not to overshadow the action. Every so often you hear those familiar Newman notes, but for the most part it always feels like a Bond score and well fitting of the drama.
Accompany that with Roger Deakins‘ cinematography and you have a film as lush to look at as any actioner you’re likely to see. For as much attention as Wally Pfister earned for his work with Christopher Nolan on the Batman franchise, what Deakins has done here is painterly and you’re sure to marvel at the images on screen more than once.
Overall, I love the direction Skyfall will take the James Bond franchise and Daniel Craig is the perfect man to take Bond further into the future. Mendes has set a new standard for these films as the era of gadgetry and goofiness is out the window, but style and personality remain. On the other hand, Skyfall left me wanting in a lot of areas and disappointed in some of the overall decisions. I do, however, appreciate the fact an attempt was made to make each of the characters more human by giving us more background on them rather than just a series of clever names, tailored suits, fast cars and Omega watches. I may have my troubles with the film, but overall the franchise appears to be headed in the right direction.