Verdict: 4 stars (out of 5) – The quintessential Bond movie
The most exciting iteration of the Bond franchise has returned with another movie, which doesn’t even have ‘007’ or ‘James Bond’ in the title and is directed by Sam Mendes, known for making those cinema gems The Road to Perdition and American Beauty. This promises a less pulpy Bond movie that will test and explore the roots of the Bond character.
And Skyfall fulfills that promise, but you might be a little disappointed in the results. Even though Skyfall is a return to Bond’s origin and continuously voices a concern for the future of this cold-war dinosaur, it ultimately reminds us that James Bond can’t really escape his image as the epitome of slick, slightly sociopathic masculinity.
Of course, we have to recognize that Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and even Skyfall (at times) try to humanize Bond – Daniel Craig’s greatest quality is his ability to bring a sense of age, frailty and imperfect roughness to the character, and all his movies try to have Bond connect with women who are just a little more than walking sets of perfect cleavage.
So Skyfall is initially successful in rehabilitating this more rounded version of James Bond, as he has a sense of moral responsibility towards a fallen agent, cares for the safety and future of a woman who has been living as a sex slave since childhood (which makes her inevitable sex scene with Bond off-putting), and generally conveys a moral concern that’s accentuated by the unrelenting coldness of M’s ends-justify-means rationality.
Skyfall then gets exciting by having fun with vintage-Bond cars and gadgets, signalling an ironic return to ‘classic’ James Bond. It’s as if the movie understands that Bond, at his core, was conceptualized as a fearlessly efficient womanizer who puts down the delusional geniuses and scheming communists that pose a threat to mother country.
Speaking of mother country, Skyfall’s most interesting relationship is that between Bond and MI6’s matriarch. The impetus for the plot is M’s mistreatment of an old agent, and her relationship with Bond is likewise tested and ultimately reaffirmed. Skyfall is refreshing in that it replaces a world-domination scheme with M’s relationship to the agents she leads. Judi Dench moves M out from behind the safety of MI6, and the climactic scene becomes a fantastic display of the unsettling, almost perverse relationship that MI6’s lethal men have with the calculating mother-figure that guides them. And for all M’s coldness, we get a sense of her attachment to Bond, which makes their banter all the more enjoyable and their crises all the more intense.
But back to Bond: the character himself has never had much depth, and in its return to Bond as we’ve known him, Skyfall seems to understand that. Daniel Craig gives us an impeccable version of the character, yet seems almost as tired with his role as the character is with his job. You can see how it will definitely be a challenge to develop this Bond any further after Skyfall, especially since the movie returns him to his traditional shallowness. There have been rumors that Craig is looking for a way out of his five-movie contract, and it becomes apparent that he’s already gone as far as he can go with the role.
Javier Bardem’s villain is also very much a Bond-villain: a terrifying, quiet insanity that is coupled with an ambiguous sexuality and an unparalleled genius that create a lot of trouble for Britain and MI6. Bardem plays the role effortlessly, and every scene he’s in is perversely delightful. Again, there’s nothing new here, as Bardem (like the last half of Skyfall) doesn’t reinvent the Bond franchise so much as he flawlessly performs the archetype.
Likewise, Skyfall perhaps reaches Bond’s potential as a dramatic character with the culmination of his relationship with M and the return to double-0 status. Skyfall removes Bond far enough away from his traditional role within MI6 just long enough for us to realize that he can’t really survive as anything other than an espionage agent that has a remarkable ability to have sex with anything while on his way to destroy the latest threat with the latest Q-branch gadget.
The movie’s return to the Bond franchise is best exemplified in its ending – without spoiling too much, we get a return of Q-branch and some other Bond characters and institutions, and the movie ends with a sense of James Bond having returned to his old, pre-Daniel Craig self. Skyfall is very much concerned with the relevance and survivability of Bond in the modern age, yet it answers that concern by stepping back into the well-worn suit of Britain’s favorite secret agent, who conquers as many women as he does villains.
So if you’d like a return to classic 007, Skyfall will satisfy you. And if you were hoping for the James Bond franchise to become…well, something other than the James Bond franchise, you’ll just have to be happy with the Bourne series. With a less complex plot than Casino Royale that signifies a return to Bond basics, Skyfall gives us all the car-destroying action and nameless henchmen deaths we have come to expect from one of cinema’s most enduring, if a little tired, franchises.
Movies that do it better: Skyfall presents the essence of the Bond franchise and gives us a genre movie of exceptional quality. Casino Royale is comparable, as are the Bourne movies (whose violence seems to be more visceral, for some reason). Man on Fire is also a fantastic movie about a lone agent who gets beat up and takes names.