If nothing else, Skyfall is the prettiest James Bond film in years. In the Shanghai sequences, master cinematographer Roger Deakins bathes the screen in the soothing blue of neon and the perky yellow of lantern lights. Elsewhere, Deakins brings out lush and painterly browns, reds, and oranges. The movie is certainly a lot easier to look at than its drab predecessor, Quantum of Solace, and considerably easier to sit through, too. Skyfall isn’t quite a throwback to the absurd thrills of the 007 films of old, but it does inject some fun back into the franchise. What you need in this series, it turns out, is a diabolical mastermind with apparently limitless resources. Bond needs to stop him. The rest almost takes care of itself.
The mastermind here is Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who wants revenge on MI6 leader M (Judi Dench). Silva warms up by stealing a list of agents in deep cover and threatening to out them. Bond, in the formidable form of Daniel Craig, swings into action — though painfully, since he almost died (and for months is officially presumed dead) and spends half the movie wincing over a bum shoulder. This is Craig’s third 007 outing, and probably his best; he seems more comfortable in Bond’s skin here, and he gets to play a productive mix of emotions. Since this year marks the series’ 50th anniversary, it looks back a lot (much is made of “the old ways” being better than “the new ways,” and Bond’s very relevance is questioned by the government), and so does Bond.
For its 50th birthday, the franchise has been gifted with its first-ever Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). Though not an action director, Mendes at least lets you see what’s going on, unlike Quantum of Solace non-action-director Marc Forster. The movie has breathing room, too; as far as I can determine, Skyfall has the second-longest 007 running time (Casino Royale has it beat by a minute), yet the pace is smooth and assured, mainly because the plot doesn’t get bogged down in pointless twists. Getting away from his usual theme of masculine disillusion seems to have done Mendes a world of good (though the betrayed Silva character allows him to sneak it in a side door). We can feel Mendes enjoying the far-flung locations, the set-ups and grandeur that only 007 money can buy. For the first time, I got the sense that a name director had attached himself to the franchise out of love for Bond, not for an easy paycheck.
This is all to say that I, generally indifferent to Bond films, had a decent time at this one. Bardem brings back something we haven’t seen in the series in far too long, an interestingly depraved villain who seems to love his work. I don’t know whether Silva’s flirtatious advances towards Bond indicate anything other than simply tweaking his macho and legendarily hetero adversary, but it’s amusing to watch. Bond himself gets two bedmates here, one of whom has no dialogue and one of whom does, but may as well not have any — all she does is vamp, talk about how much Silva scares her, and fail to smoke a cigarette convincingly. Aside from M and a new field agent (Naomie Harris) who assists Bond, the 007 franchise remains a boys’ club, and a white boys’ club, at that. Is there any reason the next 007 can’t be a black man — or woman?
Well, you go to war with the Bond you have. In a way, Skyfall returns Bond to his roots — the title refers to the estate where Bond grew up and where the climax unfolds, and though Bond is unsentimental about the place, the movie brings in Albert Finney as the estate’s gamekeeper, a role originally intended for Sean Connery. I wish the filmmakers had enticed Connery out of retirement, as Skyfall would be a far superior swan song to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but Finney’s presence feels right here anyway — it seems like he always should’ve been part of this series in some capacity. He might’ve made a wittier Q than Ben Whishaw, who doesn’t get to do much with what he’s given here, but any Finney is better than none. And for those who feel that any Bond is better than none — i.e., those who convinced themselves that Quantum of Solace was any good just because it was there — Skyfall should be a pleasant surprise.