After a 50 year run, “Skyfall” is the best James Bond movie in years, if not the best ever made. It is the first that has made us ask about Bond’s past and future and the first to make us realize the game has changed but that we’d be nowhere without him.
Sam Mendes picks up the franchise after the unfortunate hiccup that was “Quantum of Solace,” a movie that made Bond into a forgettable Jason Bourne. What he brings to the table is style mixed with the silly and substance mixed with the smarm. It’s a Bond movie as ludicrous and fun as the previous but going beyond the grittily realistic norm established by “Casino Royale.”
Its magnificent opening motorcycle chase along rooftops has Bond (Daniel Craig) pursuing a man who has stolen a hard drive containing the identities of all the MI6 operatives. The two leap onto a moving train upon which Bond tears off the back end of a trolley with a bulldozer and leaps aboard, adjusting his suit ever so justly as he does. As they fight, M (Judi Dench) orders her other agent Eve (Naomi Harris) to take a risky sniper shot that hits Bond instead of the target.
Presumed dead, Bond spends the next few years off the map “enjoying death,” going through the motions of a freewheeling lifestyle with cold detachment. It’s only when a cyber terrorist attack against MI6 hits that Bond decides to return. His new target is Silva (Javier Bardem), a former computer hacker for MI6 with a vendetta against M. His presence tests whether Bond or M are both fit for duty, allowing us to finally reach these characters on an emotional level without sacrificing Craig’s biting wit or Dench’s spitfire attitude.
If there’s one thing to notice about “Skyfall,” it’s that Bond has never looked better. Director of Photography Roger Deakins, a man with nine Oscar nominations and still no victory, is possibly the best cinematographer alive today. He’s made a recent shift from film to digital, and he has taken the dark shadows and sharp colors usually found in a David Fincher movie and applied it to the classical look of 007. In one early fight scene in Shanghai, he blends space, depth and color to create a beautiful battle of silhouettes that looks as good as anything I’ve seen this year. And later when the film takes us to a deserted villa on the Scottish countryside, the unreal lighting and deep focus of Javier Bardem illuminated in front of a burning building holds up as instantly iconic. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous movie that just makes the whole experience ignite.
This blending of aesthetics matches the high psychological stakes Mendes is imposing. If “Skyfall” had forgotten to be an action movie first, the super serious talk about whether the world still needs Bond might get as tiresome as a discussion about sending Grandma to a nursing home. But screenwriter John Logan establishes a high-tech cyber scheme that still finds ways for Bond to be practically and physically intuitive. The computer hacker one step ahead of the good guys is ground well tread by other recent action movies, but never Bond. Somehow he fits in as smoothly as though he were still at the poker table.
Much has already been said about Judi Dench finally giving a hefty performance as M that befits her talents, but I’m more interested in the juicy work by Bardem. Most Bond villains have a physical disability designed to distinguish them, but Bardem makes do on his snakelike sexuality that in a delicious scene briefly tests Bond’s own. His presumed homosexuality is in its own way another mixed bag of political incorrectness, but in screen villainy terms it’s the absolute tops.
Mendes takes great pains to treat such a terrific villain with stealthy patience. The moment in which Silva is introduced is a wonderful long take that watches Bardem slowly saunter up to Bond as he tells a story about how catch rats. In wide shots, striking composition and a steady hand, Mendes provides style and flair uncommon to the gritty realism of contemporary action pictures.
“Skyfall” really is Bond reinvented. It takes the uncouth, rugged James Bond newly discovered in “Casino Royale” and molds him into a man with depth and class. “Youth does not guarantee innovation,” as Bond says in one scene to Q, and as one of the finest movies of the year, it’s clear this 50 year old franchise feels as good as new.