“Skyfall” opens, as do all James Bond films, with an action sequence.
By Noah Gittell
“Skyfall” opens, as do all James Bond films, with an action sequence. Bond chases a villain through a Turkish marketplace, then onto a train, then onto the top of that train, and although the sequence is gripping and masterfully put together, it feels a bit tired. Two films after having our expectations of Bond reshuffled with “Casino Royale,” we have become accustomed to the new rhythms of the franchises. But “Skyfall” has a trick up its sleeve: the opening sequence is just a teaser. Director Sam Mendes is establishing the old Bond before he literally and figuratively kills him off, only to be resurrected with startling depth, a newfound sense of purpose, and a helluva lot of fun.
In both form and function, “Skyfall” straddles the line between old and new. Bond, thought to be dead, finds himself enjoying his unexpected freedom, but he is called back to service when a terrorist attack leaves MI6 on the defensive. A government committee is questioning the need for the antiquated spy agency, so M (Judi Dench, who makes the most of a much larger role than usual) sends Bond out to find the culprit before the government shuts them down. In a sense, Bond is out to prove his utility to the world, and he relies on tricks both old and new to do it.
While dealing with the pesky business of plot exposition, “Skyfall” leads with its arresting visual style. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has done some fine work (“The Shawshank Redemption”, “A Beautiful Mind”, and almost every film by the Coen brothers), but never before has it seemed as vital as it does here. Sequences like a hand-to-hand fight scene staged in silhouette and the darkly glorious final battle on the moors of Scotland help make this the most poetic Bond film yet.
The film goes deeper into Bond’s motivations than ever before, too. Indeed, the climax is a lyrical action sequence that illuminates and, perhaps, disposes of Bond’s demons.
The purpose of the Bond reboot that started with “Casino Royale” was to find authenticity in a character that had been slipping for several years, if not decades, into parody and caricature. “Skyfall” is the reboot that “Casino Royale” should have been. It is a meditation on the past, with many winks and nods to prior incarnations of Bond, but its themes and values are truly of this era.
Like many films released this year (such as “The Hunger Games”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and “Brave”), it is built around strong female characters. M is crucial to the plot, and her strength in particular is what carries the day. Meanwhile, a new female agent (Naomie Harris) is introduced who is Bond’s equal in many ways. This is the second Bond film in a row in which the super agent’s romantic adventures are merely an afterthought.
Similarly, Bond has always told us who our enemies are. Bond was, of course, a product of the Cold War, but now a complex world requires a more nuanced villain. In with the Bourne movies and recent political dramas, “Skyfall” shows us a world in which the enemy is within. No longer is Bond fighting a megalomaniacal billionaire with plans for world domination. “Skyfall”’s villain is a creepy, wounded cyberterrorist with ties to MI6; in his addled mind, he is seeking vengeance for the government’s past sins. Javier Bardem, as the best Bond villain in years, brings those complexities to life in a frightening and even soulful performance.
In the end, the only problem I can find with “Skyfall” is that it leaves us nowhere to go with the character of Bond. Part of what has sustained him for the last fifty years has been that he always kept everyone – including us – at arm’s length. His charm was his elusiveness. But now that we know so many of his secrets, will he remain relevant? Legends never die, but humans have a rather brief shelf life.
History tells us that Bond will find a way to remain relevant, but I doubt that we will see another Bond film of this caliber for quite some time. If the next time we see Bond, he is simply leaping thoughtlessly from tall buildings, bedding exotic beauties, and looking awfully good in a tuxedo, well, I suppose that will be enough for some.
For now, enjoy “Skyfall”, easily the most entertaining film of the year.
My Rating: See it in the Theater