One thing you used to be able to count on in a James Bond movie was consistency. The girls would come and go, the villains would hatch their plots and fail, the gadgets would get more and more ridiculous, but Bond would move unflappably through it all, exactly the same at the end as he was at the start.
That’s not true of the Daniel Craig reboot that began with “Casino Royale,” and continues with “Skyfall,” Craig’s third film as 007. The most radical change about this reboot isn’t the paring back of Bond tropes like the theme music or the banter with Miss Moneypenny. It’s that this Bond is human; he gets hurt, he makes mistakes, and he cares for those around him. It’s an evolution and a deepening in the character that makes the Craig not just great Bond movies, but great movies period.
OK, “Quantum of Solace” was a bit of a letdown. But I’d say the fantastic “Skyfall” is the second best James Bond movie ever, and if I was honest with myself, I’d wonder if I was leaving “Goldfinger” at the top spot for purely sentimental reasons. “Skyfall” is thrilling, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s the thing that James Bond movies never, ever used to be — surprising.
The film kicks off with a typically gangbusters pre-title action sequence, as Bond chases an enemy agent through Istanbul by car and motorcycle, culminating in a wild fight atop a train. It’s all lots of fun — until Bond’s fellow agent (a wry Naomie Harris) accidentally shoots him in the chest, sending him toppling off the train into a ravine. That sure didn’t happen in “Octopussy.”
Bond is presumed dead, but he lives, of course, staying under the radar to nurse his physical and psychic wounds. When he returns to M (Judi Dench) he’s scruffy, unsteady and obviously deeply shaken (not stirred) by his near-death experience. And he also feels deeply wounded that M ordered the shot and left him for dead. “Skyfall” makes clear that Bond’s great love affair isn’t with the babe of the moment, but with his boss, and the scenes between Craig and Dench just crackle here.
But M needs Bond again; that agent he was chasing in Istanbul had a list of every deep-cover agent in the world. A mysterious hacker who has the list is exposing them, five names at a time, and seems to be motivated by a deep-seated antipathy towards M. “Think on your sins,” reads a cryptic message he sends her, right before he blows up her office at MI6.
Bond is not ready — he can’t even hit the target at the MI6 shooting range — but he heads out on the hunt anyway, which leads him to Shanghai and Macau, and eventually to the hacker himself, Silva (Javier Bardem). The last few Bond movies, even the Craig ones, have suffered from weak cookie-cutter villains, but the flamboyant, unhinged Silva instantly earns his spot next to Goldfinger and Blofeld as one of the great Bond villains ever. Director Sam Mendes gives him a great entrance, a long single-take shot where Silva appears at one end of a long room, and walks towards the screen, telling a creepy story of rats turning on each other to survive, until his visage fills the screen.
“Skyfall” has great action, from that opening sequence to an oddly beautiful fight in silhouette in Shanghai, to a tense cat-and-mouse chase on the London Underground that recalls “The French Connection.” And the ending, which I don’t want to spoil, has the clean, merciless elegance of a showdown at the end of a Western.
But the action is so effective because Mendes and the film’s screenwriters (including “Gladiator” scribe John Logan) keep it grounded in character. This isn’t just “Go to an exotic location, have a car chase, go to the next location” Bond, but an escalating clash of wills with a genuine sense of peril. It makes a big difference, I think, that this is the first Bond film where MI6 is on the defensive, much like how Gotham is under siege in the “Dark Knight” movies.
"Skyfall" gets all the ingredients of a Bond film right — a great theme song by Adele, a great villain, even callbacks to earlier films like the appearance of a certain famous car. Mendes has attracted a better-than-usual cast; Bardem, of course, but also Ben Whishaw as the delightfully nerdy new Q, and Ralph Fiennes as M’s superior, Mallory. And, with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, “Skyfall” just looks and feels like a top-level movie, not merely the latest installment in a franchise.
And Craig (who previously worked with Mendes on “Road to Perdition”) is so wonderful here; he’s every bit the James Bond we know, but he gets the chance to go further into the character we thought we knew, especially as the film touches on the childhood trauma that drove Bond into becoming a killer for hire. In “Casino Royale” he was a reckless young brute. Now he’s older, funnier and surprisingly vulnerable — his Bond gets a real and satisfying arc in this film.
Craig has one more Bond film left on his contract, and as a diehard Bond fan, I can honestly say I have no idea what the next James Bond film is going to be like. That’s exciting.