I must preface this review by saying that I’ve never been a James Bond fan. I’ve tried over and over to watch the Sean Connery films and failed to finish even one. Die Another Day has the distinction of being the only film I’ve ever walked out of a theater during. I can sum up my feelings of the James Bond franchise by saying- chain link fences don’t stop bullets. I could get on board with the hokey gadgets and trinkets, but where the films failed for me was realistic moments. Casino Royale was the film that altered my perception of the franchise. I liked Daniel Craig and had heard that this was a more realistic take on the character. I was pleasantly surprised with that film. Skyfall, however, has surpassed any expectations I have ever had for a Bond film. This is an amazing movie.
Skyfall opens with a chase scene involving Bond and a female agent in pursuit of unnamed villains who have obtained a list of all of the undercover British agents. Savvy filmgoers will notice that Skyfall has lifted the plot almost completely from Mission: Impossible, however, the direction, performances, and especially the cinematography make it so that you hardly notice. Bond chases the bad guys by car, motorcycle, on foot, and on top of a train. The sequence is thrilling and very well executed. The culmination of the pre-credits scene is when M (Judi Dench reprising her role) tells the female agent to take a sniper shot while Bond and the bad guy are fist fighting on top of the train. Her shot is a direct hit on Bond who is thrown off the train into the water below. The mission has failed. The list is unsecured.
The film picks back up some time later where Bond is assumed dead, but has survived and is drowning his pain in alcohol. He only comes back to London when he sees a news report about the repercussions of that failed mission. Even though he is a mess when he shows up unannounced at M’s home he agrees to come back to active duty following some competency tests. The villain is revealed and the chase is on. Here is where the film takes off. It may be standard plot fare for an action/spy movie, but the filmmaking is beyond reproach. James Bond chases bad guys until final action scene.
There is a sequence that takes place in Shanghai that is so beautiful and stunning an explanation in words would not do it justice. Long time cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has worked extensively with the Coen Brothers as well as on films such as The Shawshank Redemption and A Beautiful Mind, has shot a beautiful movie. This was shot entirely on digital, which was a surprise to me, and is gorgeous throughout. Both the Shanghai sequence and the climactic siege showdown are the best looking sequences I have seen in a long time. Deakins is always great and it is a crime that he doesn’t have an Academy Award.
Skyfall is directed by Sam Mendes who brings a different feel to the film than the series is used to. Mendes made his name in more serious dramatic films with an Academy Award win for Best Director of American Beauty. He also made the brilliant Road to Perdition which was sadly overlooked come awards season that year. His staging of the action set pieces is impeccable and he shows some cinematic stretching that I wasn’t aware he could do.
Daniel Craig brings to an exhausted stoicism to Bond. His performance reveals depth without words and is a wonderful portrayal of a wounded man. Judi Dench is also superb as Bond’s boss and almost parental figure. Bond and M share a connection that resonates throughout the film and is especially riveting given the villain of the piece. That villain is the aways electrifying Javier Bardem. Bardem’s introduction to the film is a single shot from afar with his character telling a captured Bond the story of rats in his hometown. There are few introductions ever that are that bold and riveting. These three actors play off of each other throughout the film with stunning ease. There are side characters, to be sure, but the focus is on these three. This is a very personal story for Bond. This isn’t world domination or giant lasers. This is emotional resilience and the lengths of loyalty. By reigning in the hyperbolic and ridiculous plots of old, Sam Mendes and crew have created a James Bond with relevancy. This is by far one of the best action movies I have seen.