“Everybody needs a hobby.”
Skyfall is the 23rd Bond movie. 23, spread out over 50 years. It’s got legs and even when it gets knocked down it gets back up again. The potential for a good Bond movie is always there, we have a proven formula which works across half a century of filmmaking. But there is just as much potential for failure. The formula is hard to actually get right. How silly can you make Bond? He’s an inherently silly character, a bit on the nose and hard to buy if not written carefully. The gadgets can range from a radio transmitter to an invisible car, and either could be wrong for the type of Bond movie you’re making. And the bad guy can range from over the top to completely non-threatening. We’ve seen all kinds of Bond movies with all kinds of success. Each new one is an experiment, stretching the formula, testing the variables. Sometimes you get a hit, sometimes you don’t. Daniel Craig‘s Bond had, until now, a .500 batting average. So, is Skyfall a worthy entry into the series? Does the formula still work?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. It’s been four years since the disappointing Quantum of Solace and the team behind this film have taken that time to make Skyfall into the best of the series. It’s a proof of concept movie. You can make a Bond film that has actual thematic depth in it. You can make a Bond movie with Q and M and tricked out cars and a crazy villain and sometimes ridiculous action scenes and still have it be great. This is in my top 3 of the year so far. It’s got fun one-liners, one of the best Bond girls ever, and a plausible threat to Bond, not only physically but psychologically as well. It is also absolutely gorgeous, thanks to the pairing of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Let’s break it down a bit. Firstly, a return to the Bond of old. Casino Royale, Craig’s first outing, was a departure for the series. As much a romance as it was a Bond film, Craig’s Bond was not yet fully formed. He was rough around the edges, more brute strength than suave cunning. Quantum of Solace began a transition back to the formula as we know it. Skyfall takes a big leap back to basics in more ways that one. Bond gets his gadgets back, complete with a new Quartermaster, played wonderfully by Ben Whishaw. These aren’t the crazy laser watches or anything like that. Just a personalized gun and a radio transmitter, but still, Q’s back and it’s nice to see more of the supporting cast fill out around the previously loner Bond.
Perhaps most importantly, this Bond has a villain that tests Bond’s abilities in a number of ways. Played perfectly by Javier Bardem, Silva is a guy with a grudge against M who uses his many talents to poke and prod at her and, by extension, Bond. He ties in with the theme of decay and resurrection brilliantly. Those themes are the key to Skyfall’s success. We’ve seen Bond fail over and over again when something in that formula goes wrong and you can count the legitimately good Bond films on a few fingers. He, like everybody, has moments of weakness. The lines I quoted at the top of this review aren’t just witty banter between equally matched opponents, they’re a mission statement. This movie is about reviving the franchise, something that we thought the excellent Casino Royale was about. But that film wasn’t really Bond. It used a different formula, albeit one that worked spectacularly. In Skyfall, we see the death of that Bond (quite literally) and the rebirth of the Bond we all know so well. And that’d make for a fine film, but Skyfall goes a few steps further. The first half or so of the film is about the art of decay. What happens when things are left to die: people, places, ideas? Is Bond even relevant anymore? Can his work continue in the era of transparency?
This film answers in a resounding fashion with one of the best scenes which takes place at a court hearing. M responds to questions and attacks from political enemies in a deft and stirring manner. She (played by the always awesome Judi Dench) gets the most screen time we’ve seen the character get in the entire series. She’s basically the Bond girl this go-round, and she fulfills her duties with the presence that Dench was hired for. It’s a great character movie where the triangle of Bond, M, and Silva get to play off each other in interesting and fun ways. Rounding out the cast is Ralph Fiennes as the new civilian overseer of MI-6. His motivations are unclear and that makes for some intriguing interactions between him and M and Bond.
This film is a complete success. Rousing action scenes, a fun script that moves along nicely despite its 2 and a half hour length, beautiful camerawork by a true master of lighting, some nice directorial flourishes, great performances, and one hell of a story. It’s great fun and food for thought. What else does a Bond film need? I’ll gladly wait another four years to see the next film if they use the formula to such good effect.