In a recent Rolling Stone interview to promote Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise which debuts in theaters today, actor Daniel Craig, who has carried 007’s Walther PPK and license to kill since 2006’s Casino Royale, said very bluntly that he’s been trying to get out of the role pretty much from the moment he got into it. He’s signed on to do at least two more Bond films, but if he does somehow manage to get out of this contract, and this is, in fact, his final outing as Bond, James Bond, it will be the best exit yet for an actor in this series. Skyfall is gripping, thrilling, visually-stunning entertainment, thanks to the deft direction of Sam Mendes, a solid, nuanced performance by Craig, and perhaps the most interesting and compelling depiction of a Bond villain in decades by Javier Bardem.
After a mission in Istanbul to recover a list containing the names of all of NATO undercover operatives around the world goes horribly wrong, MI6’s “M” (Judi Dench, commanding as always) finds herself under attack from all sides. Her new oversight, represented by Chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), sees the failure as time for M’s retirement. At the same time, an unseen enemy makes things worse with a crippling attack on MI6 Headquarters itself, and taunts M with a simple, very personal message: “Think on your sins.” And 007 is missing and presumed dead, shot by a fellow agent (Naomie Harris) on M’s orders during the botched data recovery mission, leaving her without her best man for the job.
But just when things look like they can’t get worse, Bond reappears. He’s a little worse for wear — physical tests show he’s been diminished by his recent “demise” — but he’s still ready to do his duty. Despite Mallory’s reservations, M sends Bond out to find out who their enemy is – that discovery, of course, leads to a battle of wits with Silva (Bardem), a former agent and “favorite” of M’s who’s out to punish his former boss for all that he apparently lost while in her service. Soon the pursuer becomes the pursued as 007 must protect M from Silva’s long-planned schemes, and that pursuit eventually brings the once-invincible super agent face-to-face with his own beginnings, and the question of whether he can truly continue on Her Majesty’s Secret Service after all that it has cost him.
Skyfall as a film is designed in part to honor the 50 year history of the James Bond franchise, and in that respect, it has something in common with 2002’s Die Another Day, which celebrated Bond’s 40th Anniversary. Both films featured nods to earlier entries in the franchise, but while the earlier film chose a campier, more over-the-top approach to those acknowledgements — a satellite doomsday weapon a la Moonraker and the jet pack seen in Thunderball being kept in Q’s storage, for example — Skyfall takes a more subtle, grounded approach. Longtime Bond fans should enjoy the appearance of Bond’s new “Q” (Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas) and a certain familiar Aston Martin during a key sequence in the film, as well as Bond’s scenes with Sévérine, played by French actress Bérénice Marlohe with clear inspiration from Famke Janssen’s memorable turn as Bond villainess Xenia Onatopp in 1995’s GoldenEye. Their chemistry and interaction is classic, ludicrous Bond-style romance, the kind of connection that only makes sense in a 007 film. Don’t think about it too much – just sit back and enjoy it.
Aside from the nods to the franchise, there’s lots to enjoy visually thanks to director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition), who has brought his particular affinity for color to the proceedings here, and the result is a film that gorgeously takes advantage of each one of its exotic locales while granting each a particularly distinct character: Shanghai neon blue and electric, Macau dark red and seductive, Scotland cold grey and unyielding. It’s a testament to Mendes that these settings and his rendering of them are just as memorable as the characters moving through and around them – you’ll want to see these places for yourself after you walk out of this one.
But the true measure of any Bond film is its villain, and in Silva Javier Bardem gives Bond fans a truly worthy adversary. In addition to having all of Bond’s training and far more resources at his disposal, Silva’s past experiences has much in common with Bond’s recent ones, creating an unwilling understanding between the two men as they try to gain the advantage over one another. Silva walks through much of the film with a languid grace and the grin of a man who knows he knows more than everyone else, which proves to be the perfect foil for the rough, grizzled Bond trying to put the pieces together and stop him.
All in all, the film feels a bit long at 143 minutes, but it’s a great ride throughout while holding true to the traditions that make Bond Bond. Craig said in that same Rolling Stone interview that he’s anxious to see how Skyfall performs at the box office, and if it tanked it might be his opportunity to get out of his contract. If this film’s quality is any indication of success, he’d better get himself ready to make those last two 007 films in his contract.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, with Albert Finney and Judi Dench. Directed by Sam Mendes.
Running Time: 143 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking.