Movie Review: “Skyfall”

To say that James Bond has aged well would be an understatement.

The character, created by author Ian Fleming in 1952, has been portrayed by numerous actors over the last 50 years, perhaps none more famously than Sean Connery.

In 2006, the franchise was dusted off and reinvigorated with Daniel Craig in the role of Bond for “Casino Royale” (Fleming’s first Bond book), and never having been a true fan of the series until that point, I don’t have much to compare with Craig versions.

Within that context, Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” is far and away the best James Bond movie for this generation, with Craig turning in a captivating and challenging performance. It is also one of the most beautiful pictures of the year, with unforgettable cinematography by Roger Deakins.

Given that Band hasn’t aged much since his first cinematic appearance, it is hard to say if these Daniel Craig adventures are intended as a “‘reboot,” which seems to be Hollywood’s go-to formula these days. I think more likely, it is the timeless appeal of sophisticated spy stories that has kept the character alive and well through the generations. As I recall from “Casino Royale,” Bond was just earning is “‘double-0” status so technically that makes “Skyfall” the third Bond movie in a series, rather than the 23rd. In any case, this is a superb spy thriller akin to the style of the classic Bond films, but injected with a modern action sensibility.

“Quantum of Solace” was a critically maligned offering, as it essentially functioned as a direct sequel to the events of “Casino Royale” and turned James Bond into a revenge-seeking action hero. I felt there was plenty to like about it, but with “Skyfall,” the through-line is gone in favor of a fresh, self-contained story. Since that is the staple of the series, it is a wise decision.

In the opening moments, James Bond is chasing down an assailant apparently in possession of a list containing the identities of deep cover MI6 agents, including Bond himself. This a breathless beginning sequence, with an incredible motorcycle chase that eventually ends atop a fast-moving train. Bond’s handler M (Judi Dnech) very much needs that list, feeling somewhat responsible for it being out in the open. In her desperation, she makes a judgment call that leads to 007 being shot by fellow field operative Eve (Naomie Harris). This turns out to be just the beginning of M’s troubles, which will become more compounded by the new Head of Foreign Intelligence, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Mallory likes M, but has been instructed to replace her with someone less influenced by years of tough decisions.

Bond returns, not fully recovered, and after making amends with M, sets out to find out who stole the operatives list. A common thread in this updated series is how vulnerable Bond can be both physically and emotionally. In significantly weakened condition, Bond may not even be fit for field duty, but he is motivated by a series of well-executed cyber-attacks intended for M that force MI6 headquarters underground.

Ben Whishaw plays a younger, hipper version of Q and provides Bond with a couple sensible toys that aren’t implausibly high-tech.

“Were you expecting exploding pens?” Q asks at one point, giving a wink to your father’s Bond.

After using his charms on the mysterious Severine (Berenice Marlohe), Bond makes arrangements to be led to Mr. Silva, the apparent mastermind behind the attacks. Javier Bardem plays Silva with an unhinged and nefarious tenacity; he does for James Bond what Heath Ledger did for Batman as the Joker. Since his agenda is a personal one, the stakes have never been higher. There is a tense scene where he explains what rats do when trapped together in an oil drum; besides being one of the film’s best-written scenes, it is elevated by Bardem’s performance to an iconic bad-guy moment.

It would be criminal to review “Skyfall” without mentioning the superb cinematography by Deakins, who has collaborated with Mendes before on “Revolutionary Road.” This should be an easy nomination for the Best Cinematography Oscar, alongside Wally Pfister’s work on “The Dark Knight Rises.” The opening titles in particular showcase at least two unforgettable images that serve as the best the series has ever offered and given the variety of locations, Deakins expertly shifts the mood from scene to scene with subtle color changes and haunting visual cues. The film’s climax is probably the most well-crafted work I’ve seen all year given its stark location and atmosphere.

“Skyfall” almost didn’t make it out of MGM’s financial woes alive, but after some studio finagling and a perfect choice of director in Sam Mendes, this is easily one of the year’s finest offerings. At nearly two and a half hours, there is a lot of bang for your buck on screen. (And guys, if your date has grumblings about this being a “guy movie,” just assure her that Daniel Craig does in fact remove his shirt a time or two.)

The only thing missing this time is a definitive “Bond girl,” another staple of the series. The ending title card assures us that Bond will be back in the future so maybe by then he’ll retain his license to kill and get the girl too. One thing is certain, his age isn’t slowing him down.