Skyfall

Once we reach the proper distance from his tenure, I think it will be difficult for anyone to argue that not only has Daniel Craig made for the best James Bond, but he may be presiding over the highest-quality period the series has seen. We don't know yet whether or not the next three films that Craig has signed on for will retain the level of consistency that the last three have displayed (even accounting for the slight disappointment that was Quantum of Solace), but what's encouraging is that the creative team now behind the character, including the rotating roster of directors and co-writers, actually care about James Bond as a character. Sam Mendes' Skyfall is not only the first Bond film since 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service to offer anything in the way of thematic depth, but on eof the few to truly explore its ideas and characters to the utmost. It's quite miraculous in the way that it helps to re-contextualize and re-reboot a character that has been on cinema screens for fifty years, yet also manages to stand as a self-sufficiently satisfying blockbuster film that offers not only thrilling action set-pieces but also a meaningful examination of the emotional toll and repercussions wrought by the choices made by flawed human beings.

The movie establishes its main emotional and narrative threads right from the beginning, in which the tactical decisions made by Judi Dench's M during a chase to retrieve a stolen hard drive full of the cover identities of undercover British operatives results in the deaths of two agents - one of whom, it appears, is Bond, whose cascade from a railroad bridge into the waters below plunges us into Adele's mournful title song and Daniel Kleinman's appropriately ghostly credit sequence (the best example of each that the series has offered in quite some time). When we pick back up, Bond is living off the grid, trying to drown his resentment with, what else, booze and sex. It is during this passage that we begin to see what sets Skyfall apart from even the best of the previous entries, as the sequence is built with images of great emotional import bolstered by Craig's subtle yet commanding performance and cinematographer Roger Deakins' game-changing digital photography. Back in London, M is beginning to come under attack both from her own government (represented by Ralph Fiennes' Defense Minister Gareth Mallory) and a mysterious cyber terrorist who seems to have some form of personal vendetta against her. When an explosion in M's office blows out a chunk of the MI6 building in London, Bond is jolted enough to rejoin the land of the living.

One of the biggest strengths of the last three films has been the relationship between Craig's Bond and Dench's M, which has always been one reminiscent of a stern yet caring mother and a capable but rough-around-the-edges son. That dynamic is central to Skyfall. The scenes between Craig and Dench have been some of the best since the series rebooted, Dench conveying the slightest hints of pride and encouragement from behind her iron lady facade towards this raging pit bull of an agent (and indeed, one of Craig's great strengths as Bond has been the way in which he has developed from a somewhat more thuggish iteration to a more traditionally smooth variant who could still well and truly mess you up. His is the first Bond that is just as convincing when seducing the various beautiful women he meets as he is when strangling a man to death with his bare hands). Even in the woeful Brosnan years, Dench cut a commanding presence as a no-nonsense woman who was always aware of the often grim consequences of her actions but was always of the utmost faith that the potential risks were outweighed by the gravity of the given situation. Skyfall is entirely rooted in the fallout of those kinds of decisions, both in how they effect her relationship with Bond (who suddenly finds himself resentful towards the only person he has truly been able to trust) and in the part they played in creating the menace that the two now face.

In fan-casting with friends after the creative and financial success of Casino Royale gave us permission to get excited about the franchise again, Javier Bardem's name always came up as the ultimate dream of a Bond villain. Now that this fantasy has actually come to pass I can say that his performance is nothing remotely close to what I would have expected, and I couldn't be happier. A former British agent who was abandoned for dead by M years ago upon his capture, Bardem's character is a physical manifestation of the personal toll that M's vicarious sacrifices for the greater good have taken on the lives of those she has entrusted to enact them. He is the festering resentment that has been building between her and Bond made flesh, and Bardem eats his way through the film like a mincing Great White. After over an hour of build-up, the moment we finally meet Raoul Silva is gorgeous in the way our expectations are overturned the second he steps out of an elevator and reveals himself to be an unsettling mix of Hannibal Lector, the Joker, and Harvey Milk. That Bardem gets to play such an over-the-top villain in the classic Bond mold, yet also invests Silva with such a deep, wounded humanity that makes him not only believable but wholly sympathetic, is emblematic of the expert balancing act that the entire film pulls off. We get our share of major action set-pieces (including one of the biggest, most exciting chases in the history of the series right at the start), but they're all firmly grounded in story and character. Not only that, but they're all dependent on practical stunts and effects work (save for, at the very least, a couple of Komodo Dragons that look a little pixellated) and are also, saints be praised, visually coherent and easy to follow and feel invested in.

Perhaps the most interesting element at play are the sexual politics, always a mainstay of the franchise but here turned completely on their ear. I have found it strange that some viewers seem to be labeling Silva as a character of sexual ambiguity, when there seems to be little doubt at all that he is gay. His introductory scene, in which he is overtly seductive to a bound and captive Bond, is one of the best of the entire series and shows just how far the sexual dynamics of this franchise have come in the past fifty years (I would be hard pressed to imagine any of the previous Bonds even considering feigning bisexuality in order to manipulate the balance of power in an interrogation). Frankly, it's a little disappointing that this element is restricted to one scene and isn't pursued a little farther, but the mere fact that one of the most kinky and sexually-charged scenes in the series' history now takes place between two men is, in its own way, quite progressive.

After two movies that each attempted to stretch and take tentative steps outside of the typical form of the franchise, Skyfall reintroduces a host of classic Bondian elements that had been absent the last few outings, most notably the character of Q, now played by Ben Whishaw as more of a hipster tech geek than the cantankerous tinkerer of films past. Whishaw is an unexpected but truly inspired choice, a complete 180 from the previous conception of the character and not a mere attempt to copy Desmond Llewelyn, as John Cleese's casting was (indeed, one of the great delights of the movie is how the classical Bond-Q dynamic is reversed - now Bond is the cranky old man and Q is the eternally flummoxing youngster). There are other re-additions that may be a bit spoilerish, so I will refrain from discussing them, though perhaps the most significant addition to the formula is the director/cinematographer combination of Mendes and Roger Deakins. While I've not always been the biggest fan of Mendes' film work (I'm not fancy enough to have seen his theatrical output), he represents what may be the best type of director for this kind of film: someone who's own personality and style will never overshadow the greater franchise needs, but who will nonetheless bring a keen eye for character, as well as a genuine interest in emotional and thematic concerns. Martin Campbell's solid journeyman direction got a big assist from the material in Casino Royale; here we get the sense that Mendes really bit deep into the material and truly internalized it. Bond sitting in an exotic locale, carefully throwing back a shot while a scorpion waits ready to sting on his drinking hand, is not the most subtle of visual metaphors, but it is completely apt, and the fact that Mendes makes the choice to include these sorts of character insights is indicative of the sure directorial hand at work. Another is a spellbinding sequence set within a Shanghai skyscraper, in which Bond tracks and eventually fights (in one of the most gorgeously composed and executed shots of the year) a hired killer with whom he has some unfinished business. The way that Bond creeps through the glass-walled interior, cloaked by the reflection of the neon city outside, is not only thrilling as a classical spy movie set-piece, but also in the way it conveys a looming sense of melancholy not merely through control of visual mood but also by acting as a perfect metaphor for the kind of life he lives, always hiding in plain sight.

The end of the film is interesting in that it essentially reboots a series that was just rebooted two films ago by putting some of the more fundamental Bond elements, heretofore missing since Craig took up the mantle, back into place. It's strange, and comes at a steep price, but at the same time gave me goosebumps and made me eager to see the next installment as soon as possible. It's immensely satisfying to be this excited for a Bond film not just because it hits all the right notes and beats, but because it is a genuinely great film which successfully follows and resolves all of its narrative and thematic threads and carries great emotional impact while also being an absolute blast. Movies are allowed to be fun. Skyfall respects us enough to be smart. It is the best mainstream blockbuster release of the year.

- cs