For years–decades, actually–there have been periodic murmurings that a “real” director would one day take the helm of a James Bond movie. At various times, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were among those mentioned, and apparently at least some of them did have discussions with the series producers (originally Albert Broccoli, and after his death his daughter Barbara and Michael G. Wilson), but they never went anywhere. The day has finally come with the arrival of Skyfall, directed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes. Mendes, despite his pedigree, was far from a slam-dunk choice: his Oscar was for American Beauty, and he’d never been closer to a genre movie than the somber Road to Perdition (which happened to feature Daniel Craig in a supporting role). His most recent films, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, were the opposite of escapist entertainment. Happily for all concerned, Mendes has delivered exactly as onlookers had hoped: Skyfall, while packing plenty of action, is the most dramatically substantial film in the Bond franchise, a fitting follow-up to Casino Royale that allows us all to forget that the misbegotten Quantum of Solace ever existed.
Skyfall is, in nearly all ways, a fascinating mixture of the new and the established. The producers are descended from the series originators, going back an incredible 50 years to 1962′s Dr. No, while Mendes is a first-timer. The script is credited to the team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who have been writing for the series since The World Is Not Enough, in 1999, but also to John Logan, himself a 3-time Oscar nominee for Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, and whose other eclectic credits include both Rango and Any Given Sunday. While Daniel Craig and Judi Dench are by now veterans of the franchise, they’re joined by the strongest supporting cast any Bond movie has ever had, including Ralph Fiennes as the new head of the British Parliament’s Intelligence committee, Ben Whishaw as the new Q, Javier Bardem as villain Silva, and Albert Finney in a role that shouldn’t be described. While some key members of the creative team have returned, including Second Unit Director Alexander Witt (responsible for the action sequences) and editor Stuart Baird, they’ve been joined by composer Thomas Newman and, most notably, cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s made this unquestionably the most beautifully shot Bond ever.
The plot, too, is a melding of the familiar and the startlingly unexpected. We begin with the usual huge pre-credits action sequence, as Bond, along with rookie agent Eve (Naomie Harris) pursue the thief of a computer hard drive that contains the names of deep-cover MI6 agents, a chase that takes Bond to an old-fashioned battle on the top of a moving train and then to his apparent death. (It hardly requires a spoiler alert to mention that he doesn’t, in fact, die 15 minute into the movie.) The hunt for that hard drive brings Bond to a gorgeously photographed pursuit of an assassin in Shanghai, a casino (naturally) in Macao, and finally to the brilliant and evil Silva. Where the story goes after that should stay unspoiled, but suffice it to say that Silva has a much more personal motive than the usual series villain, and this drives the last act, quite literally, to places no Bond movie has gone before.
A subtitle for Skyfall could be “Forward to the Past.” More than any other Bond except the non-canon Never Say Never Again (Sean Connery’s Bond comeback movie, not produced by the series team due to a loophole in the rights granted by Ian Fleming), Skyfall is concerned with aging and the changes that come with time. Daniel Craig, 44 years old, may be the first Bond ever to play the character as a man his full age, with a graying beard and a heavy heart– a Bond with gravitas. The film both moves the series to new territory–even to the point where, late in the game, one might wonder what it really means to be a “Bond movie”–and sets it up, if it so wishes, to return to classic Connery form in future episodes.
Some may find this disconcerting. There’s only the most perfunctory nod to the concept of a “Bond girl” in Skyfall, the villain and Bond have an interchange that would have been unimaginable in 20th century installments, and the action sequences that conclude the film are radically different from the sort that decades of franchise spectacle have led us to expect. This is a much more human-scale Bond, and a darker, more serious one as well. (One might describe the process as the Dark Knight-ization of Bond.) It’s more dialogue-heavy than the series has been in the past, instead of leaping from action sequence to action sequence. This is an adventure movie aimed more at adults than at teens. Within that framework, Mendes and the cast have provided a rich, exciting and even emotionally satisfying entertainment.
It takes more than a little nerve to shake up a 50-year old franchise, especially one as bullet-proof at the boxoffice as Bond has always been. Instead of going through the motions for a quick return, Skyfall sets the stage for a whole new era of Bond. It’s not only enjoyable, it’s admirable.
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