Christopher Nolan is, famously (like many British directors), a big fan of the James Bond franchise. He said that he approached "Batman Begins" more like a Bond flick than a superhero movie, he directly nodded to one of 007's high watermarks in "Inception," and has publicly expressed interest in, at some point, directing one of the films in the franchise.
Whether the director was ever serious about the proposition remains to be seen, but it may be that when he sees "Skyfall," the 23rd film based on Ian Fleming's superspy, he may not feel that there's much of a point, because Sam Mendes has essentially made a Christopher Nolan Bond film before Christopher Nolan got the chance. That's not quite fair to the "American Beauty" director, who makes his own mark on the series (and possibly his most satisfying film so far). But it's also true that many of the qualities that Nolan brought to the "Batman" series are present and correct in "Skyfall," both in the good and the bad.
(Mild spoilers follow in the next paragraph for those wishing to go in totally cold, but nothing that hasn't been revealed in trailers already.)
"Skyfall" kicks off in media res, with Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) in Istanbul in pursuit of a bad'un (Ola Rapace, former husband of Noomi) who's made off with a hard drive containing the names of double agents embedded in terrorist cells. The operation goes wrong, leaving Bond believed dead after catching some friendly fire in the chest from Eve, and MI6 head M (Judi Dench) grieving, in her own quiet way. But soon, it seems that she has bigger things to worry, with a sinister and mysterious villain with a connection to M's past targeting the British intelligence agency themselves, and Bond is forced out of his boozy faked-death retirement to protect his country once again.
The first thing that strikes you, walking out of "Skyfall," is that (as with "Batman Begins") it's the first Bond in a long while to really place character and story at the forefront of things, rather than stringing together a series of set-pieces ("Casino Royale" came closer, but didn't go into the same degree of depth). This is a new Bond, aging, vulnerable and off his game — something driven home by the excellent Adele-scored opening credits — and Craig gets some new notes to play for the character, and does as reliably and excellently as he did in the two previous entries. 007 now fits him like a glove.
But it's not just Bond who gets some added depth; this is the closest that a Bond film's ever come to being an ensemble piece. Judi Dench is virtually a co-lead, while Bond's support team of Harris, Rory Kinnear (returning as M's number two), Ralph Fiennes (as the ambivalently priggish civil servant Mallory) and Ben Whishaw (a particular stand-out as the new Q) all get significant screen time. They're not Kenneth Lonergan characters or anything, but all are engaging and enjoyable presences in their part and help to make the film seem a little more substantial. Even femme-fatalish Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe gets some fleshing out (no pun intended).
Best of all is the bad guy. Javier Bardem was always a tantalizing choice to play a Bond villain, and his Silva is a terrific creation, and certainly the most memorable villain in the series in decades. There are too many fun surprises to the character to give away here, but rest assured that Silva — who again, owes more than a little to a Nolan character, namely Heath Ledger's Joker — hits the center of the funny/strange/scary Venn Diagram beautifully, with the actor making some bold choices that payed off with a huge reaction from the audience in London tonight.
So placing character at the center pays off nicely, but the film also benefits by emphasizing the story. The extra development time on the script (by Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, along with "Hugo" writer John Logan) shows, because there's a real sense of mystery to the plot, giving the film a propulsive whodunnit-and-why momentum that lasts into the final act. But it's also crucially never dour; the emo-Bond of "Quantum of Solace" is nowhere to be found, with Mendes treating things with a light, playful touch throughout.
Unfortunately, the film also has one other thing in common with Nolan's Bat-movies, namely that the action isn't particularly thrilling. The opening set-piece is the most spectacular, but Thomas Newman's score (which is strong, but a little wall-to-wall) never quite makes it feel propulsive or tense enough. Later scenes work better, but some may find them lacking in the sheer spectacle expected from the modern blockbuster — there's nothing as exciting as the opening sequence of "Casino Royale."
Still, the idea of emphasizing the basics over the set-piece is a commendable one, and the film's still a wonder to look at, thanks to Mendes' genius stroke — bringing his now-regular DoP Roger Deakins (best known for his work with the Coen Brothers) along for the ride. Thanks to the cinematographer, the film looks, frankly, astonishing — most notably in its Wong-Kar-Wai-sci-fi-fever-dream vision of Shanghai, and the fiery climax, but consistently throughout. It stands up with the finest work that Deakins has ever done, which pretty much means that it's as gorgeous as film gets.
There are some other missteps along the way. At nearly two and a half hours, the film doesn't drag but it feels a little over-extended, particularly in a climax that doesn't quite live up to what went before. A couple of green-screen shots, especially early on, are a little ropey. And while the nods to the series' past in its 50th anniversary are welcome, some come across as groan-worthy rather than clever (there's one moment in a Macau casino that feels like it must be a deliberate nod to the more out-there moments of the Roger Moore era, because we can't see what it's doing there otherwise…)
But Mendes gets a lot more right than he gets wrong, and in the process has found a confident new identity for the franchise — not afraid of its past, but not chasing its competitors or being scared of the future either. It might take another viewing of each to see if it exceeds "Casino Royale" as the best since the Sean Connery days, but at the very least, it makes clear that after the disappointment of "Quantum of Solace" that Bond is back, and he's not going anywhere. [B+]