The anticipation for “Skyfall” has been intense, combining curiosity as to what cerebral Sam Mendes would make of the franchise, with hope that the new film would erase “Quantum of Solace” from memory and put Daniel Craig’s 007 back on track. Mendes, Craig & Co. had to deliver.
And deliver they have. At times “Skyfall” is simply sensational.
It starts with an outstanding pre-credits sequence in Turkey, which takes familiar tropes – the car chase through an exotic location, the rooftop pursuit and fight atop a moving train – and gives each a twist, ending with a dramatic atypical conclusion. It’s edge-of-your-seat stuff, ratcheting up suspense over whether Bond will indeed get his man.
In the same vein, the credit sequence replaces the lascivious ogling of naked women with images of Bond languishing at the bottom of the sea, then in a graveyard, then in a “Lady from Shanghai” hall of mirrors, to the accompaniment of a fine, sultry theme by Adele. The message, then, is that just two films after “Casino Royale” gave Bond his licence to kill, he’s already facing early retirement.
The same goes for M (Judy Dench) back in London, where a WikiLeaks style scandal with a cyber-terrorist is rocking MI6. In the past, 007 has been labelled a dinosaur for his sexism; now both his and M’s style of espionage is in the dock. “We’re played out,” suggests Bond to his boss. “Speak for yourself,” she barks back. And so an out-of-shape 007 dusts himself down to make a defence of the old guard.
The beleaguered, but ever-caustic M is front and centre of the action; in fact, Dench is this film’s Bond girl, albeit more surrogate mother than sex object, and the actress fires on all cylinders. Alongside her, Craig cranks up the wit and self-deprecation, making his particularly bullish Bond a tad softer around the edges; he still looks absurdly good in a tux.
Could this be the best-acted Bond ever? Mendes is surely responsible for the calibre of the supporting cast, which includes Ralph Fiennes, as the bureaucrat breathing down M’s neck, perky Naomie Harris as rookie agent Eve, and Ben Whishaw as the new Q, an anorak-wearing nerd-genius, whose introductory joust with Bond in the National Gallery is an instant classic. “A gun and a radio,” complains the agent of the new era’s lack of toys. “It’s not exactly Christmas.”
And then there’s Javier Bardem, whose Bond villain is as memorable as his Oscar-winning bad guy in “No Country for Old Men.” With his foppish blond hair and bleached eyebrows, monstrous ego and fondness for fondling Bond’s thighs, Bardem’s Silva is one part Julian Assange, one part Hannibal Lecter and one part Kenneth Williams. He’s extraordinary.
Behind the scenes, cinematographer Roger Deakins is as instrumental as Mendes in giving this Bond outing its own aura. His shooting of a cat-and-mouse sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, advertising flickering mysteriously across its glass walls in a way that evokes “Blade Runner,” of a magic lantern-lit Macau casino and the ruined island city that is Silva’s home is ravishing.
The film isn’t without its faults. Bérénice Malohe’s presence as the more traditional Bond girl is brief and unsatisfying; the plotting of the final third is so ropey as to cede all the usual concessions; and the final showdown at Bond’s family pile in Scotland is a misstep, nostalgia and perhaps the desire to be different clouding sense. Bond has lasted this long without his back story; why start now?
But the conclusion is wonderful, with one rocking surprise after another. One would earn the displeasure of Her Majesty’s Secret Service to give anything away. Suffice to say it packs an emotional punch, then tickles with delight, and propels Bond – and surely Craig – towards the next installment.