When the Bond franchise effectively got rebooted six years ago with “Casino Royale,” gone was the cheeky hokeyness of the past; instead, we got an intense, brooding, pained Bond (Craig, of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Dream House,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” and “Quantum of Solace”), haunted by the death of his parents and a rogue in the MI6 British secret service. After losing real love in “Casino Royale,” Bond went on a vigilante-style justice mission in “Quantum of Solace,” settling some scores and, of course, killing a bunch of people really impressively in the process.
But after the fantastic reset of the former, the latter felt weaker, disjointed and disorganized, with too many chase scenes and not enough stakes. James Bond fighting to protect the world’s water supply? I love the environment and everything, but, yawn.
And so with “Skyfall,” expectations are high—and director Sam Mendes and writers John Logan (who also wrote “Hugo” and “Rango”) and Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have worked on the Bond films “The World is Not Enough,” “Die Another Day,” “Casino Royale,” and “Quantum of Solace”) deliver mightily and majestically. This is, quite often, a beautiful movie, enhanced greatly by Mendes’s penchant for stark cinematography and fondness for the contrast between light and dark. Fights done entirely in silhouette and characters often set alone against vast backgrounds are two of the best examples of Mendes’s style, which focuses on the isolation of this kind of life—of shouldering responsibility that no one else can understand. This means we get a lot of steely gazes from Craig (which I have no problem with, since he’s so darn handsome) and some formidable rigidness from MI6 leader M (Judi Dench, of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “My Week with Marilyn,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Jane Eyre,” and “Quantum of Solace”).
They each have their demons, and when villain Silva (Javier Bardem) tells M to “think on your sins,” you know something shadowy is afoot. And what you find out about M changes the domineering-but-motherly figure we’ve always seen her as in relation to Bond—and the revelation is a nicely realistic, honest portrayal of the downsides of this secret service business. It’s not all exploding pens; there are lives at stake. And resurrection isn’t always an option.
“Skyfall” is built around a pretty simple premise: Baddie Silva has stolen a hard drive containing all the names of international secret service agents who have infiltrated unknowing terrorist organizations, and he isn’t just intent on releasing their identities online—he also has it out for M. After killing a number of MI6 operatives and blowing up their headquarters, Silva catches Bond’s attention and renews his commitment to country, driving him out of retirement and back to London.
But that change of heart is exactly part of Silva’s plan; he’s one step ahead of Bond and MI6 at all times. He knows Bond will be intrigued by Silva’s kept woman, Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe); he knows Bond will follow his mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) after the man kills another MI6 operative; he knows M will be criticized by bureaucrats like Marley (Ralph Fiennes, of “Wrath of the Titans,”“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,”“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1,”“Clash of the Titans,” and “Nanny McPhee Returns”) for her performance after the agents’ names are leaked. And with that knowledge comes an awareness of how to manipulate and spread fear—a talent Silva uses to his best advantage as he works to unravel M, Bond, and everything MI6 has worked toward.