THE STORY – When James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) latest assignment goes terribly wrong, it leads to a calamitous turn of events: Undercover agents around the world are exposed, and MI6 is attacked, forcing M (Judi Dench) to relocate the agency. With MI6 now compromised inside and out, M turns to the one man she can trust: Bond. Aided only by a field agent (Naomie Harris), Bond takes to the shadows and follows a trail to Silva (Javier Bardem), a man from M’s past who wants to settle an old score.
THE CAST – Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney & Judi Dench
THE TEAM – Sam Mendes (Director), Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 143 Minutes
By Josh Parham
The year 2012 was a pretty monumental occasion for the James Bond franchise. One could look at it as just another anniversary for the series, and it wasn’t as if such milestones were not previously celebrated. However, marking fifty years of longevity is a particularly important record. Despite the many ups and downs, it’s remarkable that such an established line of films has been able to endure for so many decades. Even as the taste of general audiences has changed, there is still an appetite for this classic character and his wild adventures. A brand-new film to denote this event only further highlights the importance of the moment, and that’s why “Skyfall” was perfectly timed to remind the world how tradition could still be bold and entertaining. It ends up delivering on those expectations in quite a satisfying way.
As the film opens, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is on a mission to stop an assassin who has just stolen a valuable piece of equipment: a hard drive containing the identities of numerous undercover MI6 agents worldwide. In his efforts to track this man down, a fellow agent accidentally shoots Bond during the pursuit. Bond is presumed dead from the incident but is actually tucked away in a tropical destination, disillusioned with the world of espionage. However, he is brought back into the service when his old boss M (Judi Dench), becomes the focus of a dangerous plot that threatens to expose all of her secrets. The man running this operation is Silva (Javier Bardem), himself a former agent who now runs a massive cyber-terrorism outfit and has a personal vendetta against M. Bond must not only thwart every attempt at M’s life and stop Silva at all cost but must also deal with the dark trauma of his own past before it consumes all that he knows.
For many, there is a belief that an actor’s tenure playing the character of 007 doesn’t truly hit a stride until the third film; Sean Connery in “Goldfinger” and Roger Moore in “The Spy Who Loved Me” are seen as noted examples. As this is the third time out for Craig, his character portrayal takes a more interesting tone than before. Despite coming out the gate with an origin story, here he plays him grizzled and washed-up, grown cynical and beaten down by a hard life. It feels odd that this character would have a viewpoint of feeling obsolete when given a brand-new reassessment only a few years prior, but Craig does a wonderful job at embodying the role regardless. He once again not only captures the physicality that is demanded, but he also brings a captivating screen presence that emphasizes the emotional turmoil as well. One could argue whether or not he is the best version of this iconic character, but Craig shows how much he can make this portrayal feel nuanced and engaging.
Fortunately, the supporting ensemble is just as terrifically assembled. This is Dench’s seventh and final time playing the character of M, and it is undoubtedly her finest moment in the role. It feels like a deserved culmination that utilizes her tough exterior that easily trades sharp barbs while also communicating the anxious vulnerability in a situation beyond her control. It’s a compelling performance that is the heart and soul of the film, and Dench has the exceptional ability to elicit a dry laugh and heartbreaking catharsis. As the opposing force, Bardem is utterly engrossing in his slyly sinister presentation. He recalls the grandiosity of previous Bond villains while also maintaining a sense of control that makes him an intimidating personality. He captures a flamboyance mixed with tragedy that is quite alluring. The smaller parts are also a wonder. This includes Naomi Harris as a spirited Moneypenny with great banter and the always delightful Ben Whishaw as the gadget-master Q, providing some of the film’s more effective humorous scenes. Even Albert Finney’s warm demeanor is appreciated, even if the character has little to contribute. That is much more than Bérénice Marlohe is given, completely wasted in the stereotypical “Bond Girl” role reduced to little more than a sexualized prop.
This series has never been previously known for picking directors with reputations for being auteurs, and Sam Mendes helming this film felt like a pretty bold direction to go. As the first Oscar-winning director to work on a Bond film, he brings an air of prestige to the material. The intimate drama is given as much weight as the action set pieces and oftentimes seems better executed than the former. That isn’t to say the spectacle isn’t impressive, but the instinct to drive the story forward based on the characters’ plight is more of a priority. To that end, Medes does still manage to balance the two efficiently and leans on his creative collaborators to manifest a dazzling landscape. In particular, Roger Deakins’s gorgeous cinematography and Thomas Newman’s alluring score are valued pieces to the noteworthy filmmaking. This effort may not hold an entirely distinct voice from Mendes, and sometimes the broad canvas can give way to sequences that rely on poorly presented digital effects, but he manages to display a successful execution nonetheless.
The folly of most Bond films usually ends up in the writing, and this film isn’t immune to such pitfalls. Longtime scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are joined this time by John Logan, and they should be credited for crafting an evolving narrative that puts such an emphasis on the emotional state of its participants. Undoubtedly, there is a more trained focus to draw out these established relationships and mine deeper, more impactful thematic terrain. However, even with all that, there is a small spark missing that brings the entire enterprise together. By choosing to promote a storyline whose primary motivations are propelled outside of Bond’s own actions, the main protagonist cannot help but come across as a tad passive. Some of this is intentional subversion, but there is an ever-present hollowness despite how handsomely made the whole piece is. The results are a film that is more rewarding as a general entry to the spy film genre and not necessarily one that highlights the bombastic excellence of Bond. The tightening of the scope in the final act slows the pacing and turns more inward, leaving arcs satisfied but a certain Bondian indulgence unfulfilled. One should be appreciative that the screenplay doesn’t become a complete mess in the last stretch, as has often happened. Still, the storytelling has an element missing to naturally tailor this narrative to honor innovation and tradition.
Even with all that, it’s hard to deny just how impressive “Skyfall” is at maintaining an exciting and thrilling aura. Craig once again excels as the lead here, and he is backed up by a terrific supporting cast of equally capable players. The filmmaking presents a gorgeous exhibition that features stunning aesthetics and enthralling action. Yet, there is something at the core that is slightly unsatisfying. The script forces a narrowness that is at odds with making its main character more active, and while this does well to accentuate the character dynamics, it does provide a more generic sheen to this fairly distinct series. Still, that should not take away from all the other impressive pieces that come together to create a wonderful piece of entertainment, more than worthy of commemorating the golden 50th anniversary. Here’s to many more years of endurance with hopefully well-received examples such as this.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A highly entertaining blockbuster that indulges in engaging action spectacle and captivating character drama. The performances are terrific, with highlights from Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem. The filmmaking overall is immaculate.
THE BAD – The screenplay forces a narrative that makes its protagonist feel more passive and is missing a particular essence that makes it unique for the franchise. Some supporting players have very little to offer and are poorly written.