There might not be a single James Bond movie that has ever been as sensitive to spoilers as Skyfall, the 23rd entry in the now 50-year-old Eon Productions franchise; and in an unfortunate coincidence, the review format I’ve been using throughout my months-long Bond marathon is unusually prone to dispensing spoilers. So I have been obliged to play things safe, and write two reviews of the film (I could, I suppose, skip doing a marathon-style review at all; but where’s the fun in that?), of which this shall be the short & completely spoiler-free one; tomorrow, check back in for a hugely exhaustive breakdown of every last damn thing that I find time to write about before getting bored and wandering away.
Let us start by getting the low-hanging fruit out of the way: this is not the best James Bond movie ever made. Frankly, I’m not certain that the best James Bond film ever made could possibly happen outside of the 1960s, given who Bond is as a character. There is, admittedly, a good argument that Skyfall is the best film ever made that is also, generically, a Bond film – it is undeniably the best-shot, thanks to master cinematographer Roger Deakins, and quite possibly the best-edited, by Stuart Baird (at any rate, it’s the best-edited since Peter Hunt gave up that job) – being good-to-great cinema and being good-to-great Bond are non-identical, though overlapping, categories. Anyway, it’s not even, in my shamefully unhumble opinion, not even the best Daniel Craig James Bond film, a title yet held Casino Royale. None of which is to say that it’s not great, because it is: a grand one-for-the-fans kind of Bond movie as made by a director, Sam Mendes, who clearly loves the franchise, as opposed to the last movie, Quantum of Solace, which was made by a director, Marc Forster, who clearly hated the franchise. And yet a one-for-the-fans exercise where the omnipresent awareness of how this is the 50th Anniversary Bond picture, which necessitates all sorts of pithy in-jokes about the series to this point, yet these sink into the background rather than hopping on one leg, desperately pleading for attention, like the clumsy, embarrassing references in 40th Anniversary misfire Die Another Day.
In fact, the whole thing is an awfully fleet, fun movie, opening with one of the legitimate best action sequences in the franchise’s history – a chase involving multiple forms of transportation, with a ridiculously exciting motorcycle race along rooftops giving way to an even more ridiculously exciting fistfight on top of a train – lovingly rendered by Mendes and company in a clean, classical mode of action filmmaking that marries the best of contemporary action cinema with the best of the more slow-moving, wide-angle tradition of earlier Bond; if QoS was the series’ unambiguous, unsuccessful attempt to copy the Bourne movies, Skyfall is just an unambiguously a robust “fuck you!” to the kind of hyper-kinetic action filmmaking that the Bourne pictures did very well and all of their imitators have done very poorly. It’s not just the best English-language action movie of 2012 (an easy race to win, admittedly), but the best in quite some time, with a perfect combination of impossibly over-wrought concepts for setpieces, deep commitment to making those impossibilities live, terrific cinematography, editing, and sound design (Skyfall is one of the plushest-sounding movies of the year, too), and the very best kind of visual effects, doing maximum work while calling the least possible attention to themselves (no Bond riding down a video game wave in this movie), unless a deliciously absurd climax near the end counts as calling attention to itself.
What knocks it down a peg for me is, ironically, the same thing that’s been winning it so many glowing reviews: it’s a little too… ambitious? If that’s the word. Made by, top-to-bottom, the most prestigious group of filmmakers and actors ever assembled for a Bond movie, Skyfall is perhaps the first Bond movie since From Russia with Love all the way back in 1963 that feels like a real motion picture that can be compared to other motion pictures and not just other Bond vehicles; and it gets this way not just from its impressive craftsmanship, about which I have nothing to say bad, but also from its screenplay, which is far more, let’s say, literate than Bond movies tend to be. It is, actually, a nearly-perfect Sam Mendes movie (in all seriousness: it’s the best film he’s ever made, and not by a tight margin), in that it is largely an experience in terrific empty spectacle, with some strident attempts at psychology in amidst the gawping, pretty locales; and since this is an action movie and a James Bond thriller, shallow psychology plastered on top of gorgeous, surface-level spectacle is rather more of a point in the film’s favor than any kind of demerit. Certainly, it works better here than in a sober, not-at-all glitzy story of suburban marital discord, for example.
Still, it leaves us with a Bond film that is shockingly obsessed with theme and character – has any Bond film ever offered up something like “theme”? And yet Skyfall is built around a concept of aging, loss, and being generally sucker-punched by the passage of time that so dominates the conflict and the character journeys (has any Bond film ever offered up “character journeys”?) that even the opening credits sequence is a little animated film on the idea of death and decay – and certainly not to its discredit; how much better that our mindless action movies have a series bite and depth to them. Still, the intense desire to do something a bit more serious tends to step on the toes of the film as rich, escapist entertainment, and I for one do not entirely trust a Bond film that permits me little to no escapism.
To an degree totally unimaginable prior to now, this is a film about how Bond relates to his crusty boss M, who is given more to do in this one movie than in all 22 preceding put together, and puts Judi Dench through her paces like no role she’s taken on since Notes on a Scandal. Which feels weirdly imbalanced – in this film, unexpectedly, M turns out to be the Bond Girl, not the welcomely tart, playful Eve (Naomie Harris) nor the slinky but ill-used Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe). And if that is a violation of the tacit rules of the franchise, it is one that feels fresh and original and even revelatory, a summing-up of 50 years of tradition rather than the haughty dismissal of Bondisms in the aggressively revisionist Quantum of SolaceQuantum of Solace.
But for that one swerve into unexpected character drama instead of spy adventures that works, Skyfall stumbles when it comes to its actual narrative conflict: I had high hopes for Javier Bardem’s casting as a Bond villain – who didn’t? – but the results are inconclusive, owing both to the actor and the writing. Bardem’s Silva is, simply put, almost too weird and theoretical to function as a proper antagonist, and the actor’s fairly outlandish, I am tempted to say campy take on playing him – complete with a gay panic scene that makes no sense on any level that I can discern – is a poor fit for the psychological realism of his villainy, which is already a hard enough sell. This is, I promised, the spoiler-free review, so I won’t go into it; but let us say that Silva’s villainous plot, and Bond’s attempts to derail it, is so personal and small-scale that it almost doesn’t register as the basis for an action movie, let alone an action movie in the rich, globe-encompassing tradition of the Bond franchise. Nearly all of the movie takes place on the island of Great Britain; the stakes are almost totally emotional, and they ultimately revolve around the fates of a handful of individual people, not nations.
The good news that Craig and Dench make sure those individual people are interesting enough for that kind of low-stakes drama to work – its his third, and her seventh take on the characters, and in both cases, it’s their best work in the roles yet – but still, a Bond film that has such a tiny, personal scope feels like it’s missing much of what makes Bond work, particularly a Bond film so intoxicated with the traditions of the brand (the film is, often explicitly, an attempt to marry the excess of Old Bond with the stripped-down, contemporary Craig Bond – hence, for example, the very 21st Century spin on crabby quartermaster Q, marvelously played by Ben Whishaw). And this robs the film of some momentum, which at 143 minutes, is a particularly bad thing (the second-longest Bond film, it does not earn its running time near as well as Casino Royale, though its longeurs aren’t quite as stretched out as in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
It is enough, beyond a doubt, to restore one’s faith in the series, and unlike Quantum of Solace, which seriously raised the possibility that a 21st Century Bond was worth the trouble, Skyfall effortlessly fits the character into the modern world without asking him to sacrifice his essence. But it’s imperfect; aye, well, every Bond film is imperfect, and maybe the imperfections in this one are only thrown into sharper relief because of how extremely well the best parts work. But flaws are still flaws, even in a movie as relentlessly enjoyable as this one.