This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. The series was rejuvenated six years ago when the sixth 007, Daniel Craig, reported for duty. Casino Royale was a high-water mark for the series both financially and artistically, but the next film, Quantum of Solace, was a major disappointment. It was hampered by a poor script that could have done with several re-writes before principle photography began. Then the financial trouble of Sony Pictures put the brakes on a new Bond picture for 4 years. It proved to be a blessing in disguise as it gave the creative team a chance to develop a deeper and darker story that obliterates the bad aftertaste left by Quantum.
Skyfall opens with one of the series’ patented action sequences as Bond discovers the theft of a hard-drive containing the names of deep-cover agents in terrorist organizations and the murder of three agents who were guarding it. Assisted by another MI6 agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond races after the thief – first in cars, then on motorcycles, and finally on a train. In the end, it all goes horribly wrong.
The loss of the hard-drive has the government, in the form of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), questioning M (Judy Dench) and her ability to continue running the agency. It gets worse when a cyber-attack does major damage to the MI6 headquarters.
Bond has been laying low in the months since the Turkey incident, nursing his wounds. The attack on MI6 brings him back to the service, but he’s not physically or mentally the same. His wounds, though, provide a key piece of evidence, allowing the killer who stole the hard-drive to be identified as Patrice (Ola Rapace). Bond traces him to Hong Kong where he catches Patrice in the middle of a hit and takes out the killer. He also sees a beautiful woman who may have been involved in the hit.
A special chip in Patrice’s gear leads Bond and Eve to a gambling club in Macao. Bond meets the woman he saw, whose name is Severine (Berenice Marlohe). After defeating another attempt on his life, Bond accompanies Severine to an island where he finally meets the man behind the attack on MI6. Silva (Jarvier Bardem) is a former agent who went rogue and was sacrificed by M when she was in charge of the Hong Kong operations. Now he wants his revenge.
During the hiatus, Craig had approached director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead) and asked if he’d like to do the next Bond movie. Mendes had cast Craig in one of his first film roles, as Paul Neuman’s son in Road To Perdition. Mendes had loved the series since his childhood in England and was all for doing it. As Craig tells the story, the offer was fueled by a considerable amount of alcohol. In the morning he had to explain to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson what he’d done. Thankfully, they were delighted with having Mendes direct. Mendes worked with screenwriters Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, who’d written the series since 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, and also John Logan. Logan was also a newcomer to Bond, but he’d written such movies as Gladiator, Hugo, and the Martin Scorsese bio-pic of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. They produced a tight, nuanced script that also delves deeper into Bond’s character than ever before. Logan has already been attached to the next two 007 films.
Mendes also brought in legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’d filmed such movies as O Brother Where Art Thou, A Beautiful Mind, Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. They’d worked together previously on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. The fight between Bond and Patrice shows Deakins’s genius with lighting a scene – it takes place in a dark room with glass walls that reflect like mirrors, with light coming from a LCD advertising screen outside the building.
The role of James Bond for many years came with constraints; you had to fit in with what had come before – the jocular comments in the face of danger, the black tux, “shaken, not stirred” – to be accepted. Casino Royale fought back against them; Skyfall blows the constraints away. Craig has room to be a real person rather than an icon, especially with his complex relationship with Judy Dench’s M. In the end, it is the two of them, facing the villain of the piece.
And what a villain! Silva is the best villain since the early days of the series, meeting and even exceeding Goldfinger and Largo from Thunderball. Bardem inhabits the role with a smoothness, but underneath the surface you see how twisted Silva is. He’s as ruthless as Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, but with a patina of sophistication.
Harris and Fiennes infuse their roles with energy and wit. Their characters are wild cards; you’re not sure how they fit in until the end. There’s also a new Q, a young wunderkind played by Ben Whishaw. He provides Bond with only a Walther PPK and a radio transponder when 007 heads back into the field. When Bond wonders at the few provisions, Q shoots back, “We’re not making explosive pens anymore.”
It’s one of the nods to the previous 50 years of films woven in Skyfall, including the return of one of the most iconic items from the early films. But the movie is also a bridge to the future of the series. Major changes happen, but they are handled with grace, and they give their due to what has gone before. If the producers can keep making movies like this, we’ll be celebrating Bond’s centennial in 2062.