In the world of James Bond, super-agent for the British government, we expect girls, guns, and gadgets galore, but what we do not usually expect is great depth. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Jarhead) and actor Daniel Craig are not opposed to this history; rather, they mine it for all it’s worth while extending the metaphor of “license to kill” to encompass so much more. In doing so, Skyfall may just be the best Bond movie ever, or at least one of the top two or three (my favorites being From Russia With Love and Goldfinger). This is because despite all the usual and expected trappings, we get more into Bond’s psyche and history, thus understanding him more than as a caricature of our imaginations.
The story once again takes place in exotic locations – Shanghai, Macau, and a smashing opening sequence in Turkey – but there is also much of the film taking place in England, London specifically, taking us into the Tube and the streets like no Bond has ever done before. When Bond complains about the crowds waiting on the platform to the new and much younger Q (Ben Wishaw), he gets the response that we would expect from a young guy, but also a truism because Bond has probably never been on a train as a passenger in the Underground before.
The story is basically typical Bond, except that in the beginning Bond is out of the game and living the good life, so to speak, playing drinking games with scorpions and spending time with a beautiful woman. Still, he gazes out the window, looks a bit lost, and we imagine he misses the old life. Only by chance does he hear a CNN broadcast about an attack of the MI6 headquarters in London, and thus he is motivated to get back in the action.
When he returns from the “dead” to meet M (Judi Dench) in her London flat, she is not that surprised to see him (even though she has recently written an obituary for him). Bond wants in but he has been out for so long that he must take a series of tests to be qualified as an agent again. Much is made of him being “old” and even M reminds him that he’s been in the game too long, and you get the feeling that time isn’t kind to secret agents either; but Bond wants to avenge the death of fellow Agent Ronson (Bill Buckhurst), who died in Istanbul and lost a list of embedded agents worldwide. Bond must find his killer Patrice (Ola Rapace), retrieve the list, and take him out to settle the score.
This is basically the simple plot, but there is much more going on too. There is a sexy and intelligent female agent Eve (Naoimi Harris), who challenges Bond perhaps as much as Vesper Lynd once did. Besides the new Q there is also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a member of Parliament who may or may not be trustworthy. He is pressuring M to retire because he feels she bungled the retrieval of the list.
Bond heads to Shanghai to confront Patrice, and then on to Macau where he meets Severine (Berenice Marlohe), who joins the vast army of beautiful but deadly girls Bond takes to bed. The next morning they are off to villain Silva’s island hideaway (a Bond staple, of course). Silva is bleached blond and dentally challenged villain played by Javier Bardem with such glee and gusto that he may be the best Bond bad guy ever, or at least right up there with Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger.
Bond and Silva’s initial confrontation includes a chair, handcuffs, and Silva getting touchy-feely with 007. The scene involves rapid fire dialogue, with Silva revealing he was a former agent and has serious issues with M abandoning him in Hong Kong. He also tries to convince Bond that M has failed him as well, making it seem as if they are brothers with mommy problems. Silva tells Bond of an experiment he did with rats that involves the rats killing one another until just two remain. Silva says that they can either work together or fight until there will be one rat standing.
From this point forward there are too many spoilers that can be revealed, so let it suffice to say that Bond eventually gets back to London and has to find a way to protect M. The tension builds as he must spirit her away from the city to a remote location for the final confrontation, and here we encounter more of Bond’s past, including an old caretaker named Kincaid (Albert Finney) who for Bond is sort of like Alfred the butler to Batman’s Bruce Wayne.
In the final act there is a great battle sequence, as good as anything we have ever seen in a Bond movie. You get all the gunfire, the explosions, and the confrontation between good and evil you will want, but there is also an epiphany for Bond that has been 23 films in the making, and it is a brilliant moment. As he stands on a London rooftop with Union Jacks fluttering in the wind, there is an affirmation for all that Bond has done in the name of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and a promise that he is far from finished.
Those of you who are like me and have seen all of the Bond films (some at least five times) will find many little pleasures in the movie, with some nods to previous films that are all intentional. When Bond opens an old garage and reveals the famous Aston Martin from Goldfinger, you have to get a chill as you make the connection. There is also the collective weight of the character’s experience, so we do think we know Bond, but we have never known him so intimately as we will by the end of this film.
Daniel Craig has really slipped into the character’s skin now, seeming as comfortable there as Sean Connery once was (before he became restless and unhappy with the role). While for me Connery felt just right as 007, the other Bonds never were. Roger Moore was way too glib; George Lazenby was too dull; Timothy Dalton was too stiff, and Pierce Brosnan was way too pretty. Craig is a more physically sculpted Bond, yet he wears a designer suit just as well as Connery. He also is a stronger actor than any of the others, delving into the motivation for Bond’s actions in ways none of them could. Mendes has allowed Craig to make that exploration here, and it pays off very well considering the heft of the storyline.
I really enjoyed every moment of this film and, for a movie coming in at two hours and twenty-three minutes, I can honestly say I never once looked at my watch. I must also note that the theme song “Skyfall,” as performed by Adele, is perhaps the most perfectly suited song in Bond movie history. It is also one terrific song, with Adele’s powerful vocal making it all the more memorable. I think it ranks right up there with Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” and that is indeed the highest praise I can give it.
In the end there is a hint that we should expect more from Mr. Bond, and hopefully with Daniel Craig in the role. He plays the character like he owns it now, and when he says the famous line, “Bond, James Bond,” the line is resonant because you really believe Craig is Bond. Skyfall is truly not just a great Bond movie but also a great film. As you watch it you may be thinking that it is not your father’s Bond movie, but you’ll realize that it is what a Bond movie needs to be now.
Photo Credits: guardian.co.uk