Well, that didn’t last long.
With Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig established himself as the gritty, grim James Bond. The hair was lighter; the mood was not. Skyfall, Craig’s third film, is a throwback, much like the Adele torch song that anchors it. At once corny and clever, both culturally insensitive and stylistically inspired, Bond is back to being the older uncle we’re both amused and embarrassed by. Sure, he may say some politically incorrect things at times, but that vintage Jaguar he drives around in sure is cool.
Having grown up during the Roger Moore era, I’m probably more open than most to the idea of Bond being envisioned as some sort of lethal lounge lizard. Skyfall, to my delight, took this literally at one point, giving us a villain (Javier Bardem) who employs killer komodo dragons. Bond makes jokes about those and other things throughout the film, giving the piece an altogether lighter mood. Unlike Craig’s previous two pictures, this one takes place in the same universe as Austin Powers.
Skyfall opens with a doozy of an action sequence, another hallmark of the series. New director Sam Mendes (Away We Go, Jarhead) gives us a motorcycle chase along rooftops that transitions to the roof of a speeding train, but we’ve seen such things before. Bond operating a construction digger that’s being transported on the train and going after the bad guy with its bucket? Now we’re talking about the sort of action outrageousness that Bond does so well.
The sequence ends on a dour note, however, with Bond shot and left for dead. If you consider this a spoiler, note that we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet. They arrive in the usual form, with the Adele song accompanied by silhouettes of girls and guns. Once the movie proper gets underway, a resurrected Bond confronts his stone-faced boss, M (Judi Dench), and demands to know why he was left behind.
Mendes has managed to distill the Bond ethos in a single sequence: it’s sex and death as irresistible surface and sheen.
If Craig has been a key addition to the series, you could argue that the casting of Dench, which began with 1995’s GoldenEye, has been even more crucial. With her steely authority and curt dismissal of exactly the sort of chauvinistic silliness the series often indulged in, she set a welcome new tone for the franchise well before Craig arrived. And so it’s to Skyfall’s credit that much of its narrative focuses on her. Bardem’s villain, it turns out, is bent not only on destroying the British spy agency, but taking out M in particular. Her resilience is the backbone of this tale.
If Dench lends the movie an enlightened sort of authenticity, Bardem does the opposite. Swishing his way across the screen with bleached hair and effeminate flair, his Silva is one part Tim Gunn and two parts Dr. Evil. It’s a hoot – this is the first time I can remember a male adversary of Bond’s copping a feel – but also hardly an encouraging depiction of homosexuality onscreen. Add a new Bond babe (Berenice Marlohe) who’s treated as one of the most disposable women the series has ever seen, and Skyfall certainly takes a step back in terms of the franchise’s cultural sensitivity.
I know, I know. I should just let Uncle Bond be. So let me get back to singing the movie’s praises. Aside from handling the action scenes with aplomb, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins bring an elegance to the movie that’s nothing less than enchanting. Especially striking is a sequence about halfway through, in which Bond fights an adversary in an all-glass office building while Marlohe’s femme fatale watches from the skyscraper across the way. This being Shanghai, holographic advertisements are projected onto the building from below, and their shapes and colors reflect and refract among the glass walls and onto the struggling men’s faces. Mendes has managed to distill the Bond ethos in a single sequence: it’s sex and death as irresistible surface and sheen.