“Skyfall” is the breath of fresh air the James Bond series needs after the dismal “Quantum of Solace.” But the movie’s originality lies not in its plot – Bond is up to his old tricks – but in the nuanced execution.
It’s not a perfect film. Like many third acts, “Skyfall” is in part about Bond’s (Daniel Craig) resurrection. After a near-fatal fall during a botched assassination attempt in Turkey, he rises from the ashes (nursed, of course, by an attractive woman) and returns to London unshaven, alcoholic and out of shape. He’s an old hat in an intelligence world that’s becoming increasingly reliant on technology.
M (Judi Dench), is busy defending MI6’s relevance to the British government when a crisis strikes: a hacker with a dark sense of humor has infiltrated the agency’s ironclad database, exposing the identities of active agents and putting them in peril. Someone is out to get MI6, someone with a personal vendetta against M – someone, she says ominously, from within.
The pending doom of his agency throws Bond on an expedition to Shanghai, a visual playground director Sam Mendes mines for its sensuality. Bond stalks his target through a high-tech high-rise. All is silent. Cat and mouse are alternately illuminated, obscured and illuminated again in a floating dreamscape of colors. In a hand-to-hand combat set, the fighters’ silhouettes are backlit by a sensuous blue jellyfish that gives way to twinkling stars. Where the script fails in poetic depth, Mendes compensates with stunning visuals.
Though resplendent with beautiful females (the femme fatale, the plucky assistant; I will save my two cents on gender representation for another day), the film hones in on Bond’s relationship with M, which in many ways is his most genuine. Bond also returns to his roots, though not with the substance as one would hope. Goldmember’s origin story was deeper than this.
The film scratches at the surface of Bond’s wounds, his exterior of invulnerability, but it never lets him truly break his composure. That might have been a different film, and an interesting one, akin to what Christopher Nolan did with our time’s Bruce Wayne. The screenwriters may have feared that it would take away from Bond’s untouchable coolness, but more psychological spelunking wouldn’t hurt.
Part of the fun in challenging Bond is that it brings out his icy wit. Probe another layer, past this famous defense mechanism – can he function without it? Can Bond be as nuanced and vulnerable as Bruce Wayne and still be Bond?
The plot is not as strong and cohesive as “Casino Royale,” and you may leave wishing the film had probed a few inches deeper into Bond’s wounds. Nevertheless, it has what audiences missed in “Quantum”: British wit; the spunky, blonde Javier Bardem as a villain (think a more flamboyant, sassier version of his “No Country for Old Men” psychopath); and Ralph Fiennes.
Like Bond himself, “Skyfall” is an old horse with new tricks (and some old: welcome back, Aston Martin DB5). There are shades of the zeitgeist, including technology eclipsing the need for personnel and Asia as a rising superpower. Sam Mendes handles his material with the grace and sophistication you expect of “Bond – James Bond,” and with arrestingly poetic visuals, “Skyfall” does the Bond series a big favor.