Usually, these introductions are the first thing I write in these reviews, but this time, I had to write the whole thing before collecting my thoughts for this. I will say that Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond movie to date, and this film did not change that. The previous Bond film, Quantum of Solace, has been admitted by the handlers of the franchise to be a real misstep that they intended to rectify with this film. Unfortunately, I do have some points of criticism to levy against Skyfall from a first act that did not grab me to some tonal issues to a prominent character plot point that oddly disappears. However, overall, the film is masterfully executed with a very strong and deeply personal story with one of the best Bond villains I’ve ever seen. So, get ready for one of my infamously long in-depth reviews. There’s a lot to talk about on both the positive and critical side of things.
007 (Daniel Craig) becomes M’s only ally as MI6 comes under attack, and a mysterious new villain emerges with a diabolical plan. James Bond’s latest mission has gone horribly awry, resulting in the exposure of several undercover agents, and an all-out attack on M16. Meanwhile, as M (Judi Dench) plans to relocate the agency, emerging Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) raises concerns about her competence while attempting to usurp her position, and Q (Ben Whishaw) becomes a crucial ally. Now, the only person who can restore M’s reputation is 007. Operating in the dark with only field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to guide him, the world’s top secret agent works to root out an enigmatic criminal mastermind and cyber-terrorist named Silva (Javier Bardem) as a major storm brews on the horizon.
Okay, I do have to start out with how the film had me doubting it first before I get into how it grabbed me. While the pre-credits sequence has some nice bits, it ultimately left me unsatisfied as it featured next to nothing innovative or rousing that wasn’t spoiled in the trailers. It has plenty of action, but it just didn’t have a high level of tension or dire circumstances for it to really do much for me. Of course, things could have turned around if the film had a very inspiring theme song or amazing title sequence. I have to admit that I just cannot stand the music of Adele. It bores me and grates on my nerves. The only reason I’ve heard her music is because it’s part of the mind searing music that plays incessantly at my place of employment. Her title song for Skyfall could’ve put me to sleep. It’s a dull thud of a song that offers no vibrancy, beauty, or diversity. To my ears, it was monotone droning like she didn’t care, and neither did I. The title sequence itself did nothing for me. It seemed like an over thought menagerie of random images that had little to no coherence or context. The digital animation wasn’t very good either. After you’ve seen the whole film, some of the visuals make sense, but I think the visual tone was drastically off with no clear, direct focus. I’d sooner take a generic or bland opening title sequence like The Living Daylights or Licence to Kill than one that just gets it all wrong.
From there, the film took a while to energize its plot. MI6 gets blown up, M is facing bureaucratic pressure from her failures, and Bond comes back worse for wear. These are surely steps the film needed to take, but it didn’t build momentum. What finally jump started the film for me was the Shanghai sequence. Personally, this is the most gorgeous part of the whole film. Bond stalks Patrice, the man he was chasing at the start of the film, and it is inside a skyscraper which is all lit, at night, by brilliant neon glows reflected in an environment of pure glass. It’s the most neo noir sequence I’ve seen since Blade Runner, and that is exactly the sort of visual style that excites me. These visuals set a very captivating, dark, and subversive atmosphere. The ensuing fight between Bond and the assassin Patrice is excellent. Glass cracking and shattering all around them created a fantastic visual feast that ends on a very precarious, intriguing, and deadly note. This beautiful cinematography carries over when Bond travels to Macau to further his investigation with a more Asian aesthetic and golden light saturating every frame.
This beauty and so much more is due to the work of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins. Alongside director Sam Mendes, he creates a picture with amazing visuals and a very strong, personal scope. The film does look absolutely stunning with beautiful and powerful compositions, highlighting the dramatic weight and action perfectly. This is a strong turnaround from the bad shaky cam and quick editing incompetence of Quantum of Solace. Here, the action is handled with more than competence. It is handled intelligently never resorting to cheap tricks to make them intense or dangerous. While some of the desaturated visuals aren’t really stimulating for me, they are dead-on reflections of the bleak and dire tone for this story. Shots displaying the wide open, cold terrain of Scotland are gorgeous and display plenty of depth. For me, the visuals really do excel in the darker settings where light and shadow are used to gloriously beautiful effect. Overall, Deakins continues to solidify his artistic reputation with the immaculate quality of this picture. What’s most startling is that not one frame of film was used to shoot this movie. Deakins shot is all digitally, and I challenge anyone to tell the difference between this and a high quality film presentation. Not once did this strike me as a digitally shot movie, but in retrospect, the bold clarity, especially in those dark environments, could only be produced via a digital format.
Skyfall does go darker and more grim with its story and tone. While the previous two Daniel Craig outings were gritty, visceral, and personal in nature, this digs so much deeper. While there is definitely a deeply penetrating personal quality for Bond here, this film takes great advantage of Judi Dench’s M. Silva is a villain directed at her, specifically. He challenges everything that she is, decisions she has made which parallel those she has made with Bond, and forces her to confront the consequences of her actions. However, these are not decisions she regrets or ever thought twice about, but are ones that Silva holds against her for turning him into what he is now. He feels there’s some penance to be done for them both, but she concretely does not share that sentiment. Adding in a personal vendetta for the villain makes him immensely more dangerous as he will stop at nothing, will short no extent to see her dead and disgraced.
Javier Bardem creates for us one of the most fascinating and brilliantly conceived villains of the franchise. The first thing I have to note is Silva’s very obvious homoeroticism. This is blatantly on display in his first meeting with Bond, and it’s almost like, “I can’t believe they went there.” It’s just the fact that the filmmakers allowed him to go so far as to where innuendo would not be an appropriate term for his behavior. Even then, Bond plays along with him for a moment. It’s a very surprising interaction between them. Yet, this aspect seems to work for the character giving him a very effeminate and uncomfortable manner reflecting that he is an enemy who knows our heroes intimately. He knows their secrets, and knows how to exploit every bit of knowledge he has on them. He wants to get in under their skin and twist them around as badly as he has been. The sort of A View To A Kill Max Zorin blonde hair on the Spanish Bardem also creates a unique, off-beat style for him. It further pushes his enigmatic, unpredictable personality which is based in how thoroughly he has planned things out ahead of anyone’s anticipation. It strikes me now what other people have been talking about with this film’s parallels to The Dark Knight. That’s exactly the sort of villain the Joker was – unpredictable, intelligent, and a man who thoroughly planned out a complex series of events to get himself exactly where he wanted to be, unexpectedly turning the heroes’ victories into grave failures. Director Sam Mendes did state that Christopher Nolan’s film did have definite influence on Skyfall, and however you want to take it, I think it was an effective and beneficial influence. It certainly had impact on the tone and visual quality of the film.
Once again, Daniel Craig gives us a Bond that has depth, and is once again a wounded man. He portrays these detailed, emotional qualities very well while mixing in some traditional Bond wit and suaveness. He seems to be very comfortable with this more fleshed out and developed Bond. Craig excellently balances the fun and charismatic aspects of the character with the more grounded, hardened qualities. He still projects confidence for the future of the franchise under his tenure.
Although, the wounded man aspect of Bond having clearly lost a step is completely abandoned as soon as Silva is captured less than halfway through the film. He’s apparently worked through it without showing us, and is more of an aspect by the filmmakers used to subvert Silva once Bond is in his lair. This is surely not a fault of Craig’s performance, but the fact that the film can only focus on so much for so long. During the time it is part of the plot, it is very good, and explored with plenty of nuance and emotional depth by Craig. It’s only a shame that it wasn’t a constant element of the story to give Bond something more to deal with and overcome while battling an enemy that is several steps ahead of everyone while Bond has actually lost a few. It’s certainly teased with, but it evaporates a few minutes later when Bond single handedly guns down about a half dozen henchman in a matter of seconds. He’s suddenly back to one hundred percent, and I think that was a missed opportunity that is never properly resolved, just glossed over.
I do like that the filmmakers have increasingly given Judi Dench more to do as M, and made her a more integral part of Bond’s development. They have a very real and honest relationship that has built up a strong foundation for 007. Judi Dench is unsurprisingly excellent here. Skyfall gives her more than ever to work with, for very good reasons, and she handles everything perfectly. Her scenes opposite Bardem as intriguing and compelling. It’s great seeing the reverse side of her M who is usually a very confident and tough woman be faced with real fear. It’s a situation that she’s not capable of dealing with hands-on, but it’s surely not for a lack of trying. Dench gives a memorable performance that leaves an indelible impact on the franchise.
While Skyfall does have Bond girls, they don’t play a prominent role in the film for very long. The most forefront of the two is Naomie Harris as Eve. She develops a seductive relationship with Bond that results in a few very sensual moments. Harris and Craig have good chemistry, and that is quite important when you reach the film’s ending. She will be a recurring character, and Harris is quite capable of the role she was given, maybe even overqualified depending on what they do with her. She does a fine job, but there’s not much for me to comment on without revealing major spoilers.
On the more dangerous side, I really liked what Bérénice Lim Marlohe did with Sévérine, the provocative lady Bond meets in Shanghai and Macau. Firstly, she is very seductive, a true femme fatale with a wonderful edge and elegance. That accent is so enrapturing as well, and she really slinks her way through that casino and into Bond’s attention. Then, Bond digs deeper into her to reveal how truly terrified she is of Silva. Marlohe sells this petrifying fear so concretely and realistically. While her role is ultimately rather small in the overall movie, she does an exceptionally stunning job. And yes, this film has its marvelously sexy moments that are pure Bond bravado and sensuality. The only thing that wasn’t well put across with this character, which is a definite spoiler, is the certainty of whether or not Silva actually did kill her. It was far too implied as the moment is handled too artistically, and that we never see her up-close after the gunshot. I kept thinking she was a loose thread in the film that I was waiting to see tied up at some point. It’s not like Bond to just stand there to watch someone innocent get murdered when he demonstrates a minute later how entirely capable he is of gunning down and disarming everyone there. He could’ve save her life and captured Silva at the same time. Of course, earlier on, Bond stands by as he watches Patrice use a sniper rifle to kill a random somebody. So, that confused me too. Thankfully, the internet cleared this issue up for me, and confirmed that Silva did shoot and skill Sévérine.
Moving on, I have zero problems with the casting of Ralph Fiennes. While my only exposure to his work is Strange Days, that’s more than enough to get me excited for his inclusion here. His character of Gareth Mallory might seem like a hard ass, a potential bureaucratic adversary, but through the film, he gradually shows that he is more ally than adversary. He really takes a massive leap forward in the likability factor while protecting M in a firefight. As always, Fiennes does a remarkable job, and I think the franchise would be well off to keep him around.
Skyfall finally revives the role of Q with a much younger and more soft spoken portrayal by Ben Whishaw. He feels very authentic showcasing someone that is very highly proficient with modern computers and technology. He only gives Bond two gadgets – a radio transmitter homing beacon, and a Walther PPK with a sensor that is fitted to 007’s handprint so that only he can use it. Yet, Q becomes more vital later on when tracking the escaped Silva via security cameras, and then, laying an electronic trail for Silva to follow out to Scotland for the final confrontation. Whishaw gives us a character that is very modern and highly relatable as a technologically savvy hipster. While he is more low key than Desmond Llewellyn or John Cleese, he still has plenty of witty exchanges with Bond that are quite enjoyable. I won’t spoil anything. However, Skyfall does gives us back all of those Bond regulars at MI6 that have been absent in the Daniel Craig films, and it does it in a very clever and refreshed way.
Now, aside from that pre-credits sequence, which left me a little flat, the action scenes of Skyfall are ultimately very impressive. Director Sam Mendes had not done anything action oriented before, but he shows a great skill for it here. Tension and suspense surround them due to the plot driven implications, and that enhances the danger immensely. Bond gets into plenty of tight situations, but is able to use his confident ingenuity to slip out of them. Surely, the Shanghai sequence is my favorite of the movie because of its visual style. However, there is not a sequence with Silva that is not exciting and riveting. Because he has planned things out so thoroughly and so far in advance, there is an unpredictability to everything he does. He’s never truly cornered until the very end of the film, and that sells his intelligence and threat level enormously. There is one massively tense sequence after Silva has escaped that is masterfully done. Silva springs a surprise on Bond, and gets a long head start towards his goal of killing M. The tension and emotional peril is at a sharp peak. What we get is an amazing firefight that manages to a solidly further develop a few characters, and throw all things out of whack for Silva. This is a brilliantly executed section of the film where anything could happen, and you know it.
The climax is very unconventional for a Bond film where our heroes are holed up in the old Bond family estate named Skyfall. Setting up traps and secret explosives does both have a classic Bond idea behind it, but with a more gritty, low tech approach. This is a very long and full sequence that continually ups the scale with larger explosions, more dire situations, and higher tension as Silva closes in on his target. It really is one of the best action scenes I’ve witnessed this year, and really holds to the visceral style of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. I found the ending to be very original and effective on many levels. I didn’t expect this ending, but it was indeed great, regardless. It has emotional power and resonance for the character of James Bond. It also sets up new possibilities for Daniel Craig’s run with the character, and does so with a very sly, signature Bond style.
Skyfall is eventually an expertly crafted film that goes deep beneath the surface of its main characters, and takes us to some especially personal places, literally, than I ever expected from a Bond film. Rarely has much been delved into about James Bond’s family and heritage, but this takes us to where James grew up and tells us many insights into the young man he was before and after his parents tragically died. It’s great to see the relationship between Bond and M become more personally intertwined, and pay off a lot of what Craig and Dench have done over these three films.
Thus, we have a Bond film that is very different from all others with its more grim, dark tone that focuses on the personal, character driven drama primarily. All the talent on display is superb in the acting, artistic, and technical departments. Aside from those first twenty to thirty minutes where the film is unable to gain traction with its plot, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking that will undoubtedly be heralded as a success by most.
Perhaps you can anticipate that there is a catch I’m getting to here, and here it is. For as exquisitely executed as this film is, the element of fun entertainment is not very high. While I left the theatre very satisfied with what I just saw, on a dramatic and action level, I don’t see myself gravitating towards watching it over and over again like Casino Royale. Again, while the film has some amazing action, there’s not that thrilling adrenalin rush high that I got with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill, GoldenEye, or Casino Royale. What allowed for that in those movies, at least, was levity and charm. It’s all about tone allowing an audience to be invested in the suspense, but being able to rejoice in the elation of triumph. While Skyfall certainly has its good, fun moments, they are just a few moments. Because of the grim tone, it’s hard for the film to break free into something that feels enjoyably exciting instead of urgently dire. It can’t have much fun with itself, and when it tries, it feels distinctly out of place. Case in point is that whenever the film delves into a moment of quirkiness to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, it really disrupts the film’s generally serious tone. It takes a self-indulgent step outside of itself to poke fun at the conventions of the franchise. Some moments are more smoothly handled than others, and it is done immensely better than the fortieth anniversary campiness of Die Another Day. Yet, while on the run from Silva, Bond takes his vintage Connery era Aston Martin out of storage, and comically threatens to use the ejector seat button on M if she insists on complaining throughout the ride. It is an entirely extraneous silly bit that would’ve been more in place in Die Another Day, and this film would’ve been just that much more consistently credible without it. Also, when Bond fights off a trio of bodyguards in the Macau casino, he falls into a pit featuring a CGI komodo dragon. While it plays only a small part in the scene, a film of its grim, dark tone didn’t need a computer generated lizard in a cheeky humorous bit of dragging a bodyguard off to his death. This is more self-indulgent behavior to poke fun at the franchise when a real tribute would be the make the best, most consistent film you could. Don’t dilute the tonal integrity of the film by throwing in these nostalgic gags, please. It would be like The Dark Knight taking inappropriate moments to pay tribute to the Adam West 1960s Batman television series. They don’t mesh at all. Skyfall does slightly self-sabotage itself with its heavy tone in making it very difficult to get enjoyable fun of it. It is highly thrilling and dramatically powerful, but it cannot ease up on the tone to make things fun without making those moments seem out of place.
For as much as I went on about those last bits, they are not a large part of the film, but they were sore thumbs to me. Most any Bond film I’ve seen, good or bad, has usually been a fun ride, but as I said, this is a very different style of film for the franchise. I believe Skyfall is a really damn good movie, but I won’t be saying it’s the best Bond of them all. Casino Royale still ranks as my favorite for many reasons, which I hope to get to in its own review. That film meshed the fun and gritty aspects perfectly with enough charisma to make it a rousing adventure with personal and emotional depth to spare. Skyfall goes fully for the darker tone, and director Sam Mendes executes that tone amazingly well. The villain we are given is greatly memorable who is fantastically written and brilliantly realized by Javier Bardem. He’s a far more fascinating enemy than most because of his eccentricities coupled with his very personal and deadly nature. It’s a villain that makes the film exciting and spontaneous. You cannot predict what the next turn in the story will be because of him. There is ultimately even more that could be said and discussed about Skyfall. However, to boil it down simply, it might not be entirely perfect due to that “worse for wear” Bond storyline vanishing part way through, and the lack of ability to be genuinely fun, but it is a vastly successful film in delivering a bold new direction and tone for the franchise. While Casino Royale brought James Bond back to a more grounded sensibility, Skyfall simply strips more away for a grittier and bleaker storyline. It is a vast improvement from Quantum of Solace, but I would hope that the next Bond film eases up on the tone a little to allow for more rousing action and more appropriately fun character dynamics. I do give Skyfall a very strong endorsement, but I don’t think it is the best of the 007 franchise.