Skyfall rises as new James Bond classic

Daniel Craig finally got the James Bond film that will be remembered
as his classic.

Polarizing performances · Daniel Craig (left) and Javier Bardem star as James Bond and rogue agent Raoul Silva in Skyfall. The two talented actors give appropriate portrayals of their respective characters with Craig’s stoic, reserved Bond sharply contrasting with Bardem’s manic, unhinged Silva. – | Photo by Francois Duhamel, courtesy of Sony Pictures Publicity

Craig already had two turns as Bond, but Casino Royale was a reboot focused on Bond’s origin as a 00 agent, while Quantum of Solace was a follow-up aimed more at revenge than adventure. But in Skyfall, his third outing and the Bond film series’ 50th anniversary installment, Craig gets the adventure that might define his time as Ian Fleming’s super spy.

Skyfall has a relatively simple plot setup, but engages with the narrative in complex ways that make the film work. When Bond is left for dead after a failed mission to recover a stolen list of undercover spies, former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is free to enact his revenge plan: attacking MI6 and going after M, his former MI6 employer. After witnessing the destruction back home on the news, Bond decides it’s time to come back, even if he isn’t the same as before.

Even though the film has a major impact on the Bond franchise and gets introspective, it never feels like it’s out to comment on or reinvent the Bond legacy. Instead, Skyfall reboots the series while still offering a new Bond adventure.

Skyfall will likely draw comparisons to 1995’s Goldeneye, where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond took on a rogue agent with a vendetta while also grappling with questions of his own relevance. But despite the casual similarities in plot and theme, Skyfall maintains its own identity. Silva’s motives are much more specific and personal, and his scheme far less grand. Skyfall doesn’t examine the Bond franchise as Goldeneye did, but rather Bond the man.

In the 50 years of the character’s screen presence, Skyfall is the first Bond film since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to really delve into what makes Fleming’s spy tick. The film isn’t really based on any of Fleming’s texts but delivers more of Bond’s backstory than any previous installment.

Daniel Craig is at his stoic best as Bond in this outing. He’s still a clever, straightforward government agent, but he’s given real personal challenges. Instead of the more superficial romances of the Brosnan era, these are psychological dilemmas, and they add to the tension that permeates the movie.

By contrast, Bardem’s Silva is delightfully unhinged. He’s dangerous, both physically and in his awareness of common villain pitfalls and is also truly insane. It’s his unpredictability — mixed with his skill set — that makes him so threatening. Every time Bardem is onscreen, Skyfall crackles with raw energy. He isn’t as iconic or open to parody as Blofeld and not as outright sinister as Red Grant, but he embodies all the strengths of a classic Bond villain without any of the camp the series has built up.

Craig is helped by an incredible supporting cast. Aside from the returning Dame Judi Dench as M, who delivers her best Bond performance in the role, there’s Ralph Fiennes, Helen McCrory and Albert Finney. But the best addition is Ben Whishaw, who resurrects the character of Q, MI6’s gadgeteer quartermaster. Thankfully, Whishaw’s not some cliche, hipster, Mark Zuckerberg knockoff. Skyfall touches on his youth, but focuses on his raw skill and interactions with the gruffer, more field-oriented Bond.

But the greatest strength of Skyfall is that it actually has suspense. Even with more than 20 films under its belt, the Bond franchise has felt more action-oriented than suspenseful, even with its espionage themes.

Director Sam Mendes works a sense of paranoia and uncertainty into every scene. The final set piece, despite its action focus, works because Mendes has built up the tension and can deliver in the payoff without being predictable.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes’ longtime collaborator, helps bring back the allure of the Bond experience. The film looks beautiful, and the shots of modern Shanghai and the London Underground are captivating. After the stark, blunt quality of Casino Royale’s locales, or the washed-out style in Quantum of Solace, seeing a Bond film that’s just as stylistic while embracing the beauty of travel is refreshing and adds to the thrill of Bond’s mission.

Deakins’ use of long takes — whether it’s Bond waltzing through a Macau casino or fighting with an assassin amid bright lights — bring something new to the series and makes Skyfall one of the most visually appealing films of 2012.

Thomas Newman, another Mendes collaborator, provides the music instead of longtime Bond composer David Arnold and proves more than adept in the role. The score heightens the tension but never telegraphs the film’s next moves. And Adele provides a theme song that never feels overblown and meshes perfectly with Newman’s score and the tone of the film.

Fifty years ago, in 1962, Sean Connery brought Fleming’s Bond to the silver screen with Dr. No. Half a century later, the team of Mendes, Craig and company has proven that the franchise not only isn’t dead, but is only just getting started. Skyfall is one of the series’ best installments, and joins On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia With Love as defining takes on the character. James Bond is guaranteed to return, but it’ll be hard to top an installment as good as Skyfall.