Film Review: Skyfall

The best Bond film since the '60s. Period.

Audiences for 50 years have been infatuated with James Bond—MI6 Agent 007. But like the women who evaporate through his life, only to be kissed or killed, it's hard to say why. He's an action hero, but we've many action heroes. He's a spy, but his movies have little of the behind-the-scenes tradecraft that's part of the joy and most of the point of espionage thrillers—what makes them different from detective movies. It's not even about the star, since there have been several James Bonds but only one Man with No Name—who even in the movies where he has a name is Clint Eastwood and Clint Eastwood only.

We loved James Bond in the 1960s, when Sean Connery and even one-off George Lazenby captured an escapist fantasy that was as much about the emerging sexual revolution as it was about confronting our Cold War fears. But with the passage of time, when you no longer had to be a tuxedoed playboy in your mind to get the girl and geopolitics got a lot murkier to the average Joe than in the us-vs.-Commies scenario simplistically sent out for consumption, Bond became camp. Then after this Roger Moore era, the movies became pageant: a serious mien in the faces of Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, followed by a Rose Bowl parade of Q's gadgets, Moneypenny's banter and all the other many and varied touchstones. When the parade began to seem tired, Bond got rebooted; we got his origin story.

Then what? Following a less-than-successful attempt at contemporizing our spy for all seasons as what we might call "Bourne, James Bourne," where is there left to go?
Skyfall director Sam Mendes found that special place: inside. Inside MI6, inside M's past, inside Bond's own self-created persona. With the last few films' regular writing duo here infused with three-time Oscar nominee John Logan—who also offered a fresh take on movie iconography with last year's animated western Rango—Mendes makes the Bond fantasy feel real, or just real enough. Sure, an Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat and front-mounted machine guns was cool in the better-living-through-science ’60s. But it's not the ’60s anymore, and now it's cool as a retro relic, cool like the superspy version of a vinyl-record stereo. With Skyfall, Mendes and company have created a human-scale espionage thriller that stands on its own, and made the beloved iconography a part of a recognizable today without irony or wink. They took the "super" out of "super-spy"—and it works. A fight atop a train, a cat-and-mouse chase through the London Underground, a casino scrap in a pit with Komodo dragons—Mendes stages it all with a naturalism as exciting as any laser-beam torture trap.

Which isn't to say Skyfall in any way eschews the exotic locales and set-pieces we expect of a Bond movie: Cyberterrorist and former double-0 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, stealing every scene with a flamboyance skillfully more implied than in-your-face) is targeting Bond's boss M (Judi Dench) for a past action that's no misunderstanding—she did something that may have been tactically right, but was horrific nonetheless. With the aid of a young field agent (Naomie Harris), a battle-scarred Bond travels to Istanbul, Shanghai, an abandoned island off the coast of Macao, and even the past, as he puts it, with a sojourn to Scotland. M now has a bureaucratic overseer (Ralph Fiennes) and must appear before a government commission. And Q (Ben Whishaw) is an arrogant young IT expert who sneers at the idea of "exploding pens."

My own pen has been exploding as I write this review—Bondian double-entendre notwithstanding—since I can't say enough that Mendes, who comes from theatre and from intimate, emotional film dramas, not action movies, was a chancy and in retrospect inspired choice who, for this one, shining moment at least, found the magic formula. It's hard to imagine the next film topping this. I'd settle for it not being 40 years before it's matched.