For me, the debate was over when I saw CASINO ROYALE in 2006 – the best James Bond is Daniel Craig. It’s not even a question for me, really – and although I love the Connery Bond movies (and I think George Lazenby’s work in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is pretty terrific), I, like many of my generation, was introduced to the character via the Roger Moore movies. I’ve always yearned for a Bond movie with weight, a character with real gravitas, and though I got it somewhat with Timothy Dalton and THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, it wasn’t until Craig came onto the scene that I really felt like I’d gotten the Bond I’ve always wanted to see.
I grew up on the Moore Bond films, and other than FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (which actually doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like) they all came across as very silly. With CASINO ROYALE, we got a look under the hood to see a little bit of what makes Bond run, and SKYFALL continues that trend. I love how these new movies don’t try to make excuses for Bond’s behavior – he’s a complicated man and there isn’t any simple motivation that explains everything. In SKYFALL Craig shows just enough of the broken, wounded man beneath that the previous two films aren’t even a requirement to see this one. Vesper isn’t mentioned once in SKYFALL, but there are some subtle hints that the damage Bond suffered has taken permanent residence within.
The plot is best discovered watching the movie, but the motivations this time around aren’t centered on world domination or stock market manipulation. This time, M (Judi Dench) must face her own dark night of the soul as decisions she’s made in the past come roaring back to haunt her in the present. Those past decisions are personified by a man named Silva (Javier Bardem), and Bond must stop his plot of vengeance, all the while knowing that for the grace of Mother England, he could well share the same fate.
There’s some new faces this time around – we get Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), brought in to oversee M and her division when scandal breaks out; Eve (Naomi Harris), a fellow agent working with Bond who must make a decision that could affect her future in the British Secret Service; and Q (Ben Whishaw), the familiar quartermaster who provides Bond with all his wonderful toys. When Q says, “I can do more damage on my laptop in an hour than you can do in the field for a year,” you believe him, and Q and Bond have a nice give-and-take in their scenes together. Bardem as Silva is one of the more sinister Bond villains in memory – mostly because, like Ricardo Montalban’s Khan, he’s got a legitimate beef. Bardem plays Silva as a clearly insane man, and Craig and Bardem have quite an interesting scene together when Silva, obviously gay, makes a move on The Most Heterosexual Man In The World. It’s one of the more memorable face-off scenes in James Bond’s history, and both actors play it with wit and charm.
In my opinion, this is the best looking Bond film ever made. Flat out. That’s due to the tremendous work of Roger Deakins, who gives the film a luster that really can’t be described in a review. There are shots so beautiful and iconic that they should be framed in an art gallery. There’s a reason he’s considered one of the greatest cinematographers alive, and SKYFALL just proves the point that action scenes work best when they are shot elegantly and without the seizure-inducing camerawork of QUANTUM OF SOLACE. The opening sequence, as Bond chases an assassin through the streets of Istanbul, is gorgeous, thrilling, and never incoherent.
As usual, Craig plays Bond as the savage in a tuxedo that he is, but he also brings some welcome levity to his performance. Bond gets some great lines this time around. But the performance of the film, in my opinion, is Judi Dench’s M, and she is simply perfect as the head of British Secret Service, haunted by what she’s done for England, and how it’s destroyed so many lives over the years. Her relationship with Bond this time out is more poignant and emotional than ever, and I think it’s fantastic that, in her own way, Dench has become the Ultimate Bond Girl. They don’t normally nominate performances in James Bond movies, but I think Dench’s work here is astonishing and deserving of every accolade. It’s one of the best performances by an actress this year. No kidding.
SKYFALL is just plain fun, and Sam Mendes brings in all the old iconography of the franchise without making it seem cloying or obvious. But he’s also not afraid to take Bond into unfamiliar territory, either. The script, by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, gets to the heart of the character but also allows Bond to let loose a little bit, and while it certainly helps to have seen the other Craig Bond films, it feels like a rebirth of the character, especially in the final moments. Mendes does something remarkable in the last half-hour of SKYFALL, where the movie almost becomes a different genre film entirely. It’s made more intense because Bond isn’t fighting for country or for his own life, but for the last thing he truly cares about in the world, even if he’d never admit it.
I’m very curious where the franchise goes from here –depending on who helms the franchise next, it could go forward into greatness or revert back to the self-parody of the Roger Moore years. But that’s for future discussions and films. For now, we get not only a great James Bond film, but a great film period. It celebrates fifty years of Bond in grand style, and at the same time feels as fresh as it did when Ian Fleming first laid pen to paper, and created a hero for the ages.