Who is James Bond?
That may seem like an odd question to ask, fifty years after the film franchise’s inception, but the query lies at the heart of Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, the series’ twenty-third and arguably best installment.
For this golden anniversary, Mendes aims to celebrate Bond’s legacy in style, not just on the surface – with suave gadgets, a classic Aston Martin, some casual gambling, beautiful women, thrilling action, and more – but also underneath, where an exploration of Bond’s psyche, motivations, and past form the film’s surprisingly resonant subtext. Skyfall is a deconstruction and reconstruction of James Bond, the icon and the character, on levels meta and textual, offering a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking examination of why Bond endures, both as an on-screen legend and a harrowing secret agent.
It’s 007 himself who starts questioning the nature of his identity, as a spectacular pre-credits sequence – the best since 1995’s Goldeneye – leaves Bond (Daniel Craig) critically injured and thought dead by M (Judi Dench) and the rest of MI6. Laying low on a tropical island, Bond feels lost, and even after returning to work when a major threat arises, he finds he is not up to his usual physical standards. Mentally, too, Bond is filled with doubt, wondering if a man with so many scars, inside and out, can actually do the world any good. Who is James Bond? Is he damaged goods following the only clear path he sees, or an unfeeling cog in a dysfunctional machine? Is there any place left in the world for him at all?
It’s fascinating to see Bond grapple with these profoundly human issues, especially with Craig in the part. As proven by prior outings Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, nobody illustrates Bond’s fractured psyche as well as Craig, whose rough-hewn exterior and carefully nuanced visage, while capable of suave sophistication, suggests a lifetime of violence, pain, and deep-seated demons. Craig is better than ever here, doing a lot of tremendous non-verbal work to show Bond’s internal thought process and emotions, and I think it’s amazing how much one can learn about his character by simply observing the way Craig physically reacts to the world around him.
Skyfall is carefully constructed, in fact, to make Bond reactionary, as the villain – Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) – offers a dark, inverted mirror image that only furthers 007’s identity crisis. Silva has a history with MI6, and M in particular; he’s out for vengeance, and in a rare display of moral ambiguity for James Bond villains, one cannot immediately dismiss Silva’s reasoning. It is not hard for the audience – or Bond, for that matter – to understand why Silva wants his revenge, and that makes Bond’s choices all the more crucial and revealing.
The nature of Silva’s antagonism makes Dench’s M more central to the action than ever before, a welcome and well-utilized opportunity that cements Skyfall’s emotional impact. Even in the more continuity-heavy Daniel Craig era, M remains the only character who appears in every single installment alongside Bond, and given how well Dench has fleshed out a previously one-note character over recent films, putting her in the spotlight is a smart move. She and Bond have an actual, meaningful relationship, not unlike a parent and child, and the way Skyfall explores and expands upon their dynamic is nothing short of revelatory. M is the one who believes in Bond above all else, and only through her – the lone important person in his life who has not met a tragic end – can Bond understand who he really is and where he belongs in the world.
Without getting into specifics, I am very fond of how Mendes brings Bond to a thoughtful place of emotional closure in the film’s final minutes. It feels like a natural extension and culmination of Craig’s three-film arc – even if Skyfall doesn’t reference the events of Craig’s prior films, one definitely senses that the shadow of earlier events weighs heavily on Bond’s conscience – while also acting as an unexpected kick-off point to the classic Bond of cinema legend. As different as Craig’s take on 007 has been from his predecessors, Skyfall does a rather beautiful job making this character seem universal, to the point where I can now imagine, in ways I never could before, Craig’s Bond stepping into M’s office as Sean Connery at the start of Dr. No.
In fact, Skyfall puts many pieces into place for future adventures, bringing back ‘classic’ elements absent from Craig’s previous outings. I will not spoil most of them here, but it is fair to talk about this film’s Q, played brilliantly by Ben Whishaw. Young, socially closeted, technologically gifted, and more than a little arrogant, Whishaw’s Q is a fresh, fascinating take on a familiar fan favorite, and exemplifies what great work Mendes and his team do making recognizable parts of the 007 mythos modern, relevant, and exciting.
With Q, the gadgets, the ‘Bond girls,’ the flirting, or even the one-liners, Mendes works very hard to take previous ‘throwaway’ elements – the kinds of obligatory characters or kiss-off moments that would appear briefly in earlier Bond films – and make them crucial to the fabric of 007’s world. If future filmmakers continue on this track, the Craig era will feel much more three-dimensional and thoroughly explored than prior periods of Bond’s history, and that’s an extremely exciting proposition.
There is no area of Skyfall that isn’t carefully, lovingly polished to be the best that it can be, starting with the strikingly gorgeous cinematography by legendary D.P. Roger Deakins. This is far and away the most visually enticing of all the Bond films, as Deakins turns every frame into a breathtaking work of art, whether the camera is aimed at the inside of a shady casino or the rolling hills of the Scottish countryside. His use of color is mind-boggling in its beauty and precision, his control of contrast unparalleled, and his total, meticulously clear command of the frame a wonder to behold. In the film’s most visually stirring sequence, Deakins uses glass and the reflections of Shanghai skyscrapers to create Rorschach images with light, framing Bond’s spy-work against one of the most impressive photographic tricks I have ever seen. Skyfall is easily the most visually stunning film of 2012, in any genre, and I hope it finally wins Deakins his long-overdue Oscar.
For the music, Thomas Newman takes over for David Arnold, who had been with the series since 1997, and does an admirable job aurally complementing Deakins’ imagery. I am not quite as fond of Newman’s work as I was of Arnold’s – there are spots where Newman is just a tad too low-key – but his compositions are very good, and he works in the classic Bond theme perfectly.
Mendes, a newcomer to the world of espionage action, stages some of the most exciting, memorable set pieces in Bond franchise history, chiefly by remembering that while 007 is physically adept, his most important weapon has always been his intellect. When Connery played Bond, he would always get the gleam of a chessmaster in his eye when fighting his foes, for he used strategy and smarts to get the upper hand. That’s what Bond does here, and though it often takes some remarkable stunts to get the job done, it’s strategy, not brute strength, that propels Bond throughout Skyfall. The finale, in particular, is a glorious exercise in spatial relations and slow-burn action, the sort of unforgettable sequence viewers will discuss for years to come.
As many rough patches as 007 has had over the years, Skyfall marks a definite high-point, and coming on the heels of the outstanding Casino Royale and strong Quantum of Solace, I’d say Bond is in pretty spectacular shape. In Skyfall, Mendes and company have crafted the best fiftieth birthday present any series could ask for – if any other franchise could even get to five decades – and given a gift to loyal viewers around the world. After fifty long years, it’s still abundantly clear that nobody does it better than Bond.