Early on in his stage career, director Sam Mendes worked with Dame Judi Dench on a production of The Cherry Orchard. Now they have reteamed for a slightly less Chekhovian project: the 23rd official James Bond film (24th if you count the Sean Connery off-brander Never Say Never Again). It’s the seventh featuring Dench as M, Bond’s steely handler, and the third featuring Daniel Craig as 007.
This time our man James is charged with rescuing a rapidly shifting geopolitical world from a computer-savvy adversary who shares one trait, at least, with the Bond villains of the pre-digital Cold War era: an ability to retain a mini-army of machine-gun-toting minions.
The peculiar thing is, Skyfall—a terrific entertainment most of the way—contains an undercurrent of loss and nostalgia that wouldn’t be out of place in Chekhov, the motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul notwithstanding. This Bond suffers harsh setbacks, physical and psychological, and must get his mojo back (just like Austin Powers) before his hard-won triumph and assertion, through action, that there’ll always be an England, and very likely a British secret service to serve.
The action’s often stunning in Skyfall. This was the worry going in. Did director Mendes, best known for American Beauty and Road to Perdition, have any real facility for expansive, explosive, kinetic movement on screen? The answer was yes. He did. He does.
The opening launches a frenetic chase—Bond is after somebody with a list of agency operatives—conducted in cars, on motorcycles and then aboard a speeding train, in and outside Istanbul. It’s a gas. Not incidentally, the sequence introduces Bond’s field ally, played with great relish and authority by Naomie Harris, and ends with a surprising turnabout, setting up Skyfall as a two-track adventure. One track follows Bond as he rehabilitates himself and pursues the shadowy rogue played by Javier Bardem, the most memorable Bond baddie in decades. The other track follows the fortunes of M, the head of MI6 (Dench, better than ever), as she fends off criticisms within her own government about the viability of the agency, and of fighting terrorism the old-fashioned way.
This is where we are now with this franchise, which just turned 50. Bond and M and their ilk must justify their methods, their very existence. The movie is serious business. But rest assured: Skyfall doesn’t feel like a 10-ton load of morbid self-seriousness, the way The Dark Knight Rises did. It’s reasonably grown-up escapism, but with the swank and polish and movie smarts to deliver what Bond has always delivered: death, over and over, by various means and in glamorously diverse locales.
The story trots from Turkey to London to Shanghai to Macao to Scotland, starting with a conscious throwback (the train sequence) to From Russia With Love-era Bond, moving on to grim acts of 21st century-brand urban terrorism (London under attack from Bardem’s master sniveler) and culminating in a scene taking Bond and M to the wilds of Scotland. At this point Skyfall becomes a kind of Western, albeit a Western with helicopters.
The movie looks gorgeous. Roger Deakins, one of the greatest cinematographers alive, makes everything glow, even in the Scottish mist. There are some swell character re-castings and updatings, thanks to Harris and to Ben Whishaw’s officious young Q, who issues Bond his rather meager spy equipment with the line: “Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore.” The script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, revised by John Logan, displays some wit and manages to tell its story straight, a nice improvement over the previous and mechanical Bond exercise, Quantum of Solace.
Skyfall (PG-13) ★★★★☆