More than making up for the dog’s breakfast that was 2008’s Quantum of Solace, Skyfall–James Bond’s 23rd film adventure–sets the bar high: not only is it 2012’s best blockbuster screened thus far, but it is also one of the strongest films in Bond history.
Director Sam Mendes knows what makes a great Bond movie: take two pints of fast cars and a gallon of sex appeal; shake, don’t stir. Add thrilling action and a delightfully sinister villain as garnish. Recipe serves millions. Skyfall takes these truths and runs with them, weaving all of Bond’s tropes into a movie that’s as slick as the series’ protagonist. If there is one major criticism, it’s the running time: Skyfall clocks in at a sprawling two-and-a-half hours, a length to test the bladder and the attention span.
Shouldering on the role for a third time, Daniel Craig returns as Bond, who survives a botched mission that leaves him seriously wounded. However, as modern politics would have it, the analog spy is struggling to stay afloat in a world of cyberterrorism and computer hacking. It would appear traditional espionage is out of place in the virtual world, and MI6, feeling similarly obsolete, is under intense criticism from the Prime Minister’s office for endangering national security. To make matters worse, a rampaging Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), an ex-MI6 operative, is seeking revenge on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starting with M, the head of MI6 (Judi Dench). The stage is set.
For better or for worse, Skyfall will be (and has already been) compared to The Dark Knight Rises. This is the case for two reasons: one, they are Herculean cash cows with internationally beloved characters; two, they are explosive motion pictures with a dark, pessimistic philosophy of crime in contemporary society. That being said, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy–exciting as it was–was a grammatical mess; the finished product riddled with flaws, holes, and annoyances. Skyfall, almost in direct response—Bond even says “There’s a storm coming”—delivers on the promises the Batman hype instilled, giving fans and laypeople alike a flick that has the polish and intelligence that “summer” films often lack. It’s what we wanted in July, but are still fortunate to have it now.
Skyfall gets a lot of things right, and series staples are the most satisfying they’ve been in a long time. The “Bond girl” (Bérénice Marlohe) is gorgeous and mysterious, and Raoul Silva is now a series-favorite villain: his excruciating backstory is shocking; his laughing, laissez-faire approach to evil is chaotic and entertaining. While his character feels cribbed from the Joker in The Dark Knight, Bardem’s take on the archetype is unique and memorable in his own way. (The homoeroticism helps.)
Indeed, the first time we see Silva–introducing himself with an excellent, single-take monologue–is simply a pleasure to watch. Meanwhile, scenes like these remind us the power of a director who actually pays attention to necessities like staging and blocking and choreography. What a thought. Mendes gives his audience a chance to actually see what is going on: the action isn’t muddled (hello, The Hunger Games); fist-fights are given breathing room and perspective. Skyfall’s many players have plenty of time and space to develop their characters, and the story unwinds logically with plenty of intrigue and twists to keep things humming.
In short, Skyfall is a top-notch action movie that doesn’t neglect the fundamentals of filmmaking. Given how mediocre the Brosnan-era Bonds were (save for 1995’s GoldenEye), it’s amazing to see Skyfall work so very well. Believe the hype: this film is a mythical creature; a movie that exists in the sweet spot of strong cinema and exciting Hollywood kabooms. We wait patiently for chapter 24, because as the end credits promise: “James Bond will return.”