Review: “Skyfall”

Daniel Craig returns as super-spy James Bond in "Skyfall," directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty").“Skyfall,” is, like all James Bond films to some degree, a conservative work. That’s not to say politically conservative, but stylistically, the way that it safely fits within the cinematic zeitgeist. And as an action film of the times, “Skyfall” serves as a fine example. Audiences have come to expect their heroes broken and stripped of their invulnerability, and here a famed killing machine has his emotional baggage laid bare, even as he fills entire graveyards with the bodies of his enemies.

From 1962’s “Dr. No” onward, Bond has always been a hard man comfortable when surrounded by death, but bits of darkness aside, it hasn’t been until Daniel Craig’s run, starting with 2006’s “Casino Royale,” that 007 has seemed distinctly mortal, vulnerable to physical and emotional injury. In “Skyfall,” mortality is at the forefront, with Bond and British spy chief M (Judi Dench) forced to consider their place in the post-Empire, post-9/11 world. As it turns out, a thoughtful Bond is an engaging one.

The film, directed by prestigious auteur Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), continues the adventures of Craig’s Bond. All the actors who have slipped on the Walther PPK have left their mark, but Craig’s characterization is especially distinctive; Bond as gunfighter, Bond as remorseful, Bond as ruthless killer saddled with a conscience. Here, he goes head to head with Silvio (Javier Bardem), a flamboyantly gay, verbose ex-spy with a grudge against M. After an opening sequence which sees him nearly killed by friendly fire, Bond finds himself out of step, struggling with his own usefulness in a modern world where the practicality of his existence is questioned.

“Skyfall” might hold the distinction of being the most aesthetically beautiful Bond film, courtesy of director Mendes, whose action sensibilities are surprisingly sharp, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who infuses the exotic locales and violent battles with a sense of cinematic clarity and wonder. Two sequences in particular, which involve a close-quarters fight in an LED-lit Shanghai and a climatic, apocalyptic battle in Scotland, are nothing short of astounding action poetry.

While “Skyfall” sports a distinctively serious tone and few gadgets, it still carries an absurd, globe-trotting plot. Despite the lack of sci-fi equipment and super weapons, most of the film jettisons the reasonably solid narrative logic of “Casino Royale,” with several ludicrous twists that defy even generous reasoning. Mendes simply isn’t able to mix the insane stupidity of a traditional Bond plot–a formula originated when 007 starred in absurd action-comedies rather than dour, violent thrillers–as elegantly as “Casino Royale” director Martin Campbell.

But where “Skyfall” mostly fails on the plot level, it proves resoundingly effective as a character piece. It’s appropriate that the credits celebrate the 50th anniversary of the franchise, as 007, M, and Silvo’s considerations of place in past, present, and future carry hefty thematic resonance. Craig’s Bond, physically fearsome and interested in sex more as a side diversion than as a serious pursuit, carries his psychic wounds with the countenance of a powerful, competent man shredded by his profession. Dench’s M, with whom Bond has an almost maternal relationship, proves to be a similarly layered and interesting character, an ideological comrade and predecessor. And Bardem channels a fascinating, sinister form of despair, a look at what Bond might have turned out like had the fates dealt a different hand.

Even as “Skyfall” insightfully explores the past, it does reveal that not all aspects of the Bond franchise have aged well, especially in the plot department. But at the same time, the series has matured and thrived in others. Ultimately, “Skyfall” leaves us with proof that 007, both the character and the intellectual property, still has a place in our world.