Dr. No. From Russia with Love. Goldfinger. Thunderball. You Only Live Twice. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Diamonds Are Forever. The Spy Who Loved Me. GoldenEye. Casino Royale. Skyfall? That was my question going into the midnight IMAX premier of Eon’s 24th, and latest, film, and their 23rd Bond picture: Will Skyfall measure up to the standards set by the 10 films listed before it, most of which are generally accepted as the best Bonds ever? My answer upon leaving the film is undoubtedly yes, but more than just because it’s a great movie. Up until Pierce Brosnan took to the screen in GoldenEye in 1995, there really was no chronology to what happened in the films; they were all separate instances of James Bond, Agent 007, drinking martinis, seducing gorgeous women, and saving Britain and often the world from the terrible forces that be. GoldenEye quite successfully established a solid, time-based Bond timeline, which it then proceeded to destroy it with 3 dreadful movies. When Daniel Craig took over the part, Casino Royale established at least a mini-storyline that was continued in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall pulls an entirely brand new card and starts way back at the very beginning, actually before the very beginning, showing events that take place before Dr. No, or any of the other Bonds for that matter, ever take place.
The first thing I think about when I think about a Bond film, other than the recurring plot points (Bond, villain(s), girl(s), car(s)), is its credit sequence and song. In this age of CGI, a bad opening credits sequence is admittedly harder to make than a good one. Even in the days of bad movies in 80s and late 90s, the opening credits rarely failed to entertain or at least be decent. In recent memory, both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace had fantastic opening credits sequences, even though their songs were mediocre at absolute best, and that’s being generous. In Skyfall, we are blessed with an absolutely fantastic opening credits along with one of the best Bond songs ever, an Adele-performed and partially Adele-written masterpiece that seamlessly incorporates original Monty Norman and John Barry themes while still remaining completely original. The song is at worst top 10 Bond songs of all time material and maybe even top 5 (both lists are so difficult to break into).
The plotting of Skyfall is storytelling near its finest. Its screenplay, though not exactly fast-paced at the beginning (though what else can you expect from John Logan), never falters in its ability to pull you in. The cold opening is a generous mix of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, combining hand-to-hand action with cars and trains going fast. The trailers have made the initial situation of the movie pretty clear: a hard drive with the names of all of the NATO agents imbedded in terrorist organizations around the globe has been stolen and Craig gets shot by Naomie Harris, his partner field operative for the retrieval operation, while fighting some guy on top of a train. He’s assumed dead (so that he gets chances to say cool things about resurrection and enjoying death later on). Honestly those plot points only get the ball rolling. The rest of the film wonderfully links together Connery’s suave Bond and Dalton’s ultra-serious Bond, something that I feel Craig has been doing brilliantly since the start.
Thomas Newman’s score is very good and so is Stuart and Kate Baird’s editing, especially of the action sequences, but Roger Deakins’s cinematography really steals the show. His inventive scene-shooting methods are always great and often magnificent, but what else would you expect from Deakins, the greatest living cinematographer.
Sam Mendes’s direction is magnificently good. His better known works are actor-oriented with little to no action or effects. Even this Bond does not feel as action-filled as Quantum of Solace, but in reality it just might be. That’s what’s so impressive. Mendes creates a brilliant film containing the action Bond we all know and love, while simultaneously and effortlessly creating the most human Bond film I have ever seen. Mendes is, in my opinion, similar to Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols, and Woody Allen in his ability to get great performances from his actors, an actor’s director, if you will (though less talented than probably all 3). In Skyfall, Mendes gets a plethora of fabulous, varied performances across the board.
To begin with, of course, Daniel Craig is James Bond. I remember the uproar from fans when he was declared Brosnan’s successor. Then he handily silenced all of them with his astonishingly great performance in Casino Royale and his only slightly less wonderful turn in Quantum of Solace. I’ve always thought Daniel Craig to be an immensely underrated actor His towering performance in Skyfall, though, puts both of those to shame. His third outing as the most famous spy in the world is powerfully emotional, fabulously witty, and effortlessly awesome. His facial reactions to different situations are fabulously executed and often devastatingly funny. At the same time, his performance is understated, as the majority of his performances in his career have been, and therein lies his success. He has this innate ability to just look at you with a straight face and have you sense his troubled past, his emotional vulnerability, the chinks in his armor, and yet still be able to switch immediately to that Bond persona we all know so well, the untouchable, suave, womanizing spy.
As the film’s villain, Raoul Silva, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) gives another memorable, fantastic well-done and fantastically entertaining villainous performance. Silva’s sexuality is certain early on when he first appears, but Bardem chooses not to let that fact determine the shape of his performance. That scene with Bond is perhaps my favorite in the film just because of how well the two play off of each other and the awkward situation unfolding. Bardem’s characterization is certainly flamboyant, but never overly so. He’s on a revenge vendetta, but he never lets that run his performance entirely. He conveys a deep-rooted hatred quite well. In the beginning, his menace is almost funny in its seeming playfulness, but his performance, despite making me chuckle, still managed to frighten me at the same time. Bardem’s creation is the best Bond villain since, well, a really long time. Not since Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin and Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga has a Bond villain been so memorable, and not since Gert Fröbe’s Auric Goldfinger has a Bond villain been so memorable in an actually good film with other memorable elements. Silva is certainly the most menacing Bond villain ever, and the most convincing in the desires and aims (i.e. His main goal is not to blow up the world just because it sounds like a cool idea. He's also now trying to start an underwater city or a moon colony after he ends humankind). He’s easily top 10 and maybe even top 5 as just a Bond villain overall. His performance is awe-inspiring and would definitely be deserving of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Ralph Fiennes is one of my favorite actors because he never seems like he’s acting and he never seems like he’s becoming the character, and yet he almost always gives fantastic, varied performances. As Gareth Mallory, Fiennes effectively portrays the authoritative and overpowering but also the sometimes devious nature of his character.
Albert Finney gives a short yet fantastic performance as the warm and feeling Kincade. He is a pleasantly gruff fellow with a heart of gold, and Finney plays him perfectly. The part is small and was never really all that complex, but Finney does wonders with it, adding large amounts of importance to the character seemingly just by being there.
As Bill Tanner and Q, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw are just fine, though their parts never really require much of them, although Whishaw’s delivery of a line poking fun at the sometimes absurd gadgets of the pre-Craig era is well-delivered. Helen McCrory (HP and the Half-Blood Prince and HP and the Deathly Hallows) is also appropriately vindictive as Clair Dowar, a Member of Parliament.
The cars are great, but not spectacular. As this is set before everything else, there’s no sexy Bond car to begin the movie. But this allows a tip of the cap later on to some of the great franchise films. There’s Eve’s Land Rover in the cold opening and M’s Jaguar XJ (at least I think it’s an XJ though it could be an XF). There’s some motorcycles, a short portion with an Audi R8 (I believe), and a surprise that would my mentioning would ruin.
The locations are surprisingly not exotic. The bulk of the film takes place in the United Kingdom. The cold opening is in Turkey and a few scenes take place in Shanghai and on an uninhabited island off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, but China isn’t the exotic ideal it was 40 years ago. There are no Caribbean islands, no Eastern European landscapes to admire. And yet it feels so exotic and beautiful.
Unfortunately, Skyfall’s Oscar chances look pretty slim. The stigma surrounding franchise films and genre films are immensely unfortunate, and not just for the Bond movies. Skyfall deserves a Best Picture and possibly a Best Director nomination, but it likely won’t get either one. Given how unimpressed I was with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Master, Daniel Craig is currently contending for a spot on my personal Best Actor nomination list, but there’s no prayer he’ll make it onto the Academy’s. Javier Bardem’s stellar turn is a lock for my nominations, but he faces an uphill battle for the actual Oscars, one that is almost decidedly unwinnable. Albert Finney’s performance is the surprise of the film, and I could have seen him receiving the veteran nomination if not for Alan Arkin in Argo and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. Judi Dench’s performance is Best Supporting Actress nomination-worthy, but there’s no chance in hell that she’ll ever get it. Alas, the only nominations I foresee for the film are technical. Unless the Academy deems Adele’s title song ineligible (because it contains one riff taken from Barry’s original theme), the song is an almost sure lock for a nomination, or as much of a lock as you can possible have in that damned unpredictable category. I keep trying to think of other places it’s a lock for a nomination, but I just can’t. Deakins’s cinematography is fabulous and is absolutely deserving of a nomination, but considering he holds the record for most nominations without a win by a living person, and considering the stigma around Bond movies, I just don’t see him getting one. The Bairds’ editing might get some recognition, especially because of the stellar action sequences, but I rather doubt it. Maybe Sound Editing or Sound Mixing or both. One thing’s for certain, however, Skyfall won’t receive nearly as much awards credit as it should.
In short, Skyfall is wonderful. I have seen 14 or the 24 Bond flicks, and I can safely say this is definitely top 10, even top 5, even of those 24 (I haven’t seen things like Moonraker, Octopussy, etc.). Without seeing all of the Bonds, including From Russia with Love and Dr. No, Skyfall is my pick for the best Bond film I’ve ever seen, and yes, even better than Goldfinger and Thunderball. Despite my love and respect for Sean Connery and everything he did in creating the patently Bond persona. Craig is swiftly becoming the best Bond in my opinion (they are the only 2 really in competition). I haven’t decided yet whether Skyfall is the best film I’ve seen yet this year or just my favorite, but be sure that it is indeed my absolute favorite. Casino Royale gave me high hopes for the future of Bond and Quantum of Solace only slightly dampened them. But Skyfall has completely renewed by faith and more. Needless to say, I can’t wait for Bond 24 and Bond 25 in 2014 and 2016. ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★.