Skyfall: Bond Film–23 in Series, Starring Daniel Craig

Several James Bond films claim a one-word title, as  does “Skyfall,” the 23rd official entry in the long action-adventure series, but it’s a good moniker that also indicates the high, up-in-the-air quality of this particular chapter. (The other films with one-word title are “Goldfinger,” a personal favorite, Bond picture, “Thunderball,” Moonraker”).

When Sam Mendes was chosen to direct “Skyfall,” Hollywood skeptics raised some concerns, prime among which was: Can Mendes, who has never made an action movie per se, pull it off, not to mention the fact that his last two films were both artistic and commercial flops (the war film “Jarhead,” the serio comedy “Away We Go”).

It’s is therefore a pleasure to report that Mendes has done his homework and has directed one of the most thrilling and entertaining movies in what has become the longest series in American film history, beginning precisely 50 years ago with “Dr. No.”

Mendes’ direction and the end result of “Skyfall” are much better than the previous chapter, “Quantum of Solace,” helmed by Marc Forster, which was mediocre (though this was not entirely its director’s fault).

“Skyfall,” in one word, is terrific, a mass oriented but intelligent film that delivers the goods in every department: story, characterization (both heroes and villains), performances, and, of course, technical production values.

At this point in history, the James Bond franchise is so well established that it has become a multi-generational phenomenon and  almost (but not quite) critics proof. Here is the evidence.  In 2006, the first Craig’s Bond film, “Casino Royale,” received 94 percent approval from the reviewers and grossed $167.0 million at the domestic box-office.  Two years later, “Quantum of Solace” got only 65 percent positive reviews, but still made the same amount of money in the U.S., $168.0.  If my reading of the film is valid, with strong critical support, Sony stands a strong chance to surpass these figures on November 9, when the movie opens theatrically.

Daniel Craig is back for the third (and thus far best) time as James Bond in the 23rd installment, turning in his most compelling performance as 007, and one of his strongest in an increasingly growing and impressive career.

The filmmakers, both Mendes and his writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, have drawn a rather sharp and engaging tale that is more grounded in our charged socio-political times, while not neglecting the expected qualities of any Bond movie.

The premise of the narrative is rather simple: Bond’s loyalty to M (Judi Dench, brilliant) is tested as her past returns to haunt her.  The headstrong agent must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost—or the number of chases and size of explosions, all of which are outlandish in a big Hollywood way.

When Bond’s latest mission goes uproariously wrong and several undercover agents spread around the globe are exposed, MI6 is attacked, forcing M to relocate the agency.  A strong, proud officer, M doesn’t take the shambles lightly, and nor do her superiors. The embarrassing events shatters M’s authority, to the point where her position is seriously challenged by Mallory (newcomer to the series, Ralph Fiennes), the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The above premise makes “Skyfall” more relevant and timely movie vis-à-vis the security debacle in Libya (which the filmmakers could not have anticipated or take into account), and in terms of the growing unrest and anti-American feelings in many Arab countries in the Middle East.

Defeat, failure, or even compromise, are not words that M can tolerate, not for too long.  However, with MI6 now compromised from both inside and out, M realizes that there is only one ally she can really trust: Bond.

If memory serves, the part of M has increased considerably in the last three Bond, and we are all better for it, not only because of the superb interpretation of Judi Dench, but also (or mainly) because of the strong rapport and the pull-and push forces in her interactions with Craig.

A decision is made to place 007 in the shadows, allowing him assistance by only one field agent. Eve (Naomi Harris, who should become a bona fide star).  Singly and jointly, they engage in tracking and following Silva (Javier Bardem), a villain to end all villains, whose motives, both overt and covert, are a mystery.

Since scribes Purvis and Wade have written other Bond scenarios, my feeling is that the contribution of John Logan (“The Aviator,” among others) is truly strategic. Hailing from the theatre world, Logan is particularly adept with sharp characterization and authentic dialogue, not just witty one-liners, as was the case of many former Bond pictures.

Better than the usual norm for Bond stories, the high quality of the writing has direct iupact on all of the performances, not just Daniel Craig’s.

Judi Dench, returning for her seventh film as M, again gives an outstanding performance that draws on her strengths (unique voice and delivery mode) as an actress. Dench finds the right balance between showing her known fondness for 007—you may recall that she has been accused of preferential treatment towards him—and being cold, detached, and even ruthless,, when there’s need for it, in crisis situations, such as the current one.

But the film’s shrewdest piece of casting is getting the enormously talented Javier Bardem to play Silva, the man who puts MI6 at risk.  Five years later, I still can’t forget his scary, Oscar-winning performance in the unforgettable role of Anton Chigurh in the Coen brothers’ best film, “No Country for Old Men.” 

Known for his penchant for dark and complex characters, Bardem understands that the key to the effectiveness of the great Bond villains (Dr. No, Rosa Klebbs) is striking a fine line, sort of a balance between grounded realism and excessive flamboyance, occasionally relying on theatrical devices that make their role all the more noticeable and frightening.  As Silva, Bardem is by turns credible, compelling, playful, mischievous, strange, mysterious, and dangerous.

But throughout, the film is peppered by cameos or small parts, played by Ralph Fiennes, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw, and Albert Finney, all nailing their parts in brief but well written scenes..

In a recent interview, the producers have acknowledged that they were particularly attuned and sensitive to the fact that 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond.  As a result, they must have had a check list with all the variables that account for a fun and satisfying Bond film, including non-stop action, scene-stealing villains, beautiful women (in and out of bikini), exotic locations, a killer theme, and, of course, the Aston Martin DB5.

Like “Dark Knight Rises,” but unlike “The Avengers,” “Skyfall” proves that big, entertaining, and glamorous features do not have to be silly or utterly escapist, that it’s possible to combine values of mass spectacle with some social ideas or political issues, even if they are just mentioned, without fully exploring them.

No James Bond film is really complete without a good, melodic and moody theme song,  A whole history of popular music could be written just by enlisting the composers and singers who have contributed to the franchise over the past half a century, including Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Carly Simon, Paul McCartney, Nancy Sinatra, and Madonna.

In choosing the popular singer Adele, “Skyfall” brings a contemporaneous, up-to-the moment touch that should appeal to younger viewers.  Adele, who co-wrote the song with Paul Epworth, must have listened to many previous Bond themes, for her contribution is at once particular and also fitting into the series’ long-held musical tradition.