Skyfall is best viewed in context with the rest of the series – director Sam Mendes’ attempt to take a 50-year old franchise that was built on intrigue, exoticism, espionage, and escapism, a series dedicated exclusively to the superficial (allowing the viewer to make of each film what they will) and inject some real thematic heft only functions if it stands on more than the previous two installments starring Daniel Craig as agent 007. Why not allow the series’ history to fall heavily on James Bond’s shoulders? Given the countless globetrotting, countless world saving, and innumerable body count (despite much of it being delivered as campy and fun) Mendes and screenwriter John Logan made the brilliant decision to do exactly that.
“Old dog, new tricks,” says Eve after giving Bond a close shave in a Macau hotel room. It might as well be the motto for Skyfall as a whole, both in its examination of 007’s age and world weariness as well as the way in which the film’s old school sensibilities and reverence for the classics of the 1960s are handled and delivered in new and interesting ways, all buttoned up in what is perhaps the smallest scale Bond film ever, in which a “fallen angel” secret agent (Javier Bardem, exuding a menacing other-worldliness that slots him beside the franchise’s greatest villains) seeks vengeance against the handler who wronged him (Judi Dench’s M, the true “Bond girl” of the film).
While questions of Bond’s relevance, mortality, and “resurrection” so to speak after his pseudo-death at the end of the pre-titles sequence (an inspired, ebb-and-flow chase through Istanbul) allow plenty to chew on, Skyfall stands as a flat-out brilliant Bond film – classic, but updated for the modern age. The trappings and tropes are mostly here, but assembled in atypical ways, working in tandem with the small stakes to create a film that shakes off an occasionally dusty formula and embraces the “old dog” that is the franchise. Bottom line, Skyfall is just an inspired, energetic, sexy, thrilling piece of cinema that embraces and affirms Bond’s world almost as a rebuttal to the way Quantum of Solace rejected it, even down to the graceful simplicity with which the action scenes were filmed and edited, such as the impressionistic fight (above) in which Bond battles a henchman next to a ledge 50-stories high, both actors rendered as silhouettes, the entire fight captured in a single slowly encroaching shot.
Mendes displays a real reverence, both for the character created by Ian Fleming and the grandiosity of the cinematic incarnation of 007, and assembles an ensemble of collaborators at the top of their game. Daniel Craig’s performance is far different from his first two efforts, his portrayal oozing Fleming in every frame – this is his greatest turn as James Bond, due in part to a script from Logan that stands as the series’ best in nearly twenty years (just look at how sharply realized Berenice Marlohe’s Severine is despite her minimal screen time). The great Roger Deakins ensures every frame deserves a place above a mantle. “Some times the old ways are the best,” Eve remarks to Bond in the same scene mentioned above – it’s meant as an explication of the sexual tension between her and Bond, but is also emblematic of the way Skyfall embraces classic Bond tropes and trappings, but teaches the “old dog” a few “new tricks” in the process. A top-10 installment.