One sentence synopsis: James Bond must confront a former 00 agent seeking revenge against MI6.
Things Havoc liked: Like with Batman, every generation gets the Bond it's looking for, and Daniel Craig is unquestionably a Bond for this generation. Despite the vitriol with which his second film, Quantum of Solace, was greeted, many people, myself included, were so blown away by Casino Royale that Craig immediately usurped our position of "best Bond". Craig's bond was gritty, energetic, serious, dialing back the puns of the Brosnan era and the silliness of the Moore era in favor of something much more robust and modern. Part Jason Bourne, part Jason Statham, Craig's bond was the first one to dive into what might make a secret agent like Bond actually tick, showing him as he evolved from fresh-faced (though still lethal) MI6 assassin to the more mature Bond we remember from the classic films. With Skyfall, Craig's Bond has come full circle, entering the film as a bitter, broken agent, worn down my years of physical and psychological abuse, seeking to determine if he still has what it takes to save the world.
Skyfall is a movie well aware of the long history of James Bond, a movie that sits and thinks about what it means that Bond has now been with us for fifty years, still saving the world as resolutely as he did back when he was Sean Connery seducing Ursula Andress. It is, effectively, the story of two characters, Bond himself, who after years and years of saving the world has ground himself down to an alcoholic nub, and M, played by Judy Dench, who now faces the prospect that her no-nonsense ultra-pragmatic approach to the shadowy world of espionage may be about to explode in her face. The vehicle for this explosion is Raoul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, a former 00 agent turned Wikileaks-style computer hacker and revenge-obsessed assassin, who wishes for nothing more than the destruction of M and all her works. This could have become, and indeed sounds like, the most generic premise for a Bond film ever, and yet the movie wisely takes its time with all three elements to the triangle, giving us time to understand the limitations Bond is pushing up against as his body and mind begin to fail him, while also affording us glimpses, grudging but present, of the toll that the job of safeguarding the free world has taken on M, and the terrible choices she has had to make, live with, and stoically refuse to question. Craig, in his third movie as Bond, plays the character perfectly, recognizably Bond at all times, and yet plainly approaching his breaking point as the missions keep piling up and his ability to cope with them drains away. Dench meanwhile, in her seventh turn as M, gets arguably more material here than she did in the previous six, an old woman at the twilight of her career, whose relationship with her finest agent is finally given some of the weight we have all long suspected it must hold, and whose greatest failure has returned to haunt the last days of her reign. Dench has always stolen the show as M, but we finally here get a sense of what makes her tick beyond the professional demeanor that she has shown us in film after film. Much of the second half of the film is dedicated to her and Bond and the ways in which these two solitary, weary veterans know one another far more than either one will admit.
But a great Bond movie also needs a great villain, and Bardem is one in the best traditions of Blofield or Treveyan or Scaramanga. The best Bond villains always had a sense of self-awareness concerning their situation, and Bardem plays a character who knows his own role in a drama only he seems to be able to perceive. His introduction to Bond is a glorious repartee between himself and an agent whom he no doubt once resembled, and ends with a hilarious sequence I will not spoil here. And yet humor, int he sense of the classic Bond villains, is not the point here. Bardem's character is a broken, shattered man, thirsty for a bitter revenge against the woman (M) who used and then discarded him, and while he seems entirely comfortable with the fact that, as a Bond villain, he and all his works are destined to end in fire, he cares little so long as he can burn her (and Bond) down with him. The cat and mouse between Bond and a villain every bit as skilled, driven, and, let's face it, obsessive as he is, effectively lets the movie ratchet up the stakes and then ratchet them up again, on and on throughout the film.
And the stakes do indeed get ratcheted. One of the objections that was made of the previous sortie, was that Quantum of Solace simply wasn't grand enough, focusing on a hackneyed plot involving Bolivian Water rights, and an action climax set in a deserted hotel. No such criticism applies here. It's not just that the action sequences are stunning, though they are, but they're extremely well done, shot perfectly, and with glorious senses of spectacle and cinematography. An early fight between Bond and an international assassin takes place in a single, unbroken take, with nary a camera movement in sight, as Bond and his adversary shoot, fight, and grapple with one another on top of a building lit by neon signs the size of airliners. In an age of microscopic shot lengths and shakey-cam, this one sequence shows us exactly how to do it, and it is buttressed throughout the film by several more, including a truly tense sequence inside a courtroom, and a climactic battle in a location far more personal than any has ever been in a Bond film. The callbacks to classic Bond films are many and varied (even the classic old Aston Martin DB5 of yesteryear makes an appearance), and yet the movie never pretends to be anything but extremely modern in theme and tone, deconstructing what it is to be Bond while still letting him retain that mystique so central to the character. By the end of the film, I was looking at Bond in an entirely new way, and yet recognized everything I saw.
Things Havoc disliked: So consumed is this movie in its sense of tone and style that minor issues like "plot" fall between the cracks. For example, I recognize that most movies that involve computers bear no resemblance at all to how the things actually work, but this movie takes it a step further, with a series of "hack the internets" moments so ludicrous I half-expected Neo to make an appearance. It doesn't help that these hacks feature prominently in the evil plot of the villain, a plot so convoluted that it makes the Joker's plan from the Dark Knight look straightforward and plausible. I hate to spoil things, but if I never see another villain who lets himself be caught so that he can employ some ridiculous social engineering trick based on omniscient preconception to break out of his cell and be exactly where he wanted to be all along, it will be too soon.
The villain's infinite resources get annoying on the temporal plane as well. I can accept that a Bond villain must and will have a small army of well-armed men who follow his every command, that comes with being hired as a Bond villain. But in a film that is trying to be as, dare I say, 'realistic' as Skyfall is, to have the villain assemble not merely a small army but military-grade hardware, including attack helicopters, in the middle of Great Britain, is asking quite a bit. Yes, many Bond villains have had private island fortresses, underwater warships, or moon bases, but those villains at least had the decency not to place their secret volcano lairs in the middle of Scotland.
The movie also seems to assemble and then discard subplots at random. A promising story seems to be in the making early on with a character named Severine, a mysterious woman with a history of child abuse and sexual slavery whom Bond identifies and then (of course) seduces. Yet nothing is made of her character after about the third-way point through the movie, as though the film abruptly decided it should pursue other interests and characters. Similarly, the character of Eve, a junior agent responsible for a terrible mistake early on in the film, is never really expanded upon, as once more the film drops everything to pursue Bond and M. I'm not objecting to those two being the focus of the film, but why introduce such interesting character points if you're not going to do anything with them?
Final thoughts: Ultimately though, Skyfall for all its veneration of the history of the character and all the inventiveness of its action sequences, is less a Bond movie than a movie about James Bond. Who he actually is, what drives him, and what relationships, as opposed to flings, he has managed to assemble along the way. Though Bond movies are, and remain, ludicrous exercises in excess and superhuman daring-do, Craig, in Skyfall, has come the closest to showing us Bond as he might actually be. At the end of the film, when Bond speaks to M, and receives his newest set of orders, we get the sense not of an ending, but a beginning. Craig's entire journey as Bond through three films, has led us, finally, to the steely-eyed Secret Agent we recognize from fifty years of adventure, seduction, and heroism.
His name is Bond. James Bond. And at long last, we know who he is.
Final Score: 7/10