Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomi Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear
Rated: PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking
James Bond movies can be grouped both by actor and by tone. The most recent batch, the Daniel Craig Bond flicks, reflect Hollywood’s current love affair with the gritty and the flawed. “Skyfall,” the latest of these, gives us a Bond who can barely pass his field agent proficiency tests, whose hands shake when he fires a gun, who’s only comfortable and at home when he’s both in impossible circumstances and full of a determination fueled by righteous anger.
The film opens with Bond and a fellow agent, Eve (Naomi Harris), on the tail of a bad guy. He’s carrying a hard drive with a list of field agents’ identities on it, and they have to get it back. The chase is at once exhilarating and ridiculous, in grand Bond tradition — but it ends with Bond plummeting to his apparent death. Of course, he’s not dead, but he chooses to let MI6 believe he is while he takes a well-earned vacation.
What brings him back is the appearance of a video naming some of the agents from the hard drive. MI6 is in trouble, the government breathing down the neck of M (Judi Dench), and while she may still be as calm as ever on the outside, you can see the agency head’s façade beginning to crack a little. Bond’s is, as well — his wounds aren’t entirely healed, he’s been off the radar and out of action for months, and knowing that the agency puts achieving its goals far above keeping him alive has taken a toll. Mentally and physically, he’s not the agent he used to be.
The villain who emerges as the film progresses is a delight. Silva (Javier Bardem) is as smooth as Bond-at-his-best, but completely deranged. He is the Joker to Bond’s Batman, and it’s a very satisfying two-sides-of-the-same-coin sort of relationship — all the more so because of the insight it gives the observant into Bond’s relationship with M. It’s easy to read it as a maternal one, because Silva refers to M over and over as Mummy (and to himself and Bond as her children), but Bond and Silva are opposites, after all. Where Silva’s relationship to M is very simple, Bond’s is thoroughly complex.
Craig continues to impress as our favorite double-0 agent, making a character who lends himself to being a cipher into someone with real character. If the final sequence, which gives us a much closer look at Bond’s past than we’ve seen before, feels a bit odd and forced, it’s easy to forgive because Craig’s deadpan performance leaves us with more questions than answers. That and the final sequence is so action packed as to border on utterly epic.
Where the film has problems is in the unevenness of its complexity and realism. This is a movie where we’re to ignore the lunacy of using construction equipment during a fight on a train but then pay attention to complex character development during scenes of bureaucratic jockeying. Unless you’re willing to suspend your disbelief in very particular ways, things don’t hold together. It’s the sort of film that works fabulously if you don’t care at all about plot or character development, or if you want to watch very closely and analyze everything — but not if you fall into the middle of that viewer spectrum.
“Skyfall” is very much a product of its time. If you’re looking for a Sean Connery-style, glamour-and-silliness escapist fantasy, it will only work if you’re willing to overlook a lot. If, on the other hand, you want an action fest with an interesting, flawed hero and surprisingly subtle performances, it will hook you up.