Some are calling it the best Bond in years. As a 007 novice, I can’t pretend to know how “Skyfall” stacks up against most of the films in the franchise’s impressive history, but while the latest film nails its emotional beats, the best made film in Daniel Craig’s Bond oeuvre remains his first, “Casino Royale.”
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to like about “Skyfall,” which aims to set a new, more serious status quo for Bond while casting many knowing glances at its past (“Dr. No” turns 50 this year). But the movie takes too long to really get things cooking.
Breaking from the continuing plot threads established in “Royale” and the abysmal “Quantum of Solace,” “Skyfall” opens with a typical Bond chase scene that’s given extra weight because it actually has stakes: first of all, the baddie has not a nameless MacGuffin but a list of all undercover MI6 agents, and second of all, Bond is seemingly killed at the end of the chase by accidental (and questionably authorized) friendly fire.
While Bond considers the possibility of retirement via being presumed dead, Judi Dench’s M finds MI6 crumbling beneath her as the theft of the list, the death of Bond and a terrorist attack in London converge to put her job and her agents’ lives in serious jeopardy. Bond comes back to work after the attack in order to track down the terrorist, who clearly has a personal vendetta against M.
At this point, the movie becomes unpleasant for a while, taking a grim and gritty approach that reminded me of the far too serious “Quantum.” Though there are some fun bits interspersed here and there, the moments that stand out in between Bond coming back to work and eventually working out the identity of M’s tormentor mostly involve M and Bond being unlikeable jerks – particularly in a sequence in which Bond allows an assassin to murder two security guards and then stands unseen a yard away to watch said assassin carry out his hit. Bond is not a man known for his sentimentality, but this scene and a few others seemed a little too cold-blooded.
The film begins to redeem itself with the mid-movie introduction of Javier Bardem’s preening, egotistical computer genius Mr. Silva, who indeed does have a personal MI6 connection that I will not spoil here. A few revelations later we learn that the entire movie so far has only been prologue to Silva’s true plans, which an aging Bond must circumvent by going off the grid in a final sequence that reminded me of a much more violent and impressively staged “Home Alone.”
The final action sequence is almost enough to make you forget the film’s early flaws, shot as it is with such tension and panache that you can’t help but become invested in the story. Those feelings are helped along by Craig, who plays up Bond as a codgery old badger who just refuses to die as the movie goes on.
I was prepared to dislike “Skyfall” by the time I saw Silva. For a movie with so many fight scenes up to that point, the mood was strangely draggy and morose. However, Bardem injects a shot of manic life into the proceedings that seems infectious, elevating both the remaining action pieces and the triumphant return of the old Aston Martin from “Goldfinger.” By the time the credits rolled, I was watching an ending that felt earned and satisfying.
In that sense, “Skyfall” is reminiscent of this summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” also a third film which uses powerful emotional techniques in a passable attempt to wallpaper over filmmaking missteps. Contrast it to the more cerebral “Royale,” which appears to make little sense until all the pieces fall perfectly into place in the film’s final moments. “Royale” made you think more, and “Skyfall” makes you feel more. Watch accordingly.