Sean Connery. George Lazenby. Roger Moore. Timothy Dalton. Pierce Brosnan. Now Daniel Craig. Casino Royale introduced us to Craig as “The New Bond.” Quantum of Solace may have stumbled, but he was still “A Bond.” Now Skyfall shows us that Craig is “The Bond.” Perhaps it is because Craig is more actor than movie star; perhaps it is because he has, in Sam Mendes, been given a great drama director rather than just a great action director; or maybe it is because Skyfall has combined some of the best Bond story elements with a touch of The Dark Knight. No matter which reason is cited most, it is very clear that Skyfall has left Craig standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Connery as the best James Bond.
Skyfall opens with a breakneck sequence on par with Casino Royale’s parkour foot chase, which sees Bond racing through the markets of Istanbul with fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris). A decision from M (Judi Dench) leaves 007 missing, presumed dead, and the titles play with the new theme from Adele. The best Bond themes have, with the exception of Live and Let Die, been sung by powerful female vocalists like Shirley Bassey or Tina Turner. Adele fits in better than the previous few singers, and the song is a terrific single with lyrics worth hearing again after seeing the film.
As the story gets going there is the foreboding absence of a villain. We meet the charming new Q (Ben Whishaw), and the mysterious bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Bond gets his handprint-identifying gun back from Licence to Kill, and a radio transmitter very similar to one he received in Goldfinger. References to the classic films carry on throughout with a familiar car making an impressive comeback. But, at nearly half way through the film, there is still no villain. He is hinted at, he is described, but he is not shown. Like the shark in Jaws, he is held out of sight for as long as possible so that his entrance can be more powerful.
The scene where we are finally introduced to Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) may be the greatest confrontation of Bond and villain ever put to screen. The dialogue is so tightly woven and beautifully played; it is just short of, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” The scene, and Bardem’s performance, is comparable to the kitchen confrontation between the Joker and the mob in The Dark Knight.
Echoes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman masterpiece are throughout, and in every way these echoes add to and improve the Bond formula. A major element of the villain’s plan is lifted directly from the Joker’s plot, and the pitting of an “unstoppable force against an immovable object” drives Skyfall in a powerful way. It seems things have come full circle since Nolan has cited Bond’s films as being formative to his technique.
Beyond the story and character details that make Skyfall so engaging, and standing behind Mendes on the creative team, is the film’s cinematographer Roger Deakins. His name might not be familiar, but he has nine Oscar nominations for such films as True Grit, No Country For Old Men, Fargo, and The Shawshank Redemption. His work behind the lights and lenses of Skyfall make it the best-looking Bond film ever. The constantly changing neon world of Shanghai, the foggy highlands of Scotland, and the red haze of a massive fire are brilliantly captured. Combined with Mendes’ sure direction, which avoids the fast and shaky editing of Quantum or the Bourne films, Skyfall has an elegant clarity that has been missed from modern action films.
Returning Bond to the clear film style and classic formula is at the heart of Skyfall’s goal for the franchise. It is, as Empire Magazine put it, as if Craig was introduced as Bond in Casino Royale and Quantum, and has in the intervening time been through all of his previous adventures. He is older, wiser, and is more like the character we were introduced to fifty years ago. The re-introduction of formula standards like Q makes it clear by the end that when Bond returns he will have all the elements that make a Bond film with him.
Unlike Craig’s first three pictures, Bond 24 will, I hope, open with a gun barrel and that classic Monty Norman theme. Skyfall teases the famous theme music, and holds back from using the full riff until well over half way, but by the time the guitar notes hit the film has already stepped into place as one of the greatest Bond films in the franchise’s fifty-year history. With Skyfall achieving 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and leading Quantum of Solace by $60 million to be the most successful of the franchise, further Bond can only be a good thing, and 2014 is eagerly awaited.