[It's been a while since I have formally reviewed a film, but the praise surrounding the latest installment in the 007 franchise has beckoned me to return from hibernation.]
Skyfall (2012) is the 23rd "official" (MGM produced) film in the James Bond franchise which also marks the 50th anniversary of the films – as Dr. No was released in 1962. Beyond the hype that any 007 film gathers, this film features a stellar amount of cast and crew known for more artistic film endeavors. With Sam Mendes (American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road (2008), etc) helming the film and the Coen brothers' long-term collaborator Roger Deakins as cinematographer, the latest Bond film was off to a great start. Add to it Daniel Craig returning as the famed secret agent, Judi Dench reprising her roll as M for the seventh time, and a supporting cast featuring Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes... this is looking like a winner.
However, Skyfall is a decent film (even within the lengthy list of Bond films, it is not the best). The movie begins with a classic Bond opener which throws the audience into the action as 007 is about to complete a mission. The danger and thrills are sublime as Bond moves from vehicle to vehicle in pursuit of a terrorist with a rather important hard-drive. Moving from a foot chase, to a car chase, which transitions into a motorcycle chase and transforms into a train battle, all of the Bond hallmarks are at play but with the gritty feel that the past two Bond films introduced. This is not a spoiler, but similar to the beginning of You Only Live Twice (1967), James Bond is "killed off", but this time it's because of M's impatience. Life without 007 in the world is bleak as obituaries are written, spies are being captured and executed, and identities are being revealed. Everyone is in danger from a madman who lurks within the shadows of the cyber world. When M's computer is mysteriously hacked and a Live and Let Die-esque skull appears on her computer with the words "Think on your sins", MI6 is bombed – an event that catches none other than James Bond's ear. Naturally, Bond survived death and decided not to return to her majesty's service until news of the terrorist attack on MI6 made it his way (via CNN's Wolf Blitzer). Here comes Bond to save the day... right?
Javier Bardem is not introduced into the film for a good hour, but his entrance is brilliant. His blonde hair and Gucci outfits make him a mysterious rival for Bond, and his voice is intriguing with an ambiguous accent. It's like Bardem's performance in No Country For Old Men (2008) all over again, except less subtle. However, this is where Skyfall becomes irreversibly weak. The villain seemingly has no master plan (except for seeking revenge on M concerning a past grievance). Sure, Bardem's character might be a crazy madman hell-bent to achieve his goal, but his back story doesn't merit a conflict at a 007 status. Bond essentially becomes a bodyguard in this flick.
Skyfall is oddly just as much about M – the head of MI6 – as it is about 007, but this factor also proves to be a weakness. Characters are often referring to past events that the audience has never seen nor heard about prior to this film – which is fine except that the payoff is that the audience gets to observe people act and think upon past decisions outside of the parameters of the narrative.
I stand by this, though it is controversial, but Casino Royale (2006) is the best of the 007 franchise. James Bond is humanized in that film as we witness his first missions as a double-o agent, he actually falls in love with a woman only to have his heart broken, and by the end of the film we (as an audience) get to see Bond evolve into the suave and cold spy that we know him as. Skyfall tries to go even further on a personal level with 007, but it all feels contrived and unnecessary (again, we're told about prior events instead of shown these pivotal moments).
The final showdown in Skyfall feels a lot like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), which isn't a bad thing, but it's certainly there. There's even a touch of Apocalypse Now (1979) as a helicopter menacingly plays rock music through a megaphone. What the film does best though is set up for the next James Bond adventure (which is sad, since this felt like it could have been a lot more than a set-up for inevitable future 007 adventures).
The action in this film is exciting and thrilling (as it always should be and almost always is in this on-going series), and the self-references to previous Bond films and the 50 year-old Scotch that Bardem and 007 interact with all feel well placed and don't attract attention to themselves in the way that franchises often do. I don't mean to be too harsh on this film, but as a life-long fan of the series I want more. I know Bond's history and remember the time Bond got married in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), and even that film successfully conveyed an emotional arc while containing exciting action sequences better than in Skyfall.
Thankfully though, "James Bond will return".
My ranking: 3/5