SKYFALL may not be the best Bond film ever, but there has certainly never been a better entry in the series. The trademark mordant wit, breakneck action, and visceral eroticism are all in evidence here, and operating at their finest level, but there is a subtle yet piquant, tweaking of the usual formula that makes this Bond, and this Bond actor, and this Bond villain, so compelling.
There is a welcome hewing to the lean, muscular school of Bond storytelling here, starting with the opening shot that is not the usual death-defying stunt as Bond (Daniel Craig) performs yet another feat of impossible derring-do. No, this opening is gritty and palpably dangerous, with Bond in harshly backlit and in soft-focus approaching the camera until Craigís bright blue eyes, intense with purpose, come into startling focus. Bond finds himself, gun in hand, in a shabby room with two dead bodies and wounded man. The audience has been trained to expect something ruthless to follow, the cold necessity of achieving the objective with total disregard of life. Instead, Bond attempts first-aid, and when he is ordered by M (Judi Dench) to abandon the effort, Bond turns, gun in hand, and there is a distinct question as to whether he will shoot his fellow agent, and whether or not that shot will be a mercy killing or to prevent him falling into enemy hands where he might divulge too much. Itís the first of many misdirections and subterfuges in SKYFALL, all executed with intelligent sang-froid and masterful reveals. This may be a more sentimental Bond than we are used to, particularly when it comes to his complicated relationship with M, but a cracking good script under the crisp direction of Sam Mendes brooks no such softness even as it finds itself as fascinated by this new side of Bond as the audience is.
The story is a study in such contrasts, starting with 007 himself, here sacrificed with a stiff upper lip by M at the beginning of the film, only to rise from the dead after a bout of several forms of excess, one involving a scorpion. The resurrection is to save M when a new government, in the person of bureaucrat (Ralph Fiennes) questions MI6ís mission statement, and the requisite super villain (Javier Bardem) begin to target those around the old girl herself. The McGuffin is a list of double-agents that has fallen into enemy hands, but the real story is one of the Old School standing its ground in the face of New School brashness. Bond isnít automatically welcomed back to the fold, and while undergoing evaluations of every description, reveals that age while bringing wisdom and perspective, plays hell with oneís old wounds.
Of course heís sent back to the field, and while that field includes the usual exotic locales such as Istanbul and Macau it also includes the grey familiarity of the London Underground, yet it is that action sequence in that most mundane of settings that, in another neat bit of trickery, is the best of the film, surpassing a pit of monitor lizards in an elaborate Asian gaming house, and the rooftop motorcycle races across the roofs of a Turkish bazaar. Craigís raw but cold anger channeled into resourceful action, always effective, is the perfect vehicle for this story that pits him against an emotionally driven villain who isnít so much interested in ruling the world as in getting even with M for an old wrong. At the risk of hyperbole, never a better villain than Bardem, blonde and mincing with a scathingly brilliant intellect at the service of a twisted, raging mother complex, and there has not been a better mother complex in film since PSYCHO.
SKYFALL deals with sleight-of-hand, confounded expectations, and a melancholy consideration of time passing, perfectly summed up by the new Q (Ben Wishaw), a rumpled kid in an equally rumpled hoodie whose formidabe IQ doesn't help him to fully comprehend the realpolitic at work. Nothing is quite what it seems, and the carefully constructed and realized film is as suspenseful as it is maddening, keeping several steps ahead of its audience while never for a moment being untrue to the franchise of which it is part.