Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem
Rated: PG-13, for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking
Runtime: 2 hours, 23 minutes
Bottom line: Best Bond film in decades
The James Bond movie franchise is now 50 years old — a birthday featured prominently in the film’s promotional materials, yet “Skyfall” injects the character and the franchise with renewed attitude and purpose.
It’s a film that pays homage to Bond’s past, while also plotting a course for the future.
The movie opens with a thrilling, extended action sequence which results in Bond (Daniel Craig) being shot by a fellow MI6 agent (Naomie Harris). The agent knows the bullet might hit Bond rather than her intended target, but she is ordered to take the shot by M (Judi Dench).
Why is M willing to risk Bond’s life? Because they are trying to recover a computer disk with the names of every NATO undercover agent in the field.
That is, admittedly, a well-worn plot device for the spy genre, but it works well enough.
Especially when we meet the villain behind the plot to steal the list. His name is Silva (Javier Bardem), and he holds a very personal grudge against M and all of MI6.
Helped by a baby-faced but brilliant new Q (Ben Whishaw) and questioned by M’s new boss, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), Bond’s mission is to recover the disk and protect M.
Oh, and Bond of course gets to romance an impossibly beautiful, exotic woman named Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe).
“Skyfall” is at least as good as the outstanding “Casino Royale” that rescued the franchise from complete irrelevance, and it might end up ranked as one of the top Bond movies of all time.
Some have even begun to dub Daniel Craig the best Bond ever. By the time his tenure ends, the argument may well be whether he or Sean Connery was the best, with no one else even in the discussion.
The argument will also be made that Bardem has created one of the classic Bond villains. Bardem proved in “No Country for Old Men” that he plays a great heavy, and here he combines evil joy, subtle perversity and intimidating intelligence into a character capable of doing any unspeakable act at any time.
Silva is an agent of chaos reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker, yet he conducts himself with the calculated physical control of Hannibal Lecter. The character is exactly what the franchise needed.
Visually, this might be the most impressive of all Bond movies. Director Sam Mendes, better known for insightful dramas (“Road to Perdition,” “Revolutionary Road”) and witty comedies (“American Beauty,” “Away We Go”), is a gifted filmmaker known for injecting poignant imagery into his films.
He is not a typical choice to helm a James Bond film, but it proves a perfect fit. Even though the current iteration of Bond has some working class rough edges, he is still a refined character. This might be the first time in history that the cinematography and filmmaking craft match the sophistication of the character.
For instance, one of the best sequences of the film takes place in Shanghai. Mendes films the entire segment at night and uses several aerial shots. The whole city is alive with dazzling light and energy.
With that as its setting, one of the better action sequences plays out high above the city with an electronic billboard in the background. Jellyfish-shaped, glowing blue lights flow and undulate as Bond and his enemy battle in silhouette.
The effect is stunning, beautiful even. This is the kind of visual innovation Mendes brings to the entire film, effectively raising the bar to a level this franchise has never attained. The producers would be wise to maintain that sophistication in future films.
MGM has struggled for literally decades, after being bought by a casino owner who couldn’t care less about filmmaking, being downsized and split into various sub-entities, and ultimately going through a structured bankruptcy in 2010. They are clearly doubling down on James Bond.
If future Bond movies display the same combination of reverence for the past, willingness to write a new future, and sheer filmmaking joy, I say God save Bond.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesville times.com/getout.