In his third turn as James Bond, Daniel Craig is close-cropped, weathered (think a better-tailored Steve McQueen in Papillon) and dispirited. M (Judi Dench) put him in his funk. She made a tough call without batting an eye and as a result, Bond was shot and presumed dead. He survived the bullet but left the job to drown his sorrows. Another former 00 agent (Javier Bardem), however, harbors a much nastier grudge against M, bringing Bond back to life and service.
There are weaknesses. Skyfall is merely a revenge flick. All of Bardem’s efforts are directed at killing M, which is not all that interesting. Moreover, Bardem not only wants to kill M, but he wants to do it face-to-face (early in the film, he proves how vulnerable she is by blowing up her London offices via computer). So, his master stroke (a hit on M as she testifies before a board of inquiry) seems unnecessarily elaborate given that if successful, he’s probably going to shoot her in the back in a confused firefight.
The film is also heavy on exploring Bond’s psyche. We learn he is an orphan (thus, his wounds from M’s callousness are all the deeper). We also see his psychological interview (to determine his fitness for duty) and even the crawl space where he hid as a lad upon hearing of the death of his parents. The interview has funny moments (including a clever word association; the psychologist says “murder” and Bond responds “employment”) but it also reveals Bond’s “Rosebud.” The revelation of the childhood hideout and trauma feels too close, too modern.
Bond’s generational clash is another theme, one better delivered. We meet a new Q (a twenty something played by Ben Whishaw, who was impressive in BBC’s “The Hour”). Q fences with Bond about the utility of having live agents searching for intel. Meanwhile, forces all around Bond and M are telegraphing it is time to pack it in. Even the villain, Bardem, positively winces at the rigor of field work. He can do it, but he elegantly expresses his preference for the click of a mouse.
Bardem is perfect. He’s psychotic, charming and empathetic. His opening speech on what to do with rats on an island is riveting and his playful sexual come-on to Bond is surprising and convincing. He steals the show.
The Bond women are distinct and sexy. The first is a lithe, capable agent (Naomie Harris) who is given the order by M to take her shot in the opening scene (she misses the bad guy and plugs Bond, resulting in some clever repartee’ upon his return). The second (Bérénice Marlohe) is a doomed beauty, in mortal fear of Bardem, latching on to Bond as her salvation.
The action sequences are up to snuff, if not dazzling. The finale is an old fashioned shootout where Bardem and his army attempt to get at Bond and M at his childhood home, an ancient Scottish manor house. They are assisted by the property’s game keeper, Albert Finney, which could have been cutesy but works out fine. It also introduces shotguns. Shotguns are cool.
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and the ghastly Revolutionary Road) seemed a strange choice to helm. But he proved capable of action in Road to Perdition, and he puts his stamp on the franchise. Mendes is patient and methodical, comfortable with a moody but chattier Bond, where the discussions are not rushed.
Perhaps indicative of a future lighter touch, Skyfall closes with not only a Bond lightened by catharsis, but the introduction of a captivating new Moneypenny (Harris) and a report to his new boss, Ralph Fiennes.