Grim. Sensationally grim. In Skyfall, part three of the Daniel Craig-James Bond reboot, 007 is hit by friendly fire and given up for dead. In the opening sequence. And that’s not even the heavy part. The film’s ethical heft comes from Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench), but better change that to ethically ambiguous heft, because this is of course a spy story, and spies and their supervisors are compromised from the get-go. And especially so in Skyfall, where M is revealed as being as fallible as Craig’s renegade secret agent. Even darker and grittier than Casino Royale (though not as dramatically seamless), Skyfall involves a breach of security that threatens the very existence of MI6. It’s up to Bond to find the terrorist organization that is killing embedded agents and threatening M (Judi Dench), and he must do it solo—his agent cohort, Eve (Naomi Harris), is inadequate in the field.
After the lackluster Quantum of Solace, Skyfall comes on like gangbusters. The stunt work is superb, starting with a juiced-up fight atop a speeding train that turns a bulldozer into a lethal weapon, and later, Bond’s daredevilry with an elevator and other moving objects (including a komodo dragon). The score, the cinematography (by the great Roger Deakins) and the set design are all dazzling: Shanghai, where Bond is sent to uncover the cyberterrorist who has hacked MI6, is filmed as a fantastical neon fairyland, while the London skyline appears as majestic as a remote mountain range. Especially stylish is Bond’s kickboxing fight with an assassin that’s shown in silhouette. It’s classic Bond, only more thrillingly kinetic than ever.
Juiced by screenwriting powerhouse John Logan (Gladiator), who joins longtime Bond scribe Neal Purvis, the script shears 007 from his past (including the Fleming novels). The terrorist mastermind is Silva (Javier Bardem), an insane manchild with mommy issues. This retrograde Freudian motivation replaces the usual megalomaniac power mongering with a personal agenda that’s drives Skyfall’s deep-seated conflict between old-school spy catching and cutting-edge digital intelligence.
Bardem’s terrorist is even better than his Oscar-winning portrayal of the psychopath in No Country for Old Men; he’s totally insane but recognizably human, and to his additional credit, Bardem does creepy without the slightest hint of kitsch—not always an easy feat in a Bond film. Craig matches him by making Bond’s stone-cold ruthlessness the only response possible.
Meanwhile, director Sam Mendes frames the film’s philosophizing with the stagecraft of a theater director (which he was). M may be the stand-in for Queen and country, but she also understands where the real threat is coming from: the shadows, where only operatives as shadowy as Bond can do battle with them. Mendes gives this imperative more depth than expected.
We may never be in serious doubt as to whether Bond still has it, but certainly “the new MI6” is no place for old men. The new quartermaster is a hipster computer genius half Bond’s age (Ben Whishaw, the dreamboat from Bright Star, in a counterintuitive casting coup). Like Bardem, Whishaw puts his role solidly in the realm of deadly serious, even in preposterous situations. Adding some real-world levity (and after decades of silly, gimmicky Bonds, the reboot still needs all the gravitas it can get) is Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, a silky slick—and enigmatic—bureaucrat.
Most of the dialogue is razor sharp, despite a few clinkers, though Mendes’ cinematic riffing—from The Silence of the Lambs to an obvious theft from The Dark Knight Rises, may be more distracting than enriching. Even so, his flourishes of beloved Bond lore are expertly applied.
What’s more interesting is how Skyfall severs Bond ever further from his past, even as it takes him all the way back to his own shadowland. By doing so, it sends 007 into freefall—and what better place for him to be before the next assignation?