Let's start off by answering the biggest question first: yes, Skyfall really is as great as you've been hearing. The 23rd entry in the venerable James Bond franchise isn't just the best studio blockbuster of the year -- featuring a better story than The Avengers, fewer logic gaps than The Dark Knight Rises and rip-roaring action sequences that easily outclass pretenders like The Hunger Games and Battleship -- it also ranks in the top five (hell, maybe even the top three) Bond adventures that have come along in 007's now 50-year big-screen history. In a fall that's packed with awards-friendly prestige pictures, Skyfall is reminder that a smart, beautifully-crafted and, in general, kick-ass action movie can be as worthy of serious acclaim and respect as any historical biopic or weighty drama. With that out of the way, time to get to some of your other burning queries:
So, Bond 23 huh? Is there really anything new left in the franchise's tank at this point?
You wouldn't think so, right? Fifty years is a long time to put the same character through his paces over and over again and lord knows the series has been through just about every iteration you can imagine, bouncing between down-to-earth spy stories to over-the-top live-action cartoons where Bond is basically a superhero battling nefarious supervillains. During the franchise's most recent reboot, which began when Daniel Craig acquired 007's license to kill in 2006's Casino Royale, the pendulum swung back to grim and gritty, an attitude that carried over into the tedious dud that was Quantum of Solace. What's so impressive about Skyfall is that it finds the happy medium between the two extremes. The action and characters are very much down to earth, but there's also a playfulness and spectacle-driven showmanship to the movie that never tips over into cartoonish exaggeration. I still wouldn't exactly describe the movie as "new" -- if anything, it's a deliberate throwback to Bond's golden age, filled with shout-outs and references to his past adventures as well as an overarching theme that argues for the character's importance in a drastically different world than the Cold War landscape that he was born into. But it does take what has always worked about the franchise and Bond himself for the past five decades and gives those elements a first-class showcase. So, in that respect, it makes everything old feel new again.
Shout-outs, huh? Does that mean I have to go back and watch all of the other 22 Bond movies to be in on the joke?
Nah... I wouldn't want to force anyone to have to sit through Diamonds Are Forever or The World is Not Enough again. The in-jokes have more to do with the image of Bond that the general public as absorbed through 50 years of pop culture, even if they've only seen one or two actual Bond films. So if you know that he likes his martinis shaken and not stirred, that his favorite car is an Aston Martin and that he has a tech guru named Q who supplies him with all the latest gadgets, you'll be good to go. It helps that screenwriter John Logan and director Sam Mendes don't make a big deal about these gags, implementing them matter-of-factly into the proceedings. It's a tip of the hat rather than an elbow to the ribs approach to nostalgic humor.
Wait... Sam Mendes? The American Beauty guy? What the hell is he doing directing a Bond movie? Didn't any of these folks see how badly Jarhead turned out?
That was my question going in as well. Certainly, whenever the franchise has recruited "legitimate" directors in the past -- think Michael Apted for The World is Not Enough and Marc Forster for Quantum of Solace -- the results have not been pretty. On the other hand, B-lister Martin Campbell did A-list work on both of his Bond entries, GoldenEye and Casino Royale. There's just something about the series that brings out the best in studio hacks and the worst in directors who have higher aspirations. But, believe it or not, Mendes absolutely nails the gig; it's hands down his best work as a director to date, as he brings a dramatic weight and level of visual artistry to Skyfall (he gets a huge assist on the latter element from ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, who does Oscar-worthy work with the photography) that's rarely been seen in the series without sacrificing the slam-bang action stuff that gets folks into the theater. This is, by far, one of the handsomest Bond movies I've ever seen... and I'm not just speaking of its leading man. There's a sequence in a Shanghai high-rise in particular that's just stunning to watch, with Bond battling an assailant against the backdrop of neon-colored signs that bath the entire room in blue. It's like something out of The Matrix rather than a Bond movie.
What are the other set-pieces I should be on the lookout for?
The Shanghai scene is the highlight, but really every action sequence plays like gangbusters. The movie basically opens in mid-chase, with Bond barreling down the same Istanbul streets that Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace recently raced through in Taken 2. Shanghai is next, followed by a great sequence at a Macao gambling den that involves man-eating komodo dragons, then a chase through the London underground and, last but not least, an all-out assault on a remote manor located in the Scottish highlands -- a location to which Bond has an intensely personal connection. All of these sequences are distinguished by terrific fight choreography and a sense of escalation where the action grows bigger without defying real-world physics. In other words, there's no scene where Bond surfs a glacier or anything.
You haven't said anything about the plot yet. Does that mean there isn't one?
On the contrary! Skyfall has an actual story linking the set-pieces together, which is more than I can say for a lot of Bond movies. Remember that opening chase? Well, the reason Bond is running through Istanbul is because he's in pursuit of a mercenary who has stolen a top-secret file containing the identities of all the MI-6 agents currently in the field under deep cover (shades of the first Mission: Impossible's NOC list). With the help of newbie agent Eve (Naomie Harris), 007 attempts to capture the thief, but ends up taking a bullet instead and plunging into a river, whereupon he's swept away and presumed dead. Months later, his former employers are subjected to a serious attack that brings Bond back from the island paradise where he's been recuperating, alternately relieved and rage-filled to have been written off by the country he's fought for. Once back in the fold, he has to prove his mettle to the soon-to-be retired M (Judi Dench) and new guy Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who is angling for her job and views her top agent as a relic from the past. As Mallory mentions at one point, the time when spies waged war from the shadows is long gone. And that specific image -- of agents operating in a shadow world -- is one that's repeated throughout the movie. The first shot of Skyfall, for example, is Bond emerging from a dark hallway, a walking shadow until he reaches the camera. It's not exactly subtly, but c'mon -- when has the Bond franchise ever been subtle? Remember, this is a series that named one of its movies Octopussy, bestowed the monikers "Honey Ryder" and "Pussy Galore" on two of its most famous Bond Girls and routinely forced its hero to utter such entendre-laden lines as "I thought Christmas only comes once a year" with a straight face. Subtlety just ain't on the menu.
Rumor has it that Javier Bardem's bad guy is like the gay James Bond. Any truth to that?
Yes and no. It's true that Bardem's Silva is more fey and flamboyant than Craig's brutish Bond, but that's part of the character's game. See, Silva used to be an MI-6er and a favorite of M's just like 007 is today. But then M made a decision that almost cost him his life and, ever since, he's nursed a serious grudge that's transformed him from a state-sponsored human weapon to a freelance agent of chaos, one who has set up shop on an abandoned island where he hatches his elaborate scheme to bring M down. In both the writing and Bardem's performance, it's clear that Silva is acting as Bond's mirror, the man he could have become if he had also chosen the path of revenge rather than forgiveness. That even carries over to the way he looks and behaves; where Bond's blonde hair is cut close to the scalp, Silva allows his to flow down to his neck. And yes, in their first big scene together, Silva does shamelessly flirt with his prisoner, but it seems to be a strategic tactic designed to unnerve Bond and throw him off his game. Whether he actually wants to test his mettle between the sheets is open to interpretation; then again, this is Daniel Craig we're talking about. Dude's handsome enough to make anyone bi-curious.
You've gotta have a few complaints, right? Even the best Bond movies have their problem areas.
My biggest complaint is that I can't watch it again right now. But sure, there are nits I could pick at. Take the requisite Bond girls, for instance. Although Harris gets to do a little running and shooting thoughout, she's largely extraneous to the proceedings and a closing gag that reveals her actual identity is a bit forced... kind of like the dopey way The Dark Knight Rises made Joseph Gordon-Levitt an official part of Batman lore at the last minute. And Bérénice Lim Marlohe has even less to do, showing up for roughly 20 minutes of screentime as the mysterious femme fatale who brings Bond to Silva. There are also some details about Silva's revenge plot that don't exactly track, although you can wave some of those inconsistences away with the explanation that he's a madman and thus, not exactly governed by logic. But that's pretty much it. I just had a great time watching Skyfall. It's so confident in its storytelling and stylish in its filmmaking that I completely gave myself over to the film within its first five minutes. This is escapist entertainment of the highest order.
I should buy my tickets now then, you're saying.
For sure. And book a seat for me while you're at it. I'm dying to see it again and I just know that this movie is going to sell out every showing from now until Thanksgiving. If Skyfall is any indication of the quality we can expect from the rest of Daniel Craig's tour of duty as 007, James Bond had better return pretty damn quickly.
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