Story: A mission in Istanbul ends in failure, with Bond (Daniel Craig) pressumed dead and a harddisk with vital data missing. At home, ‘M’ (Judi Dench) is under attacks from government officials and an old foe from her past. But when Bond reappears to save the day, he may no longer be the lethal weapon he once was.
The 23rd official James Bond film came with high expectations, and some dread. After all, it was the film that would celebrate fifty years of James Bond (Dr. No, the first film, was released 1962). It starred an actor who many consider the best James Bond since Sean Connery, and was directed by award winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). The dread was that the Bond series would not be able to return to the level of Casino Royale (2006) after the unfortunate Quantum of Solace (2008). And was a high profile ‘serious’ director the right person to direct an action adventure? Would the weight of history drag Bond down or would it give him wings?
Fair is fair, it is quite a relief that Skyfall is a really good James Bond film. It is more than that. It is a really good film. However, it is not as good as some English reviewers would have us believe. In their common, patriottically inspired enthusiasm – in which each new Bond is greeted as wither the best or the worst ever – they hailed Skyfall as the highlight of the franchise’s history. I sincerely doubt this. Skyfall is good, but I doubt whether it is up there with Goldfinger and Casino Royale.
Let su start with the really good things then. First there is an impressive cast, filling a series of iconic roles. Craig is excellent as Bond. I am amongst those who rate him higher than Connery, especially considering the demands of the role in the serious reboot that the series got with Casino Royale. Equally brilliant, and finally in a substantial role, is Judi Dench as M. Javier Bardem’s Silva is one of the scariest but also one of the most believable villains Bond has ever faced. And as if that were not enough, supporting roles are filled with enthusiasm and energy by the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Albert Finney. Bérénice Marlohe and Noamie Harris are interesting Bond girls.
As important as a good cast is a good script. And Skyfall’s plot is serious and grown-up, but also straightforward and founded in a ‘real’ modern world. As GoldenEye (1995) once tried to be, it is a thoughtful meditation on the role of Bond in a digital, post-Cold War world. The film also looks gorgeous, courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Perhaps a little too gorgeous, as some of the more aesthetic shots hint at the artificiality of Bond’s universe.
Which brings me to my main point of critique. Skyfall’s weakest part is exactly its history. It tries, too much to my taste, to honor the past. Thereby it does not only highlight its artificiality, but it also makes the film predictable, especially in the second half. A number of, what appear to be, red herrings are set up in the plot. And then you don’t expect everything to work out exactly as you’d expect things to work out. It is one thing to bring back the Aston Martin, it is quite another thing to use it the way the film does (see how I try not to give too much away here?). The same is true for a number of ‘unexpected’ character developments.
But hey, what does it say about Skyfall that those are my main points of concern? Only that the rest of the film is really, really good.
Final verdict: Not just a return to form, for Bond, but a return to format as well. An excellent episode that finishes the job Casino Royale started: to set up a new Bond in a new universe. If only it had the balls to let go a little more of the past.