Over the past fifty years, there have been more than twenty-three film depictions of Ian Flemming's iconic James Bond character. Truth be told, I'm not a Bond fan by any means. Although I can no longer say things like "I can count the Bond's I've seen on one hand" (Skyfall makes six), I'm certainly not equipped to "rank" Skyfall amongst the rest of the catalog, as some critics have decided to do. I can only compare it to the ones I've seen, which rather embarrassingly only include Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan led entries. Is it blasphemous that I've never seen Dr. No or Goldfinger?
Honestly, I've never been all that fond of the few that I have seen. I liked a few of the Brosnan films well enough, but part of that can likely be traced to my fondness for various video games. I digress ... In his first Bond effort, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) manages to continue the progression into modern, more "realistic" territory while retaining the well-known elements that have made Bond such a staple of pop-culture.
In the opening minutes of Skyfall, James Bond is wounded and presumed dead during an unidentified mission in Istanbul. What we do learn is that in the course of this botched series of events, a computer hard drive containing the identities of all MI6 agents has been stolen, and its destination is unknown. This pre-credit sequence is the most "Bond" of the entire film - that is to say, it's the most elaborate traditional action sequence that Skyfall has to offer, complete with car chases, motorcycle chases atop the Grand Bazaar, hand-to-hand combat, and Daniel Craig jumping into the back of a sawed off train. If you expect Skyfall to proceed along these lines, you might be disappointed.
After the Adele filled, symbolic credits (her theme song is pretty fantastic), we find out that M (Judy Dench) was under fairly intense political pressure to step down as the head of MI6 even before the hard drive was lost. Now that its disappearance has put everyone in danger, her demise seems all but presumed. It turns out that the man who now possesses the vital information, the psychotic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) has a specific, very personal axe to grind with M. To no one's surprise, this is where Bond comes in. Physically and psychologically damaged from his injury, and fighting some emotional scars resulting from repressed childhood memories, stopping Silva might not be as easy as we've come to expect.
What I like most about Craig's Bond is that he's an actual character. There's some nuance and depth here. Skyfall plays more like a pure character study than any of the other Bond films I've seen. Don't get me wrong, he's still a stylish bad-ass, and one can certainly question whether he's really as vulnerable as it may seem. But Craig is not simply a traveling sex organ with a plethora of on-point super gadgets. In fact, the script pokes fun at the insane gadgetry of past installments, as the new Q (Ben Whishaw) provides Bond with nothing more than a personalized gun and a radio transmitter.
Yes, the requisites are here - "Bond girl", last-name-first introduction, drink of choice - but Mendes minimizes as he embraces them. For example, we see the shaken martini being made and consumed, but we do so during the course of a more important conversation, and it is never explicitly referenced. Only the crowd pleasing re-introduction of the Aston Martin is obvious and over the top.
Two aspects of Skyfall stand out as particularly noteworthy: Javier Bardem's performance as Silva, and Roger Deakins stunning cinematography. We all know Bardem is capable of owning a villain, but I can't recall a Bond villain more memorable than his Silva. He doesn't enter the picture for a decent chunk of time, but his entrance alone is more than worth the wait. Before all is said and done, Bardem may leave you with some unsettling recollections of Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter.
Coming in a close 1B is the work of the prolific Deakins. Skyfall is as visually appealing as anything you'll see this year. What is perhaps most striking is how varied the different locations are, and how each possess its own distinct mood. There is no shortage of beautiful cinematic imagery, from the bright sunlight of the crowded opening minutes, to a neon-rich night in Shanghai, to the foggy countrysides where it all comes to an end.
Skyfall is not only my favorite Bond film that I've seen thus far, but it's one of my favorite films of 2012.