A note on spoilers: I will not spoil any of the things that shouldn’t be spoiled about Skyfall. However, it’s not possible to write a good review without discussing some plot points of a film, so I will be doing that. If you want to remain completely virginal and you’re avoiding all reviews, avoid this one, too, until after you’ve seen the film. But if you just want to avoid the big actual spoilery spoilers, then you needn’t fear. And those things are worth discussing, so I may well revisit Skyfall once the film has opened in North America on November 9, but until then I shall refrain from discussing such things, and I would appreciate it if commenters from territories where the film has already opened also avoid doing so until then. There's plenty to talk about besides!
All of the good reviews that I had read or heard, all of the hype, all of the fantastic trailers… that all went out the door as soon as the film began. Because it began, like Quantum of Solace before it, without a gun barrel. I said it all before when I reviewed that film, but apparently it bears repeating: to me, the iconic gun barrel sequence, the dripping blood, and accompanying music are thrilling in their own right. They get my blood pumping for that perfect blend of unequaled action and unrivaled globe-hopping glamor sure to follow. They tell the audience, “You are watching a James Bond movie, so fasten your lap-straps!” That’s why the gun barrel comes up front, not at the end of the movie or in the middle or upside-down or inside-out. There are certain aspects of Bond that no filmmaker should mess with, and that is one of them.* Without a gun barrel sequence, you could be in for an off-brand imitation like the ’67 Casino Royale; with a gun barrel you know you’re in EON’s capable hands, expecting brand-name Bond and guaranteed a good time in the theater. And audiences expect that promise up front. I certainly do. So when I sit down for a Bond movie and it fails to deliver on that expectation, I’m instantly disappointed. Consequently, in those opening seconds, director Sam Mendes undid all of the goodwill I brought with me to this movie. He dug a hole for himself that he would have to work hard to get out of. Marc Forster did the same thing in Quantum of Solace, and he never managed to get out. He never won me over. Luckily, Skyfall is not Quantum of Solace (not by any means!), and Mendes did manage to win me back fairly quickly with a rousing, Istanbul-set pre-title sequence that surely ranks among my favorites of recent vintage. (Even so, though, even as I was watching action I loved, I was still rankled in the back of my mind by the lack of gun barrel. Hopefully that won’t affect me upon a second viewing, and hopefully this warning will alleviate similar discomfort in other viewers.)
Taken 2 review), and Mendes makes the best use of the city I’ve seen in a long time. Remember that cool but somehow somewhat underwhelming foot chase along the rooftops of the city’s grand bazaar in The International? Well, now imagine it on motorcycles. It’s no longer underwhelming in the least! And, happily, Mendes directs the action in such a way that (for the most part) you can tell exactly what’s going on. And editor Stuart Baird (Casino Royale) cuts it in such a way that you can tell what’s going on. There’s none of the muddled confusion that plagued all of Quantum’s setpieces. Furthermore, this opening sequence, like the one in GoldenEye, depicts 007 working in tandem with a fellow agent rather than on his own or with sexist after-the-fact female assistance ala Thunderball or A View to a Kill. And, personally, I like seeing that. It also involves M more integrally than ever before in a pre-title sequence (even Tomorrow Never Dies), setting up a greatly expanded role for Judi Dench in the film to come.
By the time the now-familiar opening notes of Adele’s theme song kick in (by the way, Movieline has an in-depth, must-read analysis of said song), I was fully on board with this Bond outing. Daniel Kleinman’s title sequence is also first-rate, a real return to form after the lackluster job MK12 did on Quantum of Solace. Like Kleinman's work on Casino Royale, this isn’t a straightforward Maurice Binder pastiche; he brings in fresh elements appropriate to the story while retaining essentials of the past. And the movie that follows does that as well.
The actual action is equally thrilling, but comes in surprisingly spare doses. There are lengthy stretches where Mendes gives full attention to other aspects of Bond, like the spycraft (including more le Carré-esque bureaucracy and politics than we’ve ever seen in a Bond movie before—and even a subtle visual reference to Tomas Alfredson’s film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or the scenic travelogue shots, which in the more-than-capable hands of master cinematographer Roger Deakins look more beautiful than they have since the Sixties. The only classic Bond element that, perhaps surprisingly, isn't really played up is the sex. Despite Craig’s Bond sleeping with more women than he did in either of his previous outings, Skyfall is more interested in Bond’s professional relationships than his intimate ones, and boldly gives them precedence. The gamble pays off.
Performances are quite good across the board. Sam Mendes is an actors’ director, and, sure enough, he coaxes the best out of his stars. Cubby Broccoli is oft-quoted as saying that it takes three films for Bond actors to really come into their own, and I think history bears him out. Thanks to the reboot aspects of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig has had a slightly different journey than his predecessors, but Skyfall marks his most comfortable performance as 007. (In part this is thanks to the welcome return of the series’ trademark humor, largely absent from the last two outings.) He's fantastic. With more to work with than ever before, Judi Dench rises to the challenge and delivers her best turn to date as M. Is it possible that she could actually score an Oscar nomination for acting in a Bond film? I think it is. After a decade of appropriate histrionics as arch-villain Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, Ralph Fiennes delivers an unexpectedly subtle (and quite impressive) performance as a government bureaucrat. I was somewhat dubious about Bond Girls Bernice Lim Marlohe and Naomie Harris (I'm not sure why), but ended up really liking both of them quite a lot. (Neither of their roles proved to be what I had expected, either.)
Overall, all of Skyfall’s well-fleshed-out characters, rich performances, beautiful photography, exotic locations, visceral action, Komodo dragons (yes! I said Komodo dragons!), and equally entertaining nods to the past and future alike add up to a pretty incredible Bond film. If Quantum of Solace owed a debt to the Bourne movies (which, in turn, of course, owe a tremendous debt to Bond), then Skyfall’s debt is to Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies (which, in turn, also owe a huge debt to 007; as Craig says, “That’s the circle of life.”). This will no doubt be widely remarked upon, but the real debt owed here, as with both Bourne and Batman, is to James Bond himself. Sam Mendes may have seemed a somewhat unusual choice to direct a Bond film, but he proved to be just the man for the job, and it’s his avowed love of this series’ past that makes this movie work so well, and, by the end, sets the series on a clear course for its future. When the final credits role (accompanied by Thomas Newman’s entirely satisfying score, which I’ll no doubt write more about in the future), Bond fans will likely feel an intense satisfaction. I know I did. Skyfall is a very gratifying movie, and an excellent course-correction after the disastrous Quantum of Solace. Everyone should see it. And trust me—I haven’t even mentioned the best stuff!
*The one exception is in the 2006 Casino Royale, which, being an origin story, has its reasons for situating the gun barrel elsewhere. And even then, it’s still near the beginning! But for some reason the one-time success of tinkering with the gun barrel position has led EON to believe it bears experimentation every time.