Skyfall, the 23rd (official) film in the James Bond franchise, opens with a throwaway moment, but one with an electrical charge: a blurry, distant silhouette enters a hallway. Doesn’t sound like much of a scorcher, I know, but that image is accompanied by the first two notes of the iconic Bond theme (if I may approximate: “NUH NUH!”), a musical choice that makes us lean forward in fevered anticipation. He strides down that hallway into a big, beautiful close-up, and gets down to business. That opening shot is making us a promise, that Bond is back and better than ever, and it’s a promise that Skyfall keeps.
Bond (Daniel Craig) walks out of that shot and into a rendezvous that’s gone awry, with a decrypted listing of MI6’s undercover field agents (the “NOC List” from the first Mission: Impossible, basically) in the hands of an unknown but surely unsafe third party. Bond pursues, leading to a white-knuckle chase scene that’s utterly ridiculous and a total blast. The best moment, which you can watch below: Bond, landing on his feet inside a collapsing train car, takes just the briefest of moments to straighten his cufflinks. It’s a perfectly executed beat, a nice little reminder of what the series is actually about — itself, and its own impeccable sense of style.
Acknowledging that, paying proper respect to it, and still engaging a 21st century audience, has been the challenge of the Craig-era Bond movies, and it’s one that they’ve mostly risen to. But director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) achieves that balance with greater success than his predecessors — a feat all the more puzzling because he’s also gone and made what is indisputably a Sam Mendes movie. He’s brought along his regular collaborators, for example, which gives us the genuine pleasure of seeing what a Bond movie looks like when it’s shot by the great Roger Deakins (gorgeous; I’m particularly fond of the fight scene, photographed all in one silhouetted shot, in front of a smashed high-rise window), or when it’s scored by the marvelously oddball Thomas Newman (who wields his Bond theme cue drops are carefully and powerfully as the nuclear weapon they are). And his action scenes are just right —clean and crisp, tightly shot but not too close or choppy.
Craig continues to impress in the leading role — a little older and a little rusty this time around, which lends an interesting tension to the action beats. (And, again, a welcome touch; can you imagine if they’d been honest about how creaky Roger Moore was around, say, A View to a Kill?) His no-nonsense approach to the role continues to be the correct one, and even when the script gives us a little bit of psychology and backstory this time around, Craig’s approach is to acknowledge rather than wallow, which is the right call.
Javier Bardem, meanwhile, gets one of the best-prepared entrances of all Bond villains, and he lives up to it; it’s a darkly funny, wonderfully eccentric performance, and while the character’s homosexual overtones caused this viewer a kind of knee-jerk concern (there’s a long and sad history of this stuff), the way the script — and Craig — responds to his character is unexpected, and tart, and (let’s say it) sexy. So is Naomie Harris, whose character takes a late turn that got a cheer from my preview audience; that same audience greeted Albert Finney with appreciative chuckles, and he delivers nicely with a gruff, funny piece of work.
Finney’s appearance comes during a brief bit of third-act breath-catching, the sequence’s moody stillness reminding us (like the farm stuff in Looper) of the import of changing up the tempo. But Mendes inserts those variances sparsely; he brings the picture his own fierce intelligence and knowing wit, but is smart enough to know not to go muckety-mucking about with the template. The result is one of the most purely entertaining Bond movies yet.
Skyfall is out today in wide release.