Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)
A little less than an hour into Skyfall, it was too late to stay awake, so I paused it and went to bed. The next morning, I asked on Facebook if I was the only one who found it a confused, muddled mess, and given the outpouring of love for it, wondered if it got better. The unanimous answer was yes, it got a lot better, so I went back to it that evening. Less than a minute after I turned the movie back on, there was Javier Bardem. Javier Bardem has the almost singular quality of making every movie he appears in a better work, and his presence in Skyfall was sorely needed. It stayed better after that, and for that I was truly grateful.
As we open, Bond (Daniel Craig in his third outing as 007) is in the throes of trying to save a fellow agent, Ronson (TV stalwart Bill Buckhurst in his first feature appearance), who is in danger of death, against the express orders of M (Judi Dench) and Eve (28 Days Later…‘s Naomie Harris), the third operative on the team. Things go south, and we end the sequence with Bond hiding away somewhere in the tropics, turning his love of a good shaken-not-stirred martini into a nightmarish bout with dependency until he chances on a new report about a terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. Bond returns, only to have M tell him that before he can go back out into the field, he has to pass all the tests again. And all this while trying to figure out who’s got MI6 on the defensive, and how he seems to know so much about their movements, defenses, and infrastructure…
I ended up looking at that first hour as setup—a whole lot of setup. And I am not sure the movie would have worked without it. This is a very meta Bond; if you were to look at a spy movie where the main character wasn’t known for quaffing martinis, the slip into alcoholism in the tropics wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful, and that’s only one of the places where the film pays lip service to updating the character for modern sensibilities. (The new version of Q, amusingly played by The Zero Theorem‘s Ben Whishaw, is the most notable bend in this angle; the new Q has dropped the focus on gadgets and is far more interested in cyberterrorism. For the good guys, of course.) This almost by definition makes the film vertical-market; if you are not already an established fan of the series, Skyfall will not only not do anything to convince you, it may well drive you off. And yet, once the film takes off, Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Albert Finney as Skyfall’s caretaker (the film’s namesake estate, the Bond family pile in Scotland) all turn in their A levels with aplomb. This is the Daniel Craig of Layer Cake, the Judi Dench of Iris, the Albert Finney of The Dresser. And Bardem? He just has to show up to bring his top-level game; I can think of a single Bardem movie I’ve seen where he didn’t tear the screen apart (For the record, it was Días Contados, I’ve seen eleven Bardem films, and he was the star of the movie that has topped my top 1000 movies list since 2000, Before Night Falls). Mendes directing his first non-R film may have been a strength rather than a weakness; he flirted with that line every chance he could, and in the process managed his most successful blend of talkiness and action yet. Well, seventy-two minutes of it, anyway. Pity about the first hour. If you’re already invested in the series, you need to see it, but then you don’t need a review to tell you that. If you’re not, start with something more accessible—either version of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, and A View to a Kill are all good starting points for the series. ***