Putting the “intelligence” in MI6, “Skyfall” reps a smart, savvy and incredibly satisfying addition to the 007 oeuvre, one that places Judi Dench’s M at the center of the action. It’s taken 23 films and 50 years to get Bond’s backstory, but the wait was worth it. In Sam Mendes’ hands, the franchise comes full circle, revealing the three-film Daniel Craig cycle to be both prelude and coda to the entire series via a foxy chess move that puts these pics on par with Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy as best-case examples of what cinematic brands can achieve — resulting in a recipe for nothing short of world domination.
This time it’s personal, so to speak, only the character seeking revenge isn’t our secret-agent hero — though he has good reason, shot in the chest and left for dead in the Istanbul-set opening sequence — but Silva (Javier Bardem), a character from M’s past who resorts to cyberterrorism as a way of reconciling an old score. Refreshingly unlike the first 20 Bond installments and yet completely of a piece with the franchise’s core values, “Skyfall” continues the stripped-down approach introduced in “Casino Royale,” completing Bond’s transformation from kiss-kiss-bang-bang action figure to full-fledged character.
This Bond bleeds, he hurts and he just might suffer from unresolved mommy issues dredged up when he sees M thrust into a position of extreme jeopardy. Far more than her life is at stake, however: Amid a breakneck chase involving trains, motorcycles, conspicuously product-placed Range Rovers and at least one upended fruit cart, Bond valiantly tries to retrieve a hard drive containing a list of nearly all the NATO agents who have successfully infiltrated global terrorist organizations, only to be sniped by a fellow agent (Naomie Harris) at M’s orders.
In the impressive yet decidedly unfamiliar opening-credits montage that follows, images of tombstones, skulls and other deathly totems supplant the usual gyrating next-to-naked girls, while Adele’s sultry cabaret-style theme song echoes the throaty Shirley Bassey tunes of old. Though M gets right to work writing Bond’s obituary, the film doesn’t allow audiences to believe him dead for long, calling him back to London with a televised report of a bomb going off in MI6 HQ.
Whatever parallels it shares with the Bourne series or Nolan’s astonishingly realized Batman saga, “Skyfall” radically breaks from the Bond formula while still remaining true to its essential beats, presenting a rare case in which audiences can no longer anticipate each twist in advance. Without sacrificing action or overall energy, Mendes puts the actors at the forefront, exploring their marvelously complex emotional states in ways the franchise has never before dared.
Back in Britain, Bond submits to a battery of tests that reveal him to be mentally and physically unfit for the assignment before him; even his aim is abysmal. All this makes the subsequent mission more gripping than usual, as it introduces a high potential for failure into his typically flawless pursuits — a view more consistent with the novels, where Bond regularly endures his share of damage. This weakness also gives Silva a chance to get inside his head (much as Sean Bean’s double-crossing 006 attempted in “GoldenEye”), trying to turn Bond against his country. Taking full advantage of Bardem’s gift for cold-blooded derangement, Silva has even greater plans in store for Bond, though the particulars are best discovered onscreen.
Suffice to say, “Skyfall” pushes the character into uncharted realms in terms of both psychology and action. Bond behaves as if coded for loyalty, while the remarkable script — the work of Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan — invites a level of Freudian analysis entirely absent from previous pics, especially as it pertains to protecting M, who emerges a surrogate mother of sorts. Though Dench’s M was kidnapped once before, in “The World Is Not Enough,” this film gives the actress by far the most dramatic opportunity to explore the character.
Whereas she famously dubbed Bond “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War” in Dench’s first appearance in the role, M now faces the prospect that her own methods may be extinct. Calling the shots from a control room 2,000 miles away, she not only nearly got Bond killed, but allowed for the top-secret list to fall into Silva’s hands, placing every embedded agent in immediate jeopardy.
Enter Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, a rival national-security suit crying for M’s resignation and an intriguing addition to the plot’s trust-no-one dynamic. Only Q (played a generation younger than Bond, rather than the other way around, by dapper young Ben Whishaw) appears fully dependable, and even then, the lad’s computer-hacking skills backfire spectacularly, triggering an intense mid-movie setpiece beneath London’s streets.
While M stands before a disciplinary board, Bond goes about his usual blend of drinking, gambling, shooting and seducing — all of which Mendes, editor Stuart Baird and ace d.p. Roger Deakins render so freshly, you’d think you were seeing it for the first time. As Severine, Silva’s fear-stricken mistress, Berenice Marlohe puts up little resistance to Bond’s charms. While Severine’s fate may be familiar, the film casts Silva in such an unforgivingly cruel light, the result feels closer to “The Silence of the Lambs” or equivalently ruthless R-rated thrillers than to the series’ typical PG-13-rated 007 romp.
In perhaps its most welcome deviation from tradition, “Skyfall” visits the villain’s lair early, leaving the finale to unspool at a surprise location — one that reveals intriguing new depths of Bond’s personal history, while also offering a hearty role for Albert Finney that must have been written with Sean Connery in mind. When asked about her evidently outmoded intelligence tactics, M argues that her methods work because the world’s enemies have moved into the shadows. The same could be said of the Bond film series since “Casino Royale,” with its new willingness to explore what lurks in the shadows of Bond’s murky past.