James Bond films have trends you can set your Omega Seamaster by: exotic locations, expensive cars, cool gadgets, sexy women, and maniacal villains. Given their tendency to be so over-the-top, you never expect Bond movies to emphasize production value beyond their special effects budgets. That’s why “Skyfall,” Bond’s 23rd big-screen adventure, is a surprising game-changer for the 50-year-old franchise.
With Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm, “Skyfall” feels more like an art house piece than your typical blockbuster. Instead of trying to impress you with action, Mendes gives his movie the strict attention of a character drama, and shockingly, the shift in tone works. In fact, the gorgeous cinematography and highly stylized visuals in “Skyfall” easily make Bond the most beautiful he’s ever been.
This Bond (Daniel Craig) may look sexier on the surface, but underneath he’s stripped down. He still drives cool cars, although he has limited access to gadgets and less interactions with love interests (Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe). Instead, this Bond has more experience in fancy locales and professional rivalry with the bad guy (Javier Bardem). Entertainingly, Bond also has a cheekier sense of humor than he did in Craig’s previous Bond outings.
Under the watchful eye of Mendes, foreign locations aren’t just new places for Bond to fight baddies; they take on a life of their own. Towering Shanghai skyscrapers put you on edge as they bathe you in blue and green electric light, and later on, a casino in Macau seduces you with the orange and yellow hues of its dragon decor. These places become characters themselves in the movie, adding nice depth to the picture.
Thankfully “Skyfall” isn’t just boring characterization; Mendes delivers exciting action like his riveting pre-credits sequence in Istanbul. There’s hot pursuit through crowded streets, a motorcycle chase across rooftops, and a frightening showdown on top of a speeding train, which will satisfy hardcore Bond fans. The expertly crafted score by Thomas Newman and tight camera by Mendes create an extremely frantic element that not only keeps you engaged, but perfectly sets up the Bond song. British singer Adele lends her talents to this excellent tune carrying the familiar sultry quality of old-school Bond themes.
After the opening credit sequence, the pace of the movie slows dramatically, action scenes become sparse, and the ensuing drama exposes weaknesses in the writing. The overarching story is solid: Bond is tasked with tracking down Silva (Bardem), a former operative who wants revenge on Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench). Despite Bardem’s entertaining performance, the way Silva’s vendetta is written, disappointingly paints him like a spoiled child instead of a classic Bond villain. Plus his methods as a computer hacker are explained through a bizarre mess of technical mumbo jumbo, which will make any true techie cringe.
“Skyfall” has a delightful sense of humor that was absent in Daniel Craig’s previous two Bond movies. Once Bond comes face-to-face with Silva, a comical homoerotic dynamic develops between the two, which Bardem expertly leads. There’s also silly wordplay between Bond and female leads, a tension with the new Q (Ben Whishaw), and amusing references to classic Bond films like “Goldfinger.” While you’ll definitely chuckle at some of this, the dialogue is not nearly as clever as it aspires to be, and the self-referential nods can be annoying.
Regardless of deficiencies in its writing, “Skyfall” is still infinitely more memorable than the last Bond: “Quantum of Solace.” Cinemaphiles will appreciate its high quality aesthetics, but Bond fans may be a bit let down by the weak villain, fewer action scenes, and lack of crazy gadgets.
My Grade: B
*If you're into Bond cars, check out this cool interactive infographic which has a rundown of Bond's most famous cars and some interesting facts about them.