There's no better way to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond than Skyfall, a near perfect film that rivals Casino Royale for the title of best in franchise.
That's because the film works on every level: not only as a Bond film, but also on its own merits, and for those who enjoy the art of making movies. From the very first shot, director Sam Mendes (who previously worked with Daniel Craig on Road to Perdition a decade ago) creates something beautiful. Whether it's the vibrant colors of Shanghai at night or the more muted palette of the middle of nowhere in the Scottish countryside, there's not a bad scene in the picture. Particularly in IMAX, the level of detail is startling, down to individual pores on faces and blades of grass. Grammy winner and multiple Oscar nominee Thomas Newman (who scored Perdition and also composed the beautiful main title theme for HBO's The Newsroom) works his magic here again with music that is intriguing but never intrusive; the piece that plays over the end credits takes the audience through the emotional arc of the entire movie in just a few minutes.
Even if you've somehow gotten this far without ever seeing a Bond movie, Skyfall will entertain and surprise you. There are several moments in the flick that will catch even the most prolific moviegoer off guard, and a few more that will have you reacting in your seat. One thing that the Craig era Bond films have done well is balance action with character, and Skyfall continues that trend. While there's plenty of fantastic action, including an opening pursuit sequence and a bit of large-scale destruction, the film never loses sight of its characters. The two new ladies in the picture, Eve (Naomie Harris) and Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe) are the least developed and occasionally cliched, but still able. Ben Whishaw is appropriately geeky as the new Q, and Javier Bardem is considerably creepy as the villain Silva, who even gets a few good laughs in.
However, the picture belongs to Craig and Dame Judi Dench as M, and they are both at the top of their game in their respective roles. Skyfall does an excellent job of illustrating what it takes, mentally, emotionally and physically, to be James Bond, and Craig once again exposes the man behind the superspy persona. The audience sees a Bond who is not one hundred percent and empathizes with the internal struggle that creates. Yet like his character, when the situation calls for it, Craig is able to effortlessly segue from the flawed Bond to the Bond that is confident, seductive, and poised. He reaffirms his strengths as both a capable action hero and a talented actor. It would be a surprise if he doesn't earn another BAFTA nomination for Skyfall.
Dench has always been Craig's best foil, and remains so here - as well as reminding us why she's one of Britain's finest actresses. Her M remains Bond's equal, and the plot of the film allows for several scenes between them where the audience sees how their relationship has grown since Casino Royale and how their ideologies are not that far apart. In fact, it's M that best represents the point of Skyfall , as she's pressed to defend the effectiveness of human intelligence in the face of 21st century technological advancements. Through her, and her scenes with Bond, viewers come to better understand how both characters are the way they are, and how they cannot change.
That argument makes Skyfall something of a love letter to the Bond franchise. Setting aside how fans will be thrilled by numerous nods to familiar events and characters, it's as if the movie is making a case for why Bond exists and should continue to exist even as other, more modern action franchises have emerged. Here is a Bond who relies on ingenuity, experience and toughness over gadgetry - while the latter has its place, it's the former that makes him an effective MI6 agent. While Silva uses sophisticated computers and is detached from society on his private island, Bond proves that technology can never replace things like life experience, gut instinct and sheer force of will. There may be other movies out there with more toys, more effects, or younger heroes, but there will also always be Bond, willing and able to do the dirty work and assume the cost.
Mendes and company take Bond through a film that is perfectly paced, feeling much shorter than its more than two-hour runtime. It never drags but also never rushes through the character moments. The film's climax may divide some but will move everyone; it's a bold move, perfectly acted. It also opens the door for future Bond installments to head in a new direction, albeit one with all the hallmarks of the franchise. In that sense, Skyfall is the best of both worlds: a film that keeps James Bond moving forward, while never forgetting the importance of where he has been. It's past, present and future, all in one production. You couldn't ask for much more than this.
Skyfall is out now in theaters and in IMAX. Craig fans can also read my list of his five greatest performances pre-Skyfall.