After I walked out of the screening room at last night, one audience wondered whether “Skyfall” was a Halloween movie. I was not so surprised about that reaction, because “Skyfall” is probably the gloomiest chapter in the fascinating series which has managed to survive even though the era it represents was gone a long time ago. There are many standard materials you expect from your average Bond movie everywhere in the movie, but the situation is less fun and more serious for not only our beloved unrealistic hero but also the people surrounding him, and even the title song has a certain degree of solemnness we rarely encounter in the Bond movies.
However, unlike disappointing previous movie “Quantum of Solace”(2008), “Skyfall” does not let itself sink into gloomy solemnness while trying to be both serious and entertaining. Although it is not an exciting action film like “Casino Royale”(2006), the movie goes deep into the characters, and, in spite of its slow pace, it eventually pulls an unexpectedly powerful drama from the long relationship between James Bond and one of the major supporting characters in the series.
Although we are not treated with that cool James Bond theme at the start, the opening sequence is familiar. James Bond(Daniel Craig) is doing his latest mission in Istanbul, and we soon see him chasing a bad guy in his usual spectacular(but not so efficient) way while aided by Eve(Naomi Harris), a fellow field agent who later shoots him in a tense situation as soon as their boss M(Judi Dench) in London decides it is necessary.
Of course, Bond survives, and he goes into retirement mode along with booze and women for a while, but he returns when the circumstance is quite dire for MI6. During his last mission, that bad guy stole a hard disk drive which contains the information of every undercover field agent around the world, and some mysterious figure starts to release the information bit by bit on the Internet. Moreover, MI6 headquarter is attacked right at its center, and the leadership of M is seriously questioned by the top-ranking government officials including Gareth Mallory(Ralph Fiennes), the chairman of National Security Committee.
In these days, even the superheroes like Batman have to face their grim reality, and Bond, who has somehow maintained his fantasy aspects for 50 years, is no exception now. Looking older and more ragged than before, Craig brings his character closer to the harsh reality while holding his place as James Bond we are familiar with. The time has changed, and he may be not in his best condition mentally or physically, but this old-fashioned tough guy has not lost his dry sense of humor yet, although he may not often drink dry martini stirred not shaken now.
Slowly building the story, the director Sam Mendes, the first Oscar-winning director to direct Bond film, moves the movie and Bond around several exotic locations, and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins does a wonderful job of presenting impressive sights on the screen as we were promised by the trailer. I like a gorgeous sight of the casino floating on the water along with many candle lamps surrounding it, and I was amused to some degrees by the shabbiness of the villain’s private place in contrast to the vast nature background. He has a remote private island where he can ruin the world with his realistic technological power if he wants, but the interior decoration must have been the last thing that came to his mind, though he makes a sort of grand gesture in front of Bond when he finally meets Bond face to face in his lair.
The villain, Raoul Silva, is played by Javier Bardem, the first Oscar-winning actor to play Bond movie villain since Christopher Walken in “A View to a Kill”(1985). While the recent Bond movie villains usually have the goals far less lofty than world domination, Silva’s goal is more personal; he has a few scores to be settled with M, and he is so determined to get the fulfillment in his own way that I think that famous talking villain syndrome does not apply to his case.
Bardem plays his character as a weird mix of smooth campiness and brooding intensity with his awfully blond hairdo which looks as menacing as Anton Chigurh’s. His performance is as crucial as Craig’s to the success of the movie, and the interaction between their characters is both amusing and interesting. Facing each other on the opposite, they see that they are not so different from each other as the wounded children of M, and we even get the subtle erotic intensity which we have never imagined from Bond movies before.
The movie even approaches to a sort of dysfunctional family drama later in the story as we are served with an explosive cross between “Straw Dogs”(1971) and Hammer horror films at some dark, gloomy manor on the Highlands. Albert Finney does a fine job as a faithful gamekeeper of the manor, and Judi Dench, who has played M since “GoldenEye”(1995), is magnificent as a woman who has to deal with her past as she tries not to lose dignity during her remaining days as the head of MI6. As her character goes through a full character arc in the story, Dench has her own dramatic moment at the special hearing when M makes a passionate speech about why her old way is still needed even in the 21th century, and it can be said that the movie is about M rather than Bond – and that she is the ultimate Bond girl he will never desert till the end as her dutiful rogue knight.
Trying something new and unexpected, “Skyfall” remains as a James Bond movie to the core. It constantly makes a fun of its conventions including the gadgets provided by Q(played by nerdy Ben Whishaw), but the movie sticks to its territory, and this reconstruction job is engaging on the whole. Along with Whishaw, Naomi Harris and Ralph Fiennes are having a fun with the potential in their respective characters, and we may see more of them in future Bond movies.
The James Bond series has flexibly adapted to the passage of time and accompanying changes as one of the most enduring series in the movie history, but it recently begins to look notably different from what it was before. “Casino Royale” revealed the origin of Bond’s emotional coldness in his heart to us. “Quantum of Solace” was a misfire, but we could see that how the franchise tried to be as serious as its junior modern action movies within its traditions. “Skyfall”, the 23rd Bond movie, tests its hero against the reality of our world, and then it goes deep into its root to find a way to continue its entertainingly anachronistic journey in the 21th century. I have some reservation about the movie because I think it is a little too long and it loses some of its momentum around its middle part, but I am glad that we are firmly assured again James Bond will return.