James Bond just turned 50 –in movie years anyhow (“Dr No” came out in 1962) - and in his latest adventure Her Majesty’s sexiest spy seems to be on the verge of a midlife crisis: he’s stuck in a rut, feeling redundant, and getting self-conscious about his age. He even considers early retirement, plunging to his apparent doom after he’s shot in the movie’s thunderously exciting pre-credit sequence. Spoiler alert: 007 survives to fight another day, but not until he’s treated himself to an unofficial sabbatical, an opportunity for recuperation and introspection.
Returning to MI6 in its hour of greatest need, 007 can’t shoot straight, fails his physical and his psych test too. But M (Judi Dench) knows he’s still the man for the job even if her latest government overseer (Ralph Fiennes) seems to think they’re both relics headed for the scrapyard.
This is a movie of gleaming surfaces – veteran DP Roger Deakins turns a glass skyscraper at night into a funhouse hall of mirrors, and a floating Macau casino is like an oasis in the black sea. After all the globetrotting, “Skyfall” brings the action back home to Britain – and Deakins finds a different kind of beauty in the crags and lochs of Scotland. Just on a pictorial level, it’s enticing in a way few CGI spectaculars can match. (The credit sequence alone is among the most lustrous in the entire 007 canon.)
Mendes gambles big on a last act that cuts out all the gadgets and gizmos, brings everything down to bare bones and ties the action to Bond’s own history. And he pulls it off, in part because this apparently immortal series desperately needed someone to take a risk, and because Mendes’ class really comes through in the performances. Judi Dench is probably incapable of being bad, but M is a real character this time, with emotions, as well as convictions, and she hits every note just so. Ben Whishaw is a breath of fresh air as a youthful Q, and Craig himself remains the first 007 who might conceivably take down Sean Connery in hand-to-hand combat.
And then there’s Javier Bardem, one-upping even his flamboyant psychopath from No Country for Old Men. The only thing banal about his villain Silva is his name. It would be a sin to say too much about this character, discover him for yourself, but Bardem’s outré performance is simply delicious, a warped mama’s boy who fancies himself, whisper it, Bond’s mirror image.