In the fifty years since Ian Fleming’s superspy made his cinematic debut with 1962’s Dr. No, there have been some good James Bond movies and some not-so-good James Bond movies. But Skyfall isn’t just a good James Bond movie, it’s just a good movie, period. Not only does it boast some of the best acting we’ve seen in this series, but it’s easily the best directed and photographed, and both rank alongside any other movie this year. More importantly, it has some truly spectacular action that’s driven by what is easily the best Bond story that wasn’t based on one of Fleming’s stories.
After a mercenary steals a list of undercover agents that are embedded in terrorists groups, the buyer of the list uses it to tease and torture James’ boss, M (Dame Judy Dench). What follows is the smartest game of cat & mouse that we’ve ever seen Mr. Bond play in his long career.
Much of the credit for the film’s high quality belongs to director Sam Mendes, who previously helmed American Beauty, Jarhead, and, most appropriately Road to Perdition, an adaptation of a graphic novel that he treated (and shot, and casted) as seriously as he does Bond here. Not only did he shoot this like it’s a drama, but he clearly pushed Dench, Daniel Craig (Bond), and the rest of the cast to not rest on their laurels like so many actors do when starring in a genre film. Though he also casted well, bringing in such solid actors as Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and Javier Bardem.
Similarly, he seems to have pushed scripters John Logan (Hugo) and the writing team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who’ve cowritten every Bond film since 1999’s The World Is Not Enough) to treat this seriously as well. The result isn’t just a smartly written film, but a seriously good thriller that will engage even those who’ve never seen a James Bond film before.
Though if you have, you’ll enjoy Skyfall that much more, as the film also pays homage to the series in ways that will bring a grin to longtime fans. We won’t spoil anything, but suffice it to say this honors the series nicely without being heavy-handed about it.
In fact, the only thing that might strike fans as a sour note is Bardem, who plays the bad guy with such scene-chewing glee that some might find him unintentionally laughable (or think he’s auditioning to play The Joker in the next Batman movie). And, at times, he kind of is. But if you buy into his shtick, you’ll find it brings some unrepentant psychosis to the proceedings. Especially the scene where he first meets Bond, a face-off that’s on par with when Robert Di Niro and Al Pacino had coffee in Heat.
But even if you think he’s silly, this can’t ruin what is easily the best movie of the year after The Avengers (which was a lot more fun but not as well acted, directed, or shot). It may not become your favorite 007 adventure — to co-opt an advertising phrase, you never forget your first Bond — but if you’ve ever enjoyed a James Bond movie before, you’ll really dig the old man’s latest adventure.