Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” (2012)

**This essay was originally published on November 9th, 2012, immediately following the film’s release**

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a James Bond fan.  It started with the GOLDENEYE video game for the Nintendo 64, then expanded outward as I started watching all the films in the series.  I make a concerted effort to go see a new Bond film in theaters each time one comes out, so you can imagine the great degree of anticipation I had for 2012’s SKYFALL.  That anticipation was obscenely amplified by the fact that Sam Mendes, a director whose work I greatly respected, was at the helm.

Looking back over Mendes’ body of work, Mendes’ decision to tackle James Bond is at once both perplexing and strangely logical.  You might be bewildered as to what a director of award-winning character dramas might see in a loud, pulpy action movie.  The only connecting factor between Mendes and Bond seems to be a UK nationality.  However, even when I read the press announcement detailing his involvement, I knew that Mendes was an inspired choice.  After the dismal failure that was 2002’s DIE ANOTHER DAY, producers decided that the next Bond outing would go back to basics.  Back to his roots.  And so, in 2006, CASINO ROYALE debuted with a new, blond Bond (Daniel Craig), who was just as emotionally damaged as he was suave.  It was a radical new direction for the world’s favorite super-spy, and it resulted in one of the finest 007 films ever made.

However, 2008’s follow-up QUANTUM OF SOLACE, didn’t deliver on the promise of its predecessor.  While it was still relentlessly exciting, it was dim-witted, uninspired, and thanks to overly frenetic handheld camerawork, largely incoherent.  As a result, the stakes were high– if SKYFALL didn’t deliver on CASINO ROYALE’s emotional promise, the new era of Bond might be dead before it ever truly lived.  Thankfully, Mendes’ masterful hand propels Bond to unseen heights, arguably delivering one of the best Bond films of all time.

When a mission to retrieve a stolen drive listing the identities of M16 agents goes south, Bond is shot and left for dead.  Surviving the hit, he holes up in a beachside shack and takes the opportunity to stay dead and begin an early retirement.  It takes a bombing of the M16 headquarters to shake him into returning to duty.  A mysterious cyberterrorist has been publicly exposing agents, and Bond is tasked with discovering the terrorist’s identity.  It turns out that the mastermind behind the cyber attacks is Raoul Silva, a former M16 agent who has a bone to pick with M.  Faced with a renegade agent who can outsmart them at every turn, Bond and M must work together to beat Silva at his own game before they are decimated once and for all.

One of Mendes’ chief inspirations for the tone was Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), and it shows not just in the plotting, but in the characters.  As the nefarious, effete Silva, Javier Bardem channels The Joker’s casual anarchic glee.  Silva is a Bond villain unlike any other, and as such he’s wildly unpredictable.  In a rogue’s gallery full off eccentric baddies, Silva is by far the most intense and acutely dangerous.  Bardem has a knack for playing cool, atypical villains (see his turn as Anton Chigurh in The Coen Bros’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)), and with SKYFALL he’s a malignantly charismatic presence.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond, fully comfortable within the role and exuding an effortless cool.  This is his second film collaboration with Mendes, and their familiarity breeds a daring approach to Bond, who after 50 years of high-octane espionage, is starting to show some severe wear-and-tear.  We delve into Bond’s backstory more so than any other film in the series before it, which gives Craig’s portrayal more pathos and substance.  Quite simply, if Craig continues to bring the same level of intensity and commitment to the role in future outings, he may very well topple Sean Connery as the best cinematic incarnation of James Bond.

In addition to a host of new faces, a number of classic Bond characters make their grand re-introduction after the CASINO ROYALE reboot.  The biggest of which is Q, played by a fresh-faced Ben Whishaw.  In just one scene, Whishaw wipes away any memory of the lovably-craggy Desmond Llewelyn and brings M16 firmly into the twenty first century (ironically, the only gadgets Bond is given for his mission are a custom Walther pistol and a radio tracking device).  Noamie Harris is excellent as Eve, a fellow field operative who can hold her own against Bond in a firefight.  Eve and Bond share a chemistry that should be very familiar to fans of the franchise, but to say anything more would set off the perennial spoiler alarm.

Of course, Dame Judi Dench is impeccable in her seventh outing as M, the head of M16.  She has become a franchise stalwart, acting somewhat as a surrogate maternal figure for Bond (indeed, the agents actively call her “Mum” as a codename on the field).  SKYFALL places the focus on M more squarely than past films, and Dench is more than capable of handling the extra attention.  M’s character is given a great new layer as a tough old broad that isn’t afraid to make incredibly hard calls, even when it’s against her own personal interests.  Dench adds a very regal presence that dignifies the Bond mythos.

Ralph Fiennes, as Gareth Mallory, symbolizes the British bureaucracy caught up in the throes of modernization.  He’s an antagonistic presence to M in that he’s looking to shut the program down and make M retire.  However, Fiennes imbues the character with a degree of decency and intelligence that makes him sympathetic.  As a result, he is a mysterious wild card in the proceedings, and his true allegiance remains in the shadows.  Rounding out the main cast, Berenice Marlohe makes a stunning impression as Severine, a damaged beauty that leads Bond to Silva– at great personal cost to her.

Collaborating again with Director of Photograpy Roger Deakins, SKYFALL is quite simply the best looking Bond film ever made.  Enhancing the picture for IMAX presentation, Mendes and Deakins framed for both an Anamorphic presentation as well as for the un-cropped, full frame the digital format allows.  Indeed, SKYFALL is the first Bond film as well as Mendes’ first film to be shot entirely digitally, and the results are staggering.  Mendes cohesively blends his minimalist aesthetic with Bond’s genre trappings.  Making full use of the considerable resources at his disposal, Mendes utilizes a variety of dolly, crane, handheld, and Steadicam shots to tell the story.  Every frame is artfully composed, but never so much that it distracts from the action at hand.  Editing is much quicker than Mendes’ previous work, but that’s to be expected with the action genre in general.  I will say that it seemed a little over-cut at times, but for the most part Mendes strikes a great balance between the quick pace and the characterization.  Contrast is high, colors are deep and saturated, and everything has the raw, tactile feel of a gritty action film.  Combine that with some of the most memorable shots in the series’ history and you’ve got one hell of a visual presentation.

Thomas Newman returns to musically collaborate with Mendes, a pairing that kicks previous series composer David Arnold out of the proceedings.  Newman stays loyal to the source material, but finds plenty of opportunity to inject his own personality and style.  After two films of skirting around the classic Bond theme, Newman brings it roaring back in full at various points throughout the film.  It’s not a typical, Newman/minimalist score by any means– it’s filled to the brim with percussive blasts of horns, strings and drums.  The result is one of the most refreshing, invigorating Bond scores in recent years.  And no discussion of SKYFALL’s music would be complete without mentioning Adele’s stunning, throaty title track.  Harking back to the days of GOLDFINGER and Shirley Bassey, Adele’s performance is catchy, haunting, and harrowing all at once.

SKYFALL finds Mendes undoubtedly working at the top of his game.  He packs so many inspired setpieces into the story that it’s hard to keep track of it all.  I love the fact that much of the action takes place on Bond’s home turf, realized very literally in the film’s climactic moments.  The stand-out sequence for me was midway through the film, during M’s deposition to the British MP in which she defends her job amidst accusations that she and her agency are irrelevant and obsolete.  This is intercut with Silva, posing as a police officer, relentlessly barreling towards the courthouse to execute her, with Bond dashing through the streets in hot pursuit.  Mendes injects each big sequence with an extra layer that informs us of character and motivation.  He also infuses a shockingly realistic presence to the gunplay, in that each bullet has a weight and a consequence.  Much like the gunplay in 2002’s ROAD TO PERDITION, the gunshots are ear-splittingly loud and jarring.  Judging by the sound design alone, it’s evident that Mendes took great care in every element of the production.

With SKYFALL, Mendes proves he’s just as adept at rendering action as he is with drama and character, and he crafts one of the most emotionally charged and satisfying Bond films in many years.  The success of the film vaulted him into the echelon of the biggest and most-respected filmmakers in Hollywood.  Not many directors can lay claim to being an Oscar winner and a blockbuster film director, so he’ll have his pick of projects for years to come.

Looking over the course of his development, I see a supremely confident director  who uses his background in the theater to bring a great deal of emotional impact to his work.  He began at the top, and has barely wavered in the years since his debut.  Mendes’ development as a filmmaker is similar to the character development in his best dramas- slow, subtle, and gradual, yet undeniably relentless and powerful.

SKYFALL is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via MGM.