#2 in my Ranking of the James Bond Franchise.
I hadn’t seen Quantum of Solace since it was in theaters, and so I was actually rather shocked to discover that Skyfall is almost a reboot of the Craig Bond films. It feels like a least a decade has passed, maybe even two, since the last film. That Bond has gone from a new 00 agent on his first pair of missions in his early 30s to a well-worn veteran in his forties and maybe even early fifties. It almost feels like between Quantum and Skyfall, Bond went off and did all of the adventures we saw in the twenty films previously, giving him the grizzled look of a man who’s been doing this spy thing for far too long. It’s a bit subtle, but it’s necessary based on the theme of the film.
The film is chock full of ideas on history and the past, especially as it relates to our sins and the sins of our parents. In a way, Skyfall is actually more M’s story than Bond’s. The villain, Silva, is concerned with M’s treatment of him years back, and Bond is really just the tool that M uses to try and prevent that meeting. That doesn’t mean that Bond has nothing to do, he does, it’s just that the focus is very much on M, her sins, and her relationship to Silva. Where Bond comes in is as a parallel (or, as the opening credits shows, Silva is Bond’s shadow) and brother to Silva with M as their mother.
You see, James Bond is old. He’s a physical wreck and the opening sequence that sees him shot from the top of a moving train and falling into water hundreds of feet below made him lose a step. I mean, that would kill anyone else, but this is James Bond we’re talking about. He has to deal with the fact that he left a fellow agent to die in the opening moments of the film, at the orders of M, in a chase that ultimately failed. M failed him, the agent, and Silva. He has every reason to be angry with M in the same way that Silva is, but he’s not. He’s not going to go rogue, he’s going to go back to MI6 when England needs him. He’ll be grumpy about it, but he’s there because it’s his duty. M is essentially his mother, and the British Secret Service is essentially his family.
Silva, though, takes his own betrayal much harder. Disfigured from the cyanide capsule he took upon being captured and tortured, he holds a preternatural obsession regarding M and his need to destroy her. Everything he’s built, including an implied criminal organization, a base on an abandoned industrial island, and a reputation was built for the purpose of getting to M. He’s also that kind of movie brilliant where he can devise a plan of such intricacy involving so many moving parts that will get him from MI6’s secret alternate hideout (which he would know about being a former agent) through the tube system to where M is giving testimony to members of Parliament.
Bond’s mission starts when Silva blows up MI6 and he comes back from hiding to report to M and receive orders in service of England. He needs to track down Silva and bring him in. What follows is a recognizable Bond globe-trotting adventure, but everything gets turned upside down. Instead of going further from home base, Bond ends up having to retreat all the way back to his ancestral home in Scotland. There is an attractive young woman, a henchwoman of Silva, who meets a typical henchwoman Bond girl end and dies, but the central Bond girl is actually M. The intricately built final lair doesn’t belong to the antagonist, but to Bond himself. It’s an inversion of the typical Bond adventure, and it’s about Bond retreating into his past to find a way to fight for his future.
Bond pulls the original Aston Martin from Goldfinger out of MI6’s storage. He rigs the house with explosives and traps while starting the fight with a pair of double barrel shotguns in the face of helicopters and automatic weapons. He’s the sinewy muscle of the past up against the less physical and more brainy manifestation of one version of the future in Silva. Even Q only gives Bond a small radio transmitter and a gun. The year of the exploding pen is behind them, it’s up to Bond to get out of his situations on his own.
The resolution of the plot that pits Silva against Bond with M as the target is probably the best a Bond movie has ever looked. The movie looks great from beginning to end, but the use of color and shadow by Roger Deakins is fantastic. I know it’s kind of trendy to heap praise on Deakins, but the man deserves it. He can bring out color and contrast it with shadow like no one else. The confrontation between all three at the end is the resolution of the theme running through the film of how to deal with the sins of the past. Silva represents endless vengeance against the past while Bond represents moving on. There’s nothing Bond can do about the sins M visited down upon him, so he has chosen to make the best of it by doing his duty. Silva couldn’t accept that and Bond makes him pay.
This movie is really smart, inverting so many of the Bond conventions on their heads while providing some of the most beautiful looking action the franchise has ever seen. Acting is top notch all around with a special mention to Javier Bardem who plays Silva really well. Mendes came to this project as an obvious fan of the franchise, and he applied every narrative and cinematic trick he had learned in his time as a filmmaker to the series he loved, making one of the best entries in the entire franchise.