Skyfall soars above expectations

Nothing hurts more than hearing you’ve done a bad job. When disappointment stops stinging, there comes a resolve to make up for it. It’s all the stronger when you’re putting James Bond into theaters.

If you take a step back to look at the magnitude of Skyfall, it isn’t hard to see how much depended on it. In the wake of Bond’s unpopular Quantum of Solace, MGM fell into bankruptcy; “Bond 23” not only needed to make up for lost profit, it had to save the franchise on its own. A respected director in Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead) and a talented (third, counting longtime Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) screenwriter in John Logan (The Aviator, Rango), however, were only investments. The payoff is what matters.

Thus, the stops are pulled. 007 chases an assassin on a motorcycle along the roof of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. He drives a backhoe across a few Volkswagens on a moving train. He falls off a very high bridge. Adele sings. Maybe ten minutes have elapsed since the movie began. Set piece after set piece shakes the film throughout its entire 2+ hour runtime. Antiquity being a bit of a theme, Daniel Craig deliberately shows his age in Skyfall, and it’s no wonder given the superhuman feats of cool the film uses to outdo its predecessors. He’s as good as he gets here, reigning in the smolder, brutality and smarts that define his Bond to a perfect balance. We come to depend on him, our stability through the enormous action, which only escalates from the turbulent open.

Meanwhile, as M, Judi Dench performs just as impressively. Recent installments have given M a much bigger role, making her, ironically, the most important woman in Bond’s life. Against them both is Skyfall’s much-needed “Bond villain,” a quite disturbing Javier Bardem. He very, very likely outdoes his nightmarish turn in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and that’s said without exaggeration (really). One might worry that Hollywood is typecasting Bardem, but watching the psychopaths he brings to life is really too enjoyable for anyone to care. Bardem’s obvious commitment gives Skyfall something that newer Bonds have now obviously been missing.

Visually, Skyfall honors its globetrotting protagonist with a nearly infinite palate of stunning set design and cinematography, giving each location a distinct feel, like different movements in a symphony (Thomas Newman, by the way, has to be the most versatile composer in Hollywood). LED’s shimmer blue in Shanghai; paper lanterns flicker red in Macau. Following Bond around the world hooks us into his senses. Skyfall seems like the first time we can almost get a feel of what being Bond entails.

More comes with that, certainly. Skyfall deals with crisis on a much greater scale than usual and we sometimes worry if it’s too much for our 007. At the same time, however, he seems to be settling in. Q comes back. The Aston Martin has machine guns. Skyfall both nods to the fifty years of Bonds it’s succeeded and makes itself cozy as the new carrier of the franchise. Before the credits roll, “James Bond will return” flashes as usual; never before has it been so obvious.

It’s never been so exciting, either. Given what Skyfall offers, Bond couldn’t be headed in a better direction. Still, it’s a shame so much effort had to go into it. There’s always the possibility that if fans had been easier on Quantum, Skyfall might not have brought such spectacle to make up for it. If the franchise can take this second chance and outdo itself again (it won’t be easy), then it’s safe to say that Bond is back.