Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky and tell the sky


Three films deep into Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond, and the reboot of the character that started with 2006’s Casino Royale is totally complete. In Skyfall there are hints of the character as he was previously conceived–in the brief flirtatious banter between him and a fellow agent named in the credits as Eve (Naomie Harris), in the sturdy ease with global travel, in the proclivity for martinis prepared in a certain way–but this is largely a Bond that is darker, grimmer, grittier. The screenplay credited to Neil Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan even finds a way to slice off some of his superhero capabilities as a spy, contriving a downtime marked by haunting animosity towards his superiors and a softening of his skills. When he strides into the main adventure of the film, it’s with a little less swagger and a touch of hesitancy, a worry about whether or not he’s fully up to the responsibilities of his license to kill. He’s a master spy for the 21st century, shaped as much by those who could claim other screens in the multiplex (Jason Bourne, maybe, or the gray souls of a John le Carré adaptation) than the fifty years of sensational silver screen adventures that have come before. That’s not necessarily good or bad, but it is that state of things. Pussy Galore’s not coming back any time soon, kids.

Adding to the aspirational prestige of Skyfall is the fact that it’s been handed to Sam Mendes to direct, the first time a helmer with an Oscar on his shelf has been given control of Agent 007. Mendes has a bad habit of letting his films get swamped with stultifying pomposity, but working in pure genre fare, an unabashed action-thriller, is a surprisingly fine match. Just as intentionally loosening up with his previous feature, the raggedy and appealing Away We Go, brought out different, shrewder insight in his filmmaking, so to does tackling a movie that is primarily grounded in pure entertainment make him unlock different skills as a creator. The vaunted (and occasionally derided) precision Mendes brings to constructing his images works marvelously for the action sequences, making them sharp and lucidly delivered, providing clarity as to what’s going on, even when the hand-to-hand combat is largely rendered in silhouette. The intense control Mendes has as a filmmaker has found its ideal place.

I don’t know if Mendes thought he was making the best Bond film ever, but I’m damn sure he knew he was making the prettiest. Working with cinematographer Roger Deakins (who’d previously shot his Jarhead and Revolutionary Road), Mendes makes a film that is absolutely stunning, awash in color and ravishing light that lends each scene its own overwhelming sense of mood. The entire extended last sequence, which gives the film its title, is a particular tour de force for Deakins, delivering a fairly standard progression of action mayhem and stern face-offs in roughly the visual manner that might be employed by Terrence Malick after shotgunning a Red Bull. There was little narrative or emotional tension to the scenes for me, but I adored looking at it.

The divide between visuals and story is present throughout. The plot is fine, I suppose, hinging on a list of undercover agents that is introduced, established as a matter of grave consequence and pretty much ignored after that. The novelty of his humorless grimace completely worn off, Daniel Craig does nothing notable with the role of Bond, and the most overqualified members of the cast–Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney–give solid, perfunctory performances. Javier Bardem gets a little more mileage out of his turn as the villain, but that’s largely because he seems engaged by the idea of doing whatever the hell he wants with the role, probably in the knowledge that Mendes is more interested in consulting with Deakins on the best way to capture a beam of light breaking the frame behind him as he smirks and preens.

Skyfall is probably the best of the films since Craig came aboard to help in the process of tuning up the franchise, but it still sometimes feels like it’s comprised of a few too many borrowed parts, notions gently pilfered from other contemporary offerings. Sure, it looks like nothing we’ve quite seen in this genre, but looks can be deceiving. Like some of the “Bond girls” of the past, it’s gorgeous without really being distinctive. Something tells me that most of those involved with Skyfall are satisfied with that trade-off. In this instance, so am I.

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