A rumpled face, already wrinkled and further creased by one suspiciously narrowed eye. The other eye is wide open in hyper-vigilance. A countenance that speaks to confidence, endurance, playfulness and no small amount of dangerousness.
Amid its sundry and spectacular thrills, “Skyfall” offers plenty of opportunities to gaze upon Daniel Craig’s endlessly expressive visage. And whether explicit or barely perceptible, his affectations aggressively affirm his status as a new master of 007.
But while the description above certainly applies to Craig’s take on Bond, it’s specifically about a bulldog. Not a real one, either, but a tchotchke on a character’s desk — cloaked by a Union Jack, collared by Her Majesty, conspicuously unleashed.
“Skyfall’s” first shot is so wobbly you’ll swear the projector is out of whack. But the film’s symbolic focus couldn’t be clearer by its end— embodied by this desk decoration and the message it sends to the hands in which it lands in the resolution.
Craig has always balanced suavity with canine ferocity — literally microchipped in “Casino Royale” and straying from home only to return in “Quantum of Solace.” So the dog is fitting symbolism, especially for a mission that will pit him and his master against a feline foe as proud to purr and preen as he is quick to claw and bite.
Like “The Dark Knight” before it, “Skyfall” prioritizes the psychological underpinnings of good and evil over pure pyrotechnics while excelling at both. Without compromising scope, director Sam Mendes introduces an intimacy to 007’s world, borrowed from the stage where Mendes got his start. Some moments here exceed close-ups into an uncomfortable invasion of physical space.
Plus, can the Academy just hand over its cinematography Oscar to Roger Deakins now? No Bond film has ever been so luminously, stunningly shot. A silhouetted fight in Shanghai feels like an opening-credits moment yanked into real, vivid life. And Deakins complements Dennis Gassner’s production design in the greatest possible way — evoking the mood of a place to create palpable connections. You can feel the punishing sun of Turkey, the humidity of Macau, the sterility of Shanghai, the mist of Scotland. Together, they lend “Skyfall” a uniquely organic touch of artistry.
Yes, “Skyfall’s” third act seems drawn out by just a very, very few minutes and dances on the wire of unnecessary origin-story territory. (James Bond doesn’t need to be this much like Bruce Wayne, after all.) Then again, “Royale” felt the same way at first blush. But even with those minor quibbles, “Skyfall” is easily one of the best Bond movies ever.
Certainly unassailable is the supremacy of its opening sequence, sending cars, SUVs, dirt bikes, train cars and excavators pell-mell before vicious hand-to-hand combat atop the train.
In a franchise of furious introductions, this trumps them all. Bringing back the second-unit crew and editor from “Royale,” it stands alongside that film’s parkour sequence as pure showmanship. But it also reinforces an integral sentiment about 007: Everything, even an excavator, is a weapon. Sometimes a gun is least effective.
It certainly seems that way when Bond unexpectedly takes a bullet atop the train — fired by MI6 ally Eve (Naomie Harris) on order of their superior, M (Judi Dench), to protect digital documents that could out spies embedded in terrorist groups. And after a precipitous fall, Bond is missing and presumed dead.
Fret not about the familiarity of merely updating “Mission: Impossible’s” NOC List narrative for the YouTube era. That part of the plot is purely perfunctory for anyone not named Bond, M or Silva (Javier Bardem), the instant-classic villain of “Skyfall.”
A cyber-terrorist who has acquired the list, Silva also hacks MI6’s system to trigger an explosion in M’s office — to which she’s meant to bear witness, not fall prey.
Meanwhile, Bond has used the ruse of his death to more or less retire. But only for so long can he be entertained by dangerous bar bets involving scorpions. The sting is just not the same, and he’s eventually lured back by reports of the MI6 attack.
But at what capacity? These are no longer tremors and tingles of a man uncertain of his aptitude for this violence as he was in “Royale.” They are those of a warrior concerned that he’s lost the physical ability to do all that he knows. The salt-and-pepper stubble Craig sports for most of the first hour calls attention to 007’s skeletal, sunken blue eyes, which radiate as much doubt as determination. Not for nothing does Bond’s aim improve only as he advances on a paper target; this idea that only in striding toward death can he save necessary lives becomes a motif.
Plus, a fascinating word-association exercise is neither just a welcome return of wit to the series nor clever quips for screenwriters Robert Wade, Neal Purvis and John Logan. Bond’s answers are true, wounding revelations: “Heart?” “Target.” “Murder?” “Employment.” “M?” “Bitch.”
“What do you know about fear?,” 007 is asked later. “All there is,” he coolly replies. There’s a bit of bravado to the answer: He can instill it in others, but can he face it down within himself?
This notion of antiquation isn’t a new Bond theme. The wrinkle is how aggressively it’s twinned with M — who faces public excoriation and mandatory retirement for losing the list, at the behest of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
It’s further goosed by reimagining Q (Ben Whishaw) as a youngster whose intellectual antagonism of 007 propels many laugh-out-loud moments. But even he, in the spirit of these new Bond films acknowledging fallibility, makes a drastic rookie mistake later.
Ultimately, Silva tests both Bond and M’s limits. Thankfully, his intensely personal vendetta isn’t intertwined with some sort of attack on international infrastructure. In fact, he doesn’t even show up until the film’s more than halfway over. But oh, what an entrance he makes.
It’s an unforgettable, single-shot take — sauntering slowly toward Bond with an unnerving story about rats. Flamboyant and fey, Silva is equal parts Bardem’s own Anton Chigurh, Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley (from “Heat”) and Heath Ledger’s Joker. You’ve seen Silva’s second-act gambit in blockbusters before, but Bardem gives him disconcerting otherworldliness with lines like, “Life clung to me like a disease.”
Where Silva’s pursuit sends 007 and M, as well as the source of the film’s title, will be left unspoken here. But on the fronts of continuing the character and the franchise, “Skyfall” looks honorably into the past and creatively into the future — earning its invocation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” namely its last three words: “not to yield.”
To that end, Craig’s run as 007 has been as vigorously introspective as it has been profoundly exciting. And “Skyfall” certainly seems to complete a triptych of emotional tests for the rebooted Bond — trust and guts (“Royale”), vengeance and self-control (“Quantum”) and now loyalty and duty.
Without spoilers, “Skyfall’s” last moments and lines — cohesively reshuffling the deck both with a tipped cap to tradition and a clear eye on what’s next — suggest Bond has learned all he must to persevere. Forever will he carry these hard-learned lessons. But perhaps he can now go forth defined less by those he’s lost, more by those he could save, and have a little fun in the process.
The collar is loose. The leash is off. The dog is ready to hunt. And, for perhaps the first time, truly enjoy the thrill of the chase he can give.