1. Skyfall Succeeds on Daniel Craig's Back
Sloppy and inconsistently-paced, Skyfall seems poised to go the way of Die Another Day, but like a true MI6 agent, Daniel Craig saves the film from certain doom. This time, Craig's co-stars all play the villain, each conniving to see the latest Bond film self-destruct. There's Judi Dench (far too serious in a film this fun), Naomie Harris (overacting, hollow, uninteresting), Ralph Fiennes (just go back to playing Voldemort), and Javier Bardem (a dark past pretends to be a strong performance). Mercifully, Craig himself delivers a performance laced with nuance and purpose. He may appear haggard, but his blazing blue eyes always sparkle with a license to kill. Bond is back, even if nobody else is.
2. Skyfall Succeeds Despite Daniel Craig
Swift and tightly directed, Skyfall seems poised to become the next Goldfinger, but like a clumsy, villainous henchman, Daniel Craig nearly ruins everything. This time, Craig's co-stars all sparkle, each smarter, smoother, and slyer than the last. There's Judi Dench (captivating, fierce), Naomie Harris (crafty, mysterious), Ralph Fiennes (good to see him playing someone other than Voldemort), and Javier Bardem (a dark past enhances an already strong performance). Regrettably, Craig himself delivers a performance laced with obtuse expressions and general laziness. He appears haggard, and that's probably because he is. Those soft blue eyes seem to have lost all the blaze from Casino Royale. Don't believe the hype: Bond isn't back.
3. Finally, M Gets Time to Shine
Judi Dench has always been Bond's greatest asset, both for the fictional British agent and the series' success at the box office. In Skyfall, Dench finally receives the screen time she deserves, a crucial cog in the film's deliberate, clocklike plot. Tapping her extensive stage experience, she brings a rugged intensity that commands our attention, a compelling compliment to Craig's detached, calm demeanor. Late in the film, as Dench recites Tennyson's "Ulysses," time itself seems to stop. Few can summon gravitas like Dench, and no one can do it as effortlessly. A cinematic revelation.
4. Skyfall: Too much M
Judi Dench has always caused Bond the most grief, both through demanding too much of the fictional British agent and confusing moviegoers at the real-life box office. In Skyfall, Dench receives far more screen time than she deserves, a bothersome distraction in a cumbersome, meandering plot. Tapping her extensive stage experience, Dench doesn't recognize the different demands of the silver screen, proving a bizarre complement to Craig's sleek, polished veneer (much better suited to movies). Late in the film, Dench recites Tennyson's "Ulysses" and time itself seems to stop. Few can make a Bond movie drag like Dench; no one can do it as completely. A cinematic bore.
5. Same Old Bond
Despite the fresh faces (Ben Wishaw, Q; Naomie Harris, Eve), Bond has never seemed so old. In Skyfall, Daniel Craig's slouched, broken posture might be a part of the plot, but it's also emblematic of the series as a whole. What once towered as gold-fingered standard among action films has been exposed for what it truly is: a sneakily chauvinistic celebration of guns, sex, and perfect jawlines. The women may be smarter, the body counts may be lower, but Hollywood's cheap attempt to make an aging series relevant ends up more desperate than a Bond villain's final plea. Enough with the same old tropes: maybe it's time Bond ordered a rum and coke.
6. All New Bond
With fresh faces (Ben Wishaw, Q; Naomie Harris, Eve), Bond has never seemed so alive. In Skyfall, Daniel Craig's rejuvenation after a reclusive hiatus might be part of the plot, but it's also emblematic of the series as a whole. What temporarily sagged under the bland jokes and saccharine smiles of Pierce Brosnan has finally returned to what it truly is: a sneakily classy celebration of country, loyalty, and perfect jawlines. The women are smarter, the body counts lower, and the plot more devious than a Bond villain's wildest scheme. Even the same old tropes feel fresh; next time, I'm getting a Bond martini instead of a rum and coke.
7. Skyfall: Nothing to Fight For
Though Skyfall has nearly everything you'd want in an action film—a compelling hero (Daniel Craig), a delicious villain (Javier Bardem), a snappy plot—the film lacks one critical ingredient: high stakes. Bond normally holds the fate of the human race in his custom-tailored chest pocket; here he holds the fate of a bruised shoulder. He won't be saving the world; he'll be saving a farm. The San Diego Zoo would applaud. With such unbelievable on-screen exploits, action movies must splurge on stakes to earn viewers' attention. But by the end of Skyfall, we not only don't believe it…we just don't care.
8. Skyfall: Something Worth Fighting For
Though Skyfall boasts many attributes atypical of action films—a (surprisingly!) compelling hero (Daniel Craig), a delectable villain (Javier Bardem), a logical plot—the film's greatest triumph might creep up on you: believable stakes. Bond typically holds the fate of humanity on his broad, immaculate shoulders; here he nurses the worn-down shoulders of old-age. Instead of saving the world (yawn), he saves a relic of his past (clever). The National Genealogical Society would applaud. With such unbelievable on-screen exploits, action movies often lose their audience on equally preposterous plot lines. By the end of Skyfall, we not only believe in Bond…we care about him too.
9. Bond Gets Technical
Just when you thought Bond was getting too old for the smartphone-crazed, app-driven 21st century, along comes Skyfall, an action film with technology that (surprise!) actually makes sense. When Bond (Daniel Craig) first meets the new, younger version of Q (Ben Winshaw), both he and the viewing audience wonder whether a gadget will top Die Another Day's outrageous invisible car. Instead, Q simply hands the MI6 agent a small pistol and routine tracking device. "What did you expect, an exploding pen?" Q says, his eyes sparkling. It's the rare case where a film purposely underwhelms us, and cleverest of all, succeeds.
10. Skyfall: Technically Incorrect
Just when you thought Bond had sensibly pivoted to the tablet-obsessed, web-browsing 21st century, along comes Skyfall, another action film with technology that (surprise!) makes no sense. As Bond (Daniel Craig) corresponds with the new, younger version of Q (Ben Winshaw), 007 fans everywhere bite their nails: will the characters describe legitimate computer hacking, or reproduce the absurdity that was Die Another Day's invisible car? Regrettably, Q's early charm soon devolves into incomprehensible blather about leaving an electronic, geographic trail (as opposed to using a routine tracking device). What did we expect, a proper technical explanation? Sigh. It's the standard case where a film can't even get simple tech right, but worst of all, still tries.
11. Skyfall: Too Much Christopher Nolan
There's no doubt Christopher Nolan has revolutionized cinema (The Prestige, Inception, Batman). But must every modern action film ape his work so shamelessly? Skyfall incorporates it all: the dark, edgy tone; the jaded hero; the faux-profound nod to a haunted past. Granted, good filmmakers mix and match the techniques of their predecessors, but the best add a twist of their own originality. With Skyfall, director Sam Mendes proves decidedly unlike Bond, playing it safe, too afraid to leave behind his cinematic rulebook.
12. Skyfall: Not Enough Christopher Nolan
There's no doubt Christopher Nolan has revolutionized cinema (The Prestige, Inception, Batman). Every modern action film should emulate his work courageously. Regrettably, Skyfall fails to incorporate it all: there's the edgy tone and jaded hero, but no shameless, mysterious ending where you can't tell what actually happened. Good filmmakers mix and match the techniques of their predecessors; they don't add a twist of their own originality. With Skyfall, director Sam Mendes takes too many risks, a little like Bond himself. Unlike Bond, however, Mendes may need to re-read his cinematic rulebook.
Ben's own take?
#3 = 100% Love Judi.
#8 = 80% "The world is going to end!" has been done too many times.
#6 = 60% Nice rebound from Quantum of Solace.
#9 = 50%
#10 = 50% Yes: somehow, I half-agree with both.
#11 = 30% 20 minutes in, as Bond slouches at a bar taking shots, I thought I'd accidentally flipped to The Dark Knight. "What's that? Our hero is jaded and thinks the world no longer needs him? Tell me more!"