After seeing “Skyfall”—the 23rd film in the James Bond franchise—I’m not inclined to argue who’s the best Bond, who’s the ultimate Bond villain, who’s the best Bond “girl,” or who sang the best Bond song. The series, which began in 1962 with “Dr. No,” is full of contenders, a number of them more memorable than what we see here. But nobody does it collectively better—especially when you factor in the visual effects and BAFTA-winning music—than director Sam Mendes and his “Skyfall” cast and crew.
With all the hoopla surrounding the release of the “Bond 50” Blu-ray collection, the pressure was on to deliver a new Bond film worthy of the franchise. “Skyfall” is that and more. It will probably come up every time fans debate which Bond film (or Bond) is the best, and all but erases the misstep of Daniel Craig’s second outing.
As the 007 “license to kill” was passed from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton in 1987, then from Dalton to Pierce Brosnan eight years later and on to Craig in 2006, the Bond franchise gradually became so obsessed with violence, gritty realism, and summer blockbuster special effects that they lost the waggling tongues in cheek that made the first 13 films such delicious fun.
For that we can blame “A View to a Kill.” Moore’s final film as Bond was just plain silly. There’s no other way to put it, although words like “preposterous” and “over-the-top” also come to mind. At the time it made sense that Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli’s Eon Productions would go the opposite direction to try to right the ship. With “Skyfall,” they’ve made another correction.
After the mind-numbing narratives and hyper-seriousness of “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace,” Craig’s third outing is a nostalgic return to the old Bond films in which a strong-but-simple plot mattered as much (if not more) than the explosions, stunts, and special effects. Don’t get me wrong. There are a number of big-concept effects here. But there are also enough cheeky moments and one-liners to make you recall those early outings. And frankly, it’s refreshing to have the filmmakers put the fun back into Bond films. Example? As Bond trots out the old Aston Martin and chases off with M in the passenger seat, his boss is griping up a storm and he asks, “Are you going to complain the whole way?” Noticing his hand on that old familiar button she quips, “Oh, go on, eject me. See if I care.”
“Skyfall” gets off to a fast start. In fact, I can’t recall when I’ve enjoyed a pre-title sequence more. When you have Bond engaged in a motorcycle chase on the apex of Istanbul rooftops, you’re riding along on the edge of campiness and exhilarating action. One false move and you fall one way or the other. But that opening sequence sets the tone and announces that this group is willing to take the risk. From that stylish-yet-fun opening, the narrative follows a simple trajectory: a cyberterrorist has hacked into MI6 headquarters and detonated a bomb. He’s also stolen a list of operatives and threatens to expose five a week. It’s up to Bond to stop him.
“Skyfall” runs 143 minutes—more than a half hour longer than “Quantum of Solace”—but it never feels overly long. Credit not just solid pacing, but interesting visuals, action, writing, plotting . . . the whole package. Distinctive minor characters add to the fun, with Naomie Harris so engaging you wish she had more airtime.
Javier Bardem turns in a great performance as the villain with a vendetta. But if I have one nit to pick, it’s that this villain, by design, isn’t quite frightening or campy enough—like the good old Bond days when you had henchmen like Jaws or Odd Job stealing the scenes (and chewing the scenery). A Bond girl-in-distress (Bérénice Marlohe) warns that he’s super scary, but what follows doesn’t exactly match up. He’s dangerous, for sure, but while he could use some dental work he’s hardly monstrous. Still, the writers had some fun with him in a scene that will remind viewers of a famous one in “Goldfinger.” It’s a clever allusion, to be sure, and much more subtle than Bond breaking out the old Aston Martin or the new Q (Ben Whishaw) furnishing him with an old-school Walther PK, but reminding the agent that he can do more harm with his computer than Bond can with that gun.
The theme here is Bond’s age, which comes into question even as the entire intelligence operation is accused of being mired in hopelessly out-of-date Cold War mindsets and methodologies. M (Judi Dench) and Bond have to prove they’re still relevant—a curious drum to beat, considering Craig is signed on for five more Bond films. But it resonates with a franchise hoping to reposition itself in a crowded action-film market and also prove it’s also still relevant. In that, it’s highly successful.
Perfection. It’s early to be saying this, but with impeccable visuals and sound, “Skyfall” is one of the year’s best Blu-ray releases. And I’m saying this well knowing that some fans have been arguing in various forums about whether the film ought to have been presented in a 1.90:1 IMAX format, as it appeared in many theaters. But I think this release is so great-looking it makes the “controversy” a non-issue. The AVC/MPEG-4 encode is wonderfully precise, accurately presenting all the incredible detail—even on deep-focus shots—and conveying the rich textures and colors of each location. The Bond films have always enchanted with their exotic locales, and whether it’s Turkey, Scotland, Shanghai, or Macau, Roger Deakins’ spectacular cinematography is perfectly presented for home video, even in 2.40:1 aspect ratio (rather than the theatrical 2.35:1).
The audio transfer (@23MBPS) is also stunning. In fact, I had to check the box at one point, because the audio is so immersive that it felt like 7.1 instead of the featured DTS-HD 5.1. The rear speakers don’t just get involved—they project the sound so that it has a real presence in the room. The reproduction is so faithful that even the silences have the clarity of real life. I know. In an action film, who cares about silences? Well, those are the only moments we have to evaluate the clarity of the audio, and it’s superb. But when those helicopter blades get to whirring, you not only hear it with you-are-there immediacy, you can feel it. The sub really gets engaged, but never overdoes it. There’s resonance and rumble, not rattle.
Additional audio options are an English Descriptive, French, or Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
This combo pack also comes with a DVD, Digital Copy, and UV Copy.
You get a sense of just how precise Mendes is when you give his commentary track a listen. He’s a detail person of the last order, and walks you through a meticulous scene-by-scene construction of the film. It’s fascinating, but at some point, unless you’re a film student, it can start to feel as exhausting as it is exhaustive. It’s a fine commentary, though—better than the one with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and their production designer, Dennis Gassner (who’s on his second Bond film). Despite Gassner’s chattiness, there’s still more dead air on this track that you get with Mendes (whose stamina is astounding). They’re clearly pleased with the final product, but don’t tip their hand for future projects (as fans might hope).
You get a taste of that in “Shooting Bond,” a brand-new 13-part documentary with spoilers that’s presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and collectively runs just under an hour. All the bases are covered: Opening sequence, title sequence, 007, Q, DB5, Women, Villains, Action, Locations, Music, End Sequence, M, and The Future. It’s the usual blend of talking heads and footage, but well done and worth watching.
Apart from that, the only other bonus features are a trailer, promo spot, and a four-minute clip of the world premier at Royal Albert Hall with the stars chatting briefly on-camera.
“Skyfall” is Craig’s best Bond film, and the best Bond film of the last three decades. I can see why it earned the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film. Heck, it ought to win a prize just for reconnecting with what made the franchise successful in the first place, while also repositioning the Bond films for the ‘10s.