“Skyfall” Review: Striking the perfect balance

In some ways, it would be difficult to screw up a movie like “Skyfall.” In the year of the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, anticipation is at a high, and the team-up of Daniel Craig’s Bond and Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes sounded like a safe bet from the very beginning. But, a disappointing 22nd entry and a long hiatus cast doubt on the project. Thankfully, the filmmakers have done so much more than not screw up: they’ve created one of the best Bond films in the franchise’s storied history.

One of the most impressive things about “Skyfall” is how comprehensible the plot is. It may sound like an odd thing to compliment, but, after one too many plot twists in “Casino Royale” and the utter incomprehensibility of “Quantum of Solace,” the fact that this film maintains an interesting plot throughout is no small feat.

An insider has infiltrated MI6’s security system and is now killing off and revealing the name of secret agents. Bond, naturally, is tasked with tracking down the killer and dispensing him with his signature brand of stylish justice. In the meantime, MI6 is forced to defend itself from the British government, which accuses the program of irrelevancy. The film is much more focused on both Bond’s motivations and M’s (Judi Dench) back story. Rather than a demanding mother, M is finally presented as a well-rounded character with complex motivations and history. Dench has fully embodied the role, and has never been better.

Speaking of interesting characters and top-of-the-game acting, Javier Bardem’s Silva easily qualifies as one of the best baddies in Bond history, up there with Dr. No and Goldfinger. Silva embodies all that makes a good Bond villain: complex motivations, interesting banter and all-around viciousness. If his garish blonde hairpiece is any indication, Bardem’s performance is every bit as good as his Oscar-winning performance in “No Country for Old Men,” (which, famously, featured an equally-bad wig). Don’t be surprised if Bardem’s name is mentioned around Oscar season again (although, a Bond movie may be too “mainstream” to receive that kind of attention, which is a shame).

One area the film should have no hesitation in picking up a nomination for is the cinematography. “Skyfall” is one of the best-looking films of all time, bar none. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference effective lighting makes. From the opening shot of Bond as a shadowy stick figure to an absolutely stunning fist fight in a brightly-lit Shanghai skyscraper, veteran Director of Photography Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,”) interplay of light and shadow is a constant visual delight.

As the plot progresses and the audience becomes wrapped up in the characters, one thing is abundantly clear: “Skyfall” really feels like a Bond movie. As good as Craig’s previous outings were, they still felt like experiments in search of the Bond “formula.” Here, Mendes and crew have found it. Part of that has to do with Craig, who fully embodies the unlikely role of an aging Bond facing irrelevancy (a refreshing twist on the character). Beyond that, all the references, from the classic Bond theme to the various gadgets (courtesy of a great new Q, played by Ben Whishaw), reveal the filmmakers’ desire to allude to Bond’s past while still paving the way for the franchise’s future.

After just two movies, Craig’s Bond was starting to feel a bit stale. I didn’t think it was possible, but “Skyfall” reinvigorates the franchise. It’s intense, funny, gorgeous to look at, and a complete blast from start to finish. In a season of dreary Oscar-bait, it’s a jolt to the senses that you’ll want to see again as soon as it’s over. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 50 years of Bond, and I can’t imagine anyone, Bond savant or not, walking away disappointed.