Quantum of Solace left a bitter taste in many mouths, both casual and die-hard James Bond fans alike; the suave, storied spy had given into vengeance following the death of someone close to him, flinging him between exotic locations in a jerkily-edited blur of rage. Marc Forster's film felt organic in how it allowed a man like Bond to reach that mind-frame, sure, where his emotions cloud his judgment and detach him from personal connection, but this red-eyed loose cannon neglected to latch onto the stuff that distinguishes the character. When early details of the next film began to emerge, that perception didn't improve right away: Bond would swig beer instead of a martini, one of several product placement initiatives in the wake of stalled production, while certain returning characters would be spruced up for a modern era under the helm of American Beauty director Sam Mendes. Therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Skyfall's brisk momentum and inventive composition not only render a dazzling entry into the franchise, it also deftly lures 007 back into familiar territory.
Proof that Mendes has guided the franchise back on track can be found in the opening sequence, an enthralling blitz through Istanbul where Bond -- again played by a weathered, steely Daniel Craig -- and his temp field partner, Eve (Naomie Harris), hunt down a mark carrying a digital registry of undercover MI6 spies. After the chase goes awry, a botched operation under M's (Judi Dench) leadership that puts her under the scrutiny of government chairman Gareth Mallory (Ralph Feinnes), Bond is confronted with the possibility that his skills might be overburdened by his age and ailments, something he's forced to deal with once he learns of a terrorist attack in London. Soon after piecing together that the attack and agent-list theft are connected, 007 gathers his strength and begins the search for the organization's cyber-terrorist leader, Silva (Javier Bardem), in a cloak-and-dagger hunt against the clock that'll take him across Asia and London to preserve the integrity of MI6's operatives hanging in the balance.
One moment during that early Istanbul chase, a scene featured in the trailers, conveys how Skyfall assures those watching that Bond is back in full form: after a train car dismantles behind him, he coolly adjusts the cuffs of his shirt and presses forward. Mendes understands the character's essence that the audience finds compelling, a world of style, spirits, and tech that the British spy navigates in the shadows; yet, the direction here also enables him to cleanly mold this Bond to the rough-and-tumble spy that Martin Campbell established in Casino Royale. Bottles of Heineken and glasses of hard liquor drown him in his downtime, but that doesn't keep him from the opportunity to order his famous "shaken, not stirred" silver bullet while donning a tuxedo. Guns involving fingerprint recognition add a splash of tech whimsy, while an Asian-inspired, orange-hued den of gambling and seductive women (who's the "Bond girl" here, anyway?) perpetuates that familiar tone. Inch by inch, Mendes works the classics into the modernized Daniel Craig universe.
Interestingly, Skyfall works just as well independently as it does as a progression of James Bond's narrative, an intentional choice on Mendes' part. Part of what hampered Forster's entry in the series was how it carried over the events of Casino Royale and focused on personal vengeance, and how losing someone forced the newly-promoted agent into a volatile, melancholy mind-frame. Mendes also incorporates something of a stern pathos to Bond, yet it's not directly dependent on his past actions; he's a weather-beaten, flawed man of espionage who answers the call of duty through several modes of painkiller, whose obligation to country and his "handler" overcome his ailments and nondescript baggage. This is a comfortable arena for the Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road director, whose shrouded male protagonists often harbor secrets while under transition periods, and his experience shows in a Bond whose skillset conflicts with his years. Driven by a graceful evolution in Daniel Craig's persona, suave, stoic, and prickly at all the right moments, this brand of 007 is in top form here.
Mendes' signature method of storytelling, his methodical visual composition, also achieves the distinctive yet careful perspective that Skyfall needed following Quantum of Solace's erratic jostling. Through cinematographer Roger Deakins' lens, the bath of neon lights in Shanghai and the warm glow of a waterlocked casino in Macau lend it an artful edge; the duo incorporate moving, bright-blue digital signs on the sides of buildings as the background of a tense assassination sequence, then focus on free-floating lanterns, Asian architecture, and dragon statues for sheer exotic pleasure. While these flourishes invoke a bit of abstract vision, Mendes never loses focus on the core forward-moving momentum of the action itself, where each set piece -- motorcycles driving on rooftops, firefights in a city's ruins, sprints through underground London -- sustains a steady-handed demeanor. Skyfall keeps things relatively simple, focused on the proximity of people and the danger that looms amongst them, by sophisticatedly conveying the geography and logic of what's happening in fist fights and foot chases.
The action in Skyfall is, in a word, riveting, both because of its design and the threat driving it. Focused on anarchy in London that's driven by the plotting of a cyberterrorist, this was the second film of 2012 -- and arguably the more successful one -- that aimed to accomplish the confined terror of a city being dismantled from within, along with the dirty secrets of identity used as a bargaining chip. That tension is driven by Javier Barden's Silva, whose flamboyant manner and ruthlessness craft an intriguing villain specialized in the battleground of digital exploitation, a timely issue when considering the likes of WikiLeaks and transparency. And on top of that, there's a compelling anti-Bond element to Silva that gradually materializes, cycling back to James' tangled outlook. Any misgivings about the script written by Bond veterans Neil Pervis and Robert Wade, as well as The Last Samurai writer John Logan, will likely emerge over the similarities between the suspense beats of Silva's machinations with Christopher Nolan's comic-book franchise, despite more hardnosed execution here.
Skyfall's pace affords Mendes the opportunity to realize a pair of clever themes once all is said and done, both of which revolve around the concept of "returning to the basics". There's a line earlier in the film suggesting that even in an age dominated by a digital infrastructure, sometimes there's no escaping the things that must be done in an analog environment -- an idea that comes to fruition in the expanses of a misty Scottish countryside. On top of that, though, we're given a glimpse into the back-history of James Bond that's only been alluded to in text and vague mutterings with Vesper Lynd over wine in a train car, painting a vague portrait of the person who decided to leave his world behind in pursuit of one with little opportunity for identity and attachment. The two intertwine into a conclusion that hinges on classic ingenuity in a tech-based story (with a Peckinpah flair), underscoring the successes of Skyfall in a grand finale that'll convince those watching that the franchise has returned to its roots in a contemporary era, without losing that complex, rough-around-the-edges Bond.
Skyfall arrives from MGM in a two-disc offering -- Disc One being the Blu-ray; Disc Two the DVD/Digital Copy -- that effectively utilizes a minimal stock design to create a sleek presentation. The shot of Daniel Craig outstretched with pistol in-hand repeats on both the front cover and the inner discs, held by a standard Blu-ray case, as well as the cardboard slipcover on the outside. However, the outer case has a few subtle touches that add some interest: a clean matte finish covers all parts of the cover outside of Bond, who is instead coated in a sturdy high-gloss finish. Collectors might take issue with the fact that the Blu-ray disc isn't the exact same design as it appears in the 50th Anniversary collection (at least, as far as I can tell), but those out to enjoy this set on its own will be pleased with MGM's design flair.
Video and Audio:
This is one of those moments where I'd love to just type "damn-near flawless" and walk away from the keyboard. As if the Blu-ray presentation of the most-successful Bond film, released in the year of the character's 50th anniversary in cinema, was going to end up any differently: Skyfall's 2.39:1-framed 1080p transfer stands out as one of the most stunning, faithful, point-blank gorgeous HD treatments I've seen on the medium. I had the pleasure of seeing Deakins' digitally-shot cinematography in IMAX (at a director-approved aspect ratio), and the depth, clarity, and palette presentation here easily aligns with that experience. Rattling off all it s strengths would be difficult; the lightness and earthy textures in the Turkey-shot opening look phenomenal; the warm browns, oranges, and reds in Macau are inviting but contained as they're surrounded by vibrant lights; and the aggressive neon lights in Shanghai vividly burst, while respecting the shadow silhouettes of a fistfight. Compression smoothness, razor-sharp detail, respectful contrast balance ... yeah, the first digitally-shot Bond film looks awesome.
The audio design sounds about as exceptional, too, when encompassed in this 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. Admittedly, there are one or two middle-of-the-road elements: a gunshot here and a screeching wheel there deliver only "suitably aggressive" punches, but those few points are superseded by the crispness, clarity, and captivating aggression that drives everything else above and beyond the call of duty. Most of the explosions and artillery rounds assertively tap on the surround design, the ratatatat of high-performance machine guns expanding into the bass frequency with ease, while the zip of motorbike engines might cause a shiver or two to slip up the spine. Thomas Newman's score thumps and pulsates in ways familiar to both fans of the Bond franchise and those who've heard his work in Mendes' other films, all while keeping the dialogue -- Craig's rumble, Bardem's slightly higher-pitched tenor, Naomi Harris' lovely accent -- remarkably sharp. Don't let all the action distract from subtle elements, like the splash of liquor on concrete and the thump of circular-cut glass being removed. Simply brilliant, and it comes with tons of subtitle options.
An hour's worth of strong visual material comes later in the supplements, but it's hard to resist a Commentary with Sam Mendes when you're wanting to explore the content within his films. He's, as always, a great conversationalist in this track, speaking with enthusiasm and detail in a way that maintains interest from a general listener's perspective. He touches on shooting in Istanbul and maintaining the narrative of an action sequence, the parallels between the credit sequence and descending into the underworld, focusing very little on special effects and how that correlates with the character's do-it-naturally temperament, and the nature of Bond and how Mendes explores him in low-to-no dialogue scenes. He also touches on elements like shooting locations and the synergy between his and Deakins' creative perspectives, and it turns into a really strong track because of it. A second Commentary with Producers Barbara Broccoli, Michael Wilson, and Designer Dennis Gassner isn't quite as invigorated, yet the content they explore -- train models and water rapids, paintings used, getting copter shots in Shanghai and erecting sets/lighting for the Macau sequence -- are intriguing.
Broken into fourteen chapters, the Shooting Bond (59:24, HD) feature explores a wealth of similar behind-the-scenes components to those discussed in both commentaries, divvied up into fairly self-explanatory categories like "Villains", "Opening Sequence", and "Music". Each piece features focused interviews with Mendes and his cast/crew, showcasing production footage during stunts, during training sequences, and in the recording room with Thomas Newman's orchestra. The pieces lock together well enough -- some lasting longer than the typical running length, like the six-minute exploration of the villains, and others lasting a shorter period, like the minute-and-a-half bit on the Aston Martin DB5 -- coming together into an interesting slate of press-kit glimpses into sequences. Their brevity might work against them, but Mendes and the others get to the meat of the matter quickly in each one. Additionally, a nice glimpse at the Skyfall Premiere (4:28, HD) reveals Mendes' enthusiasm over the film's reception through red-carpet glitz, while a super-quick Sountrack Promotional Spot (:40, HD) does its job.
Finally, a Theatrical Trailer (2:31, HD) gets the mojo flowing right, though it might give just a bit much of the plot away.
Not even considering the predictable success at the box office, Skyfall ended up being one of 2012's pleasant bombshells by striking a blend between classic James Bond mannerisms, the post-Casino Royale reimagining of the character, and a contemporary look at how he operates under "reborn" conditions for MI6 -- and it ends up being almost a mini-reboot in the process. Sam Mendes brings his meticulous composition to the spy-thriller in an immensely engaging way, his tight composition and grasp on provocative internal emotion do wonders for this story of cloak-and-dagger villains who create anarchy at the flick of a wrist, a war fought by an ailing, windswept Bond who's got a mix of old and new tricks up his sleeve. This creates a bracing experience in the midst of the country-hopping, risk-taking, and bullet-dodging that one expects from this franchise, and it comes together into a polished and intelligent installment that does quite a bit of justice to the character with fifty years of cinematic experience under his belt. MGM's Blu-ray is, in a (hyphenated) word, reference-level, boasting an immaculate audiovisual property and a suitable string of commentaries and featurettes that make this one essential. DVDTalk Collector's Series.