In taking the reins of the beloved James Bond franchise, Sam Mendes has finally found the proper vehicle for his showy-but-emotionally-vapid filmmaking style. I’ve always found his work—American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road in particular—to be technically impeccable, but completely lacking in any genuine soul: the picture-perfect houses, coiffed hair, and exquisitely tailored suits served to cover up paper-thin characters with little in the way of substance. And his more free-wheeling pictures (relatively, anyway), Jarhead and Away We Go, highlighted his limitations as a director: while each had their strong points, Mendes was obviously uncomfortable with material that wasn’t straight-forward and drawn with clean lines. It’s always been clear to me that Mendes needed a platform better suited to his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses (some, including those on the Oscar committee, might quibble, but who needs them, anyway?)
Now here strides James Bond (Daniel Craig) into Mendes’ world, ruthless, suave, and single-minded in focus…and voila! We have a match! Skyfall is wildly entertaining and cool, its world full of gorgeous evenings, penthouses, casinos, alcohol, and swirling lights. The excitement abounds. The patented Bond opening scene (not the credit sequence, which is marvelous in its own right), much of it atop a moving train; several smooth-meets-deliriously-mad encounters between Bond and the unhinged Silva (Javier Bardem, natch); and, of particular note, a shootout high up in the China night that’s simultaneously smooth as silk and electrifying. Skyfall flows easily, without hitches or abrupt, awkward moments. Crisp colors, sexy women, and cinematography that evoke Blade Runner and Tron: Legacy without departing from Mendes’ visual palate highlight why Skyfall fits Mendes like a glove.
The acting, led by the perfect nemeses Craig and Bardem—who channels his Anton Chigurh to full effect—is universally excellent. Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, and the precocious Ben Whishaw as the brainy Q offer outstanding support to the stars. And Adele’s much-balleyhooed title song simply must be mentioned in any write-up, as its beauty is matched only by its appropriateness as a Bond theme. And with a climactic shootout that’s simultaneously terse and touching—what IS Skyfall?—Mendes finally manages to inject some genuine heart into his work. Surprising and perhaps difficult to predict when the project was announced, but true nonetheless. Skyfall epitomizes what a Bond movie should be, and its director, for once, justifiably deserves much of the credit.