"Sometimes the old ways are best."
When it comes to James Bond, the old ways can be a mixed bag. The series always had a tendency to run campy when given the chance. People normally blamed it on Roger Moore, but the truth is that tongue-in-cheek Bond can be tracked back all the way to 'Goldfinger'. The level of seriousness has waxed and waned over the course of the series, but by the time of Pierce Brosnan's final outing, 'Die Another Day', it was clear that EON needed to take their property more seriously. Thankfully they did, and with Daniel Craig on board as 007, they pulled a complete 180. Gone were the gadgets, the ridiculous villains, and most of the jokes. And as great as 'Casino Royale' was, there was a sense of something missing (and the less we say about the muddled, at times disastrously undercooked 'Quantum of Solace' the better).
That something has finally been returned in 'Skyfall', the latest and so far greatest of Craig's outings as the iconic secret agent. The film opens with Bond chasing after a hard drive that contains the names of covert agents around the world. Accidentally shot by his partner, Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond falls off a moving train and disappears, presumed dead. Meanwhile, M (Judi Dench) is being forcibly retired as a result of her screw-up, but not before a mysterious opponent hacks her computer and blows up her office. Languishing in exile, Bond hears of the attack and returns. Despite not being wholly ready for the mission in front of him, M sends him out to find the villain pulling the strings.
'Skyfall' is about Bond facing his legacy, both as a character and a franchise. Given that 'Casino Royale' was a reboot, it seems a bit early to be playing the over the hill card with Bond, but it's nice to see the filmmakers acknowledging that Bond can't be young forever, hopefully sparing us the embarrassment of another aging Bond running around like he were 20 years younger. The plot contrivance also allows Bond to go through a crucible that acts as more of a rebirth than the last two films did. And Craig rises to the occasion, bringing a melancholy to the character that has never been seen before.
'Skyfall' also pushes Bond into the realm of the prestige film, scoring A-list director Sam Mendes ('American Beauty' and 'Road To Perdition' where he first worked with Craig) to turn a by-the-numbers franchise into something a little more elevated. Oh, don't worry, this movie still hits all the essential Bond marks, and Mendes has a refined eye for action, but now the drama is as important as the big set pieces. Mendes brings along his own collaborators, much to the film's benefit. Thomas Newman's score injects some fresh blood into the series' music, while still making appropriate use of the classic themes. Even more impressive is Roger Deakins' cinematography, which has justly been nominated for an Academy Award. Deakins creates a fantastic interplay of light and shadow that gives Bond a mystique that the grit and grain of the last two films lacked.
In fact, 'Skyfall' takes many of its cues from another recent critical and commercial action/drama blockbuster: Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'. The basics of the plot are remarkably similar, as is the suddenly vulnerable hero seeing a dark reflection of himself in the film's villain. And like Heath Ledger's take on The Joker, Javier Bardem lights up the screen as Silva. He's got a touch of old-Bond outrageousness, with a sense of panache that's wholly new. He doesn't even appear on screen until halfway through the film, and when he does, it's an unforgettable entrance that sets the stage for everything that comes afterward. Bardem's turn here is even more impressive when you consider that he's already played a hypnotic psycho assassin in 'No Country For Old Men', and the two performances bear no similarities whatsoever.
The other piece of the puzzle comes from an unexpected source. Judi Dench is the second longest running actor (after the inimitable Bernard Lee) to play M, taking over the role in 1995's 'Goldeneye'. In that film, she famously called Bond a "misogynist dinosaur". Over the Brosnan years, she softened to him, and with Craig she took on a matronly role that is brilliantly explored in 'Skyfall'. Although this isn't the first time M's past actions have come back to haunt her (that particular plot point was first brought to bear in the tepid 'The World Is Not Enough'), 'Skyfall' smartly re-appropriates the idea, making it central to not just the plot, but also to the character motivations. By making Bond question his reasons for becoming a secret agent, and the nature of his relationship with M, he's finally able to become the 007 we know and love.
Mendes, along with writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, understand that even though Craig represents the start of a new type of Bond, he's also the inheritor of the entire Bond legacy. For the first time since 'Goldeneye', Bond feels British again. A large segment of the film takes place in London, and there's not just Bond's trademark wit, but also the stiff upper lip of Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory and the cocky smugness of Ben Whishaw as a young Q. There are clear nods to previous entries in the series: An out of nowhere Komodo dragon is intentionally reminiscent of Roger Moore leaping over crocodiles in 'Live and Let Die', a joke about an exploding pen is a direct nod to Brosnan's tenure, and a certain four-wheeled vehicle makes an entrance that generated spontaneous applause from the audience every time I saw it in theaters. There's even a part that was written for Sean Connery, although sadly the original 007 does not appear here. Even the film's theme song, brilliantly sung by the acclaimed and accomplished British singer Adele recalls the torch songs Shirley Bassey made famous for the series. And of course, Mendes and Deakins are British themselves, although interestingly it took Bond to get Mendes to make a British film about British people, the rest of his movies being about Americans.
'Skyfall' skillfully manages to synthesize the old with the new, bringing Bond into the modern world even more successfully than its successors (although that isn't meant to be a slight on the still excellent Casino Royale). By acknowledging the past, Mendes and company find the license to reinvent it. By the time we reach the film's closing credits, Bond as a character and a franchise is finally where we've wanted it to be since 2006: All the pieces in place to deliver classic Bond adventures with all of the series trademarks intact, but not simply going through the motions. It's appropriate that the movie was released fifty years after the original release of 'Dr. No', the first Bond adventure that set the stage for all the rest to come (take a note of the vintage on the Macallan that Silva offers Bond on the deserted island). We can only hope that 'Skyfall' has infused enough creative blood back into the proceedings that we can see Bond on top of his game for another fifty.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment presents 'Skyfall' on Blu-ray in a standard case, with a slipcover that recreates the main marketing image of Bond sliding backwards to the left, aiming his gun to the right. The inner artwork is the same. There is an exclusive edition available through Fox Connect with a different slipcover that has Bond in a tux on the front, Silva in a leather duster on the back, and an inner flap that shows M, Severine, Q, and Eve.
Inside the case you get the single Blu-ray 50 GB disc and a DVD/digital copy disc that's obscured by an information slip that gives you instructions on redeeming the on-disc digital copy as well as the included Ultraviolet digital copy (I redeem all of mine through Vudu, which is much easier and convenient than the sometimes absurdly labyrinthine hoops that these slips tell you jump through). Starting up the disc, you'll find a serious of ads that can be skipped, including a trailer for 'A Good Day To Die Hard' and an ad for the 'Bond 50' set.
I remember being surprised, pleased, and excited to hear that Sam Mendes would be helming the new Bond picture (at the time untitled and simply referred to as "Bond 23"), but my excitement bloomed into complete and utter giddy fanboy glee when I heard that Roger Deakins would be the film's cinematographer. Deakins' is justly famous for his previous work with Mendes, as well as his longtime collaboration with the Coen Brothers (among many other classic films like 'The Shawshank Redemption'). His work has a textural quality that brings images to life, and this quality is very much present in 'Skyfall'. Scenes such as the fight in Hong Kong set against a massive LCD screen backdrop, or the film's climax in Scotland, lit by raging fires, are all trademark Deakins. But even moments like the opening shot, showing an out of focus Bond in the background, slowly walking to foreground (and focus) and lifting a gun (a shot that Mendes refers to a reimagining of the classic gun barrel sequence, the traditional version of which can be seen at the film's end) reveal an eye for composition and detail that no Bond film has ever had before.
For a film with such a stunning visual palette, it was important to get the transfer right. Thankfully, Fox's AVC-encoded, 1080p 2.40:1 transfer is stunning, maintaining all the subtlety and shading that Deakins brought to the theatrical release. The aforementioned opening shot is perfectly reproduced, and everything from the icy blues of London to the warm, slightly pushed colors of Macau come through cleanly. Fleshtones are accurate to the release prints, with a bit of an orange push at times. Contrast, an important element of Deakins' technique, is well balanced, with deep blacks but strong whites. Sharpness and detail are exquisite. You can count the stubble on Craig's chin before Eve intimately shaves it all off. I was unable to detect any artifacts or other compression issues, leaving an image that is sharp, clear, and perfectly timed and balanced. Films like this justify the existence of Blu-ray all on their own.
It is worth noting that 'Skyfall' was released to IMAX theaters, both digitally and in 70mm (I had the distinct pleasure of running the picture in IMAX on film to an appreciative midnight audience), and for those releases, the film's framing was opened up from 2.40:1 to 1.85:1 to take advantage of the extra height that IMAX affords. In a proper IMAX auditorium, the taller ratio was quite effective, helping immerse the audience in the proceedings. However, it was never Mendes' or Deakins' preferred aspect ratio, and it rightly does not appear on this disc. To my eyes, the 2.40:1 composition is much tighter and highlights only exactly what you need to see, meaning that the lack of the 1.85:1 version on the disc shouldn't be seen as any kind of loss.
Bond films have always had a way with sound. Going all the way back to 'Dr. No', Bond's sound crew has been considered among the top of the industry. By now, big sound mixes are the norm for action films, but a good Bond track still stands apart. A large part of this is due to the music. John Barry composed many classic themes that are as much a part of the series as any other element (take a look at 'Never Say Never Again' to see an example of a film that has many other Bond trademarks, including Sean Connery as 007, but feels completely off because you never hear any of John Barry's familiar music). Longtime Bond composer David Arnold did an admirable job of filling Barry's shoes from 'Tomorrow Never Dies' through 'Quantum of Solace', but Mendes smartly chose to bring in his own collaborator, Thomas Newman, to score this entry. Newman's score makes ample use of Barry's work, but also goes in several new directions. At times he makes use of locale-specific instrumentation, and other times he uses a more traditional symphonic arrangement, but no matter how he presents it, his music is the most interesting and inventive that the series has had in decades.
The disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless mix does a great job of highlighting Newman's work. For an action film, the music is surprisingly prominent. Of course, the action isn't neglected either. Dynamic range is fantastic, handling everything from the warm strings, hearty and sometimes shrill brass of the music, and rumbling of the action with equal aplomb. Directionality and panning is seamless, with bullets ricocheting around the sound field and a thrilling deep LFE track that comes to life and shakes your seats. Even more impressive is the sound field and sonic details in the film's softer scenes. The whisk of the cutthroat razor as Eve lovingly shaves Bond has a satisfying glint, and the sounds of MI6 personnel working at their stations underneath London makes those scenes feel wonderfully alive. Even when it's just two characters talking, such as when M confronts Silva in a glass cage, the voices reverberate pleasingly, with Bardem's snake oil voice standing in contrast to Judi Dench's clipped, curt performance. 'Skyfall' is a film that is just as fulfilling aurally as it is visually, and this mix is a fantastic reproduction of the theatrical experience.
The disc also includes several lossy mixes: Dolby Digital English descriptive audio 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Bond films are no strangers to multiple home video releases. There are at least three separate DVD box sets I can think of, and of course the recent Bond 50 Blu-ray set (which includes a spot for 'Skyfall' to round things out). Double and triple dips are not unprecedented for these movies, and 'Casino Royale' has already seen a collector's edition follow its original release. Due to this history, I fully expected 'Skyfall' to offer a few fluff pieces so we'd have to buy a new disc next year with all new extras. Imagine my surprise to discover that Fox has delivered a reasonable, if not wholly comprehensive, slate of extras the first time out.
'Skyfall' completes Craig's transition from rough and tumble Bond to a more classic, suave, sophisticated figure. Director Sam Mendes and his collaborators bring a level of prestige and artistic legitimacy to the film that the franchise has never had before, but never at the expense of what makes Bond great. The series once again feels British, wholly revitalized, and surprisingly touching. It's a fantastic springboard for a whole new series of Bond adventures in the coming years. This Blu-ray has reference level audio video quality, with a transfer that perfectly reproduces Roger Deakins' sumptuous cinematographic compositions and an audio mix that ably highlights Thomas Newman's exciting score. The special features are a bit of a mixed bag, with Sam Mendes' commentary being a definite highlight. The hour-long Shooting Bond feature is just good enough that you'll wish it were double the length. The rest of the features are fairly slight, but what we get is absolutely good enough to recommend wholeheartedly. Highly recommended and a must own for fans.