Leaving such critical missteps as Away We Go and Revolutionary Road to the side, Sam Mendes takes helm of the Bond franchise with relative ease. Akin to the thematic departure that Joe Wright took from his period piece filmmaking with Hanna, Mendes subverts expectations from his typical relationship dramas (oddly enough, there’s a sequence in Skyfall that recalls some of the imagery seen in Hanna’s conclusion). But in spite of this rejection of expectations, I would argue that Mendes functions as a relatively absent force behind the camera. It’s the team that Mendes assembles, particularly cinematographer Roger Deakins, which elevates Skyfall to incredible heights.
Roger Deakins, most renowned for his work on the Coen brothers film and Andrew Dominik’s exquisitely shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, affords Skyfall some of the most gorgeous images I’ve seen this year. Less a James Bond film and more a full-fledged action picture, Skyfall rejects preconceived expectations and introduces a level of craft into the series that, frankly, I have never seen from previous Bond films. From shadow fights in Shanghai to a burning house lighting tundra-like terrain, the locales look absolutely stunning and serves as a reminder of how Deakins, moving from film to digital, remains one of the finest cinematographers today.
My adoration for Skyfall extends to the cast as well, with Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, and Judi Dench taking the material into a slightly more somber direction. Bardem in particular embraces the campiness associated with Bond villains – in Mendes’ finest directorial moment of the picture: he holds his camera at a distance as Bardem makes his entrance. Charismatically menacing, the single-take scene functions as a sort of coming out, as Bardem deliberately and methodically is drawn closer to the camera, encapsulating all of the queer sensibilities of prior Bond villains.
Bardem’s character aside, much of Skyfall adheres to status quo Bond-isms. Blatant misogyny and action film quippery are prevalent throughout. Mendes (along with his crew of Bond writers) also seem at odds with their thematic goals. So much of the picture attempts to reaffirm that Bond is out of his element, yet the picture stresses traditionalism above all else. Besides the film’s opening sequence, much of the combat and action sequences possess a much more visceral quality. Hell, there’s even a scene involving a man-eating Komodo dragon that embraces the series’ camp roots – there isn’t so much new substance to the picture aside of its technical gloss. And that’s perhaps why I wasn’t fully capable of embracing Skyfall. It’s the same old song and dance despite the promise of something different. It’s why Javier Bardem’s performance and Roger Deakin’s cinematography stick out so prominently – they deviate from the norm.