The difference between a forgettable movie and a really good one often comes down to one or two small, seemingly random decisions before a single frame is ever shot. Like casting Marlon Brando instead of Ernest Borgnine in The Godfather, or Harrison Ford instead of Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones. In the case of the latest 007 film, Skyfall, one of those decisions was made in Hugh Jackman's living room.
It was the fall of 2009, and Jackman was hosting a party at his Manhattan apartment to celebrate his birthday. Daniel Craig and Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes were two of the guests. The pair had first gotten to know each other when Mendes cast the then-unknown actor in his 2002 gangster film, Road to Perdition. Mendes and Craig had stayed in touch since then, but still, the director says, he wasn't prepared for what would happen that evening in New York.
After tossing back a few cocktails, Craig began chatting with Mendes about James Bond. ''I was talking about what I felt the future was for the series, and how it had been really tricky with Quantum of Solace not having good writing, and how I was keen to do something extra special with the next one,'' says Craig. ''And I just went, 'Would you do it?' It seemed f---ing obvious at the time.''
Mendes wasn't sure if Craig was serious. ''There was this little feeling in the pit of my stomach,'' recalls the director. ''But I said yes right there.... I'm sure Daniel woke up the next day going, 'Oh, s---, did I offer Sam the movie?'''
Actually, the next day Craig sheepishly called Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, the daughter and stepson of the late 007 producer Albert ''Cubby'' Broccoli (and the franchise's producers and all-around overlords), and explained what he'd done. ''I think it really kept Daniel up all night,'' says Barbara Broccoli. ''He said, 'Are you going to kill me?' We were like, 'My God, no!' And then we said, 'Is he really interested?'''
Craig turns a deep shade of crimson as he tells this story. After all, how could someone who's paid millions of dollars to be the epitome of suave, unflappable cool get himself into such an un-Bondian jam? ''Well, I was drunk,'' he says. ''So if it hadn't worked out, I could have blamed it on that. I was writing checks I didn't have the money for.''
Three years later, after one of the longest hiatuses in 007 history, Bond is finally back with a double-0 bang. Skyfall, which is rated PG-13 and opens Nov. 9, has everything we've come to expect from a 007 film. There are stunning Bond girls (Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe), exotic locations (Turkey, Shanghai, the Scottish Highlands), and a kinky, twisted villain (Javier Bardem) who ranks near the top of the 007 rogues' gallery. Thanks to Mendes' impeccable track record directing capital-A actors in the theater and such movies as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Skyfall features a who's who of Masterpiece Theatre-caliber supporting actors, including Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) as the natty, nerdy new Q. Judi Dench also returns as M, who, refreshingly, gets out from behind her desk at MI6 and into the field.
The 23rd official Bond installment kicks off with one of the most over-the-top pre-credits Bond openings in ages, with Craig chasing an assassin (Ola Rapace) across the top of a moving train in Istanbul before Adele's old-school Shirley Bassey-esque theme song kicks in (see sidebar, page 34). Still, the film has more on its mind than just the classic cocktail of guns, gadgets, and girls. The biggest twist on the Bond formula is Skyfall's willingness to dig into the agent's past. Not only are previous 007 films evoked (the classic Monty Norman theme pops up, as does a certain ejector-seat-armed sports car), but longtime 007 aficionados are given a poignant glimpse at the tragic events of Bond's childhood. In fact, Skyfall is the closest the Broccolis have ever come to telling a 007 origin story. All of which is given an added resonance since both Bond and Dench's M are forced to grapple with being dinosaurs in a world that's threatening to speed past them. If Craig's goal, as he said back at Jackman's pad, was to ''do something extra special,'' well...mission accomplished. Skyfall may be the perfect note with which to cap 007's first 50 years and make fans feel bullish about the next 50.