In his half-century of cinematic existence, James Bond has been cast and recast, refined, reinvented and rebooted. He's been declared a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur" and gotten his heart broken, and he's been dragged into the present, where he's had to find a new perch somewhere between gritty and ridiculous, between being a stoic modern action hero and a deliberately outsized fantasy remnant of, as one unamused minister puts it in Skyfall, a long gone "golden age of espionage."
Skyfall is American Beauty director Sam Mendes' first turn at the wheel of this venerable spy franchise, and he and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan have managed what feels like the best possible thing that could have happened to Bond: They've made him fun again. When Daniel Craig was put in the lead role and the character was brought back to his beginnings in Casino Royale, it brought a vividly contemporary jolt to the character — this Bond wasn't going to be off gathering information on al-Qaeda or anything, but his job was just as likely to involve messy killings as suave seductions, and the possibility of death and pain were much more real. It was a welcome revamp, if one that shifted the films into the orbit of the Bourne trilogy and risked stripping them of an essential element of Bond-ness. Chilly, rough-edged and not yet settled into his place at MI6, Craig's Bond was a little busy with love and revenge to make quips.
In Skyfall, Bond is literally reborn. During a mission-gone-wrong, he takes a hit that leaves everyone thinking he's dead. It's a misconception he's happy to let stand while he takes a potentially permanent sabbatical involving beachside booze, sex and brooding over a vague sense of betrayal. He's lured back by an attack on MI6 and on M (Judi Dench) masterminded by a computer genius named Silva (a terribly entertaining and menacingly flirtatious Javier Bardem). Bond ends his retirement because he knows he's needed. And, oh, he is. Skyfall acknowledges that Bond isn't a paragon of physical or martial arts perfection, or technologically savvy. In contrast to the newly minted agent he played in Casino Royale, he's an old hand in this film, neither the fastest nor the youngest but still the best.
Skyfall acknowledges our need for some humanity in Bond without overloading him with angst. The film fondly brings back familiar franchise elements, including an entertainingly young Q (a sly Ben Whishaw) and another character whose reveal is best left discovered, along with an exotically beautiful paramour named Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) who's part victim and part femme fatale. Bond gets fewer silly gadgets these days, but he does have his awesomely fly car and a customized gun. And though he travels to such exotic locations as Shanghai, Macau and Istanbul, he also spends an unprecedented amount of time in his homeland, where he reintegrates himself with MI6, which is under political scrutiny, and returns to his native Scotland where a just-enough sliver of backstory is revealed.
Skyfall makes explicit that Bond is a child of the United Kingdom. His only consistent relationship is with his country, even though that country is willing to sacrifice him for the greater good should it be necessary. It's why, despite Bond's dalliances with Sévérine and fellow field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), the film's true Bond girl is M. The MI6 director's complicated role as stern taskmaster and surrogate maternal figure gets played out as Silva, who shares a past with M, targets her and Bond tries to protect her. Like Bond, M is as much a concept as a character, but, beneath their bickering, Dench and Craig find a credible tenderness that suggests their is immense mutual affection behind the bone-dry sniping.
Mendes isn't an exceptional director of action, and many of the set pieces are lavish and forgettable. The car chases through crowded streets and pursuits across rooftops look a lot like other blockbuster sequences that recently graced screens. He's better with character interactions and small touches: Bond straightening his cuffs after an improbable landing in a train; Bond watching a foe face a Komodo dragon and book-ending his adventure with unwilling dips in bodies of water.
Working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes also presents some stunning sequences of beauty in a film where you might not expect such a thing. A fight high atop a Shanghai skyscraper takes place in the dark against the neon advertising backdrop of a shifting jellyfish projected on the building's glass skin and ends with Bond meeting the gaze of someone in the building across the way, hundreds of feet up. Silva's high-tech lair is set on an island that's home to an abandoned city, while MI6 retreats with all its sleek gear to a historical location deep in London. The old and the new, the past and the ever-accelerating present — despite the body count, it's not death that Bond has to worry about, it's remaining recognizable and relevant. Skyfall manages to balance both in an uncommonly entertaining fashion.
Related: Check out Movieline's extensive coverage of Skyfall and the 50th anniversary of James Bond here.
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