It’s been four years and several production issues since James Bond last strode across the path of a gunbarrel on the silver screen. But in a lot of ways, the Ian Fleming-created character’s absence has been felt for far longer – after 1995’s excellent revamp GoldenEye, the series tapered off into Hollywoodism. Set pieces, big stunts, explosions, and other money shots began taking precedence over the icon himself. We got a brief flash of a more inspired direction with 2006’s Casino Royale, which promised a back-to-basics approach, before 2008’s Quantum of Solace veered the franchise into even more generic action movie territory. Now, finally, Skyfall has arrived to bring the series closer to its roots than ever before.
Skyfall opens with 007 (Daniel Craig) and field agent Eve (Naomi Harris) chasing down a hired goon who’s stolen a disk containing privy info on several MI6 agents. After a sniping accident that allows the thug to escape (and a brilliant, catchy new Bond theme by Grammy winner Adele), Bond takes some much-needed time off. But when defected agent Silva (Javier Bardem) acquires the disk and threatens the life of intelligence chief M (Judi Dench), Bond must return from his vacation, relearn his spy skills, and stop Silva before more agents have their cover blown. In the meantime, new agency recruits like the Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) arrive to assist Bond in his most personal mission yet.
Skyfall is the most thematically charged, artistic-minded Bond to date. Each and every shot of the film is fantastically memorable, thanks to director Sam Mendes and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who speak volumes on a scene through lighting alone. Skyfall’s script is equally slick, treating Bond and M like real people, not just characters. The two have some great scenes together discussing their status as old dogs in a new world, adding up to a far more thoughtful, hinted inner struggle often glossed over in movies past. It’s here that the film becomes self-aware, bringing Bond the character and Bond the screen icon to terms with his past and moving him forward into the future. It’s smart, and makes for a more three-dimensional Bond than ever before.
Skyfall is a kind of old school/new school hybrid, bringing back many of the classic Bond tropes with a new twist. We have series mainstays like Q, only instead of the older, finger-wagging Desmond Llewelyn, we have a younger, less experienced computer geek-type, a clever role reversal also applicable to another classic character revealed by the film’s end. We have a script that recalls the days of charismatic villains, takeover plans, and hidden lairs, yet the once laughable cliché is made plausible again. Even the film’s villain Silva, played for utmost creep-factor by Javier Bardem, recalls some of the more memorable antagonists of the series. Bardem, the spitting image of Richard Kiel, brings out a toothy surprise hearkening back to the Roger Moore era in one sequence which may or may not count as a spoiler.
Fans will also get a kick out of the many references to Bond films of years past sprinkled throughout, including Bond’s signature Aston Martin DB5, which first appeared in 1965’s series highpoint Goldfinger. Used merely for throwback appeal in some of the more recent films, Skyfall employs the car for a legitimate thematic purpose, a satisfying change-up. Other references woven thoughtfully into the narrative require a seasoned eye to catch. Think Die Another Day, only smart.
Still, Mendes’ highbrow style and his aim to craft a loving tribute to the Bond of old aren’t quite a perfect fit. The director’s artistic reinvention is welcome, but unnecessary. At its core, this is still Bond we’re talking about, a pulp work that worked fine without the flair. Especially in its third act, Skyfall becomes a bit too self-important, too serious for its own good. I miss the days when Bond was less weighted down by angst and more visibly imperturbable. Part of my issue lies with Craig’s Bond, whom I still don’t quite see as Ian Fleming’s creation in the flesh. All the same, the actor has proved himself a very capable lead in his own right, and does finally get to toss out a few of the character’s trademark quips in the film, which is nice to see.
I suppose I’m more excited about the film’s promising resolution, hinting at the return of further classic Bond conventions. Skyfall itself misses out on the fun and adventure, the escapism of watching a super-slick, quick-and-dirty spy thriller in bright, beautiful exotic locales, fantastical gadgets and all. “You were expecting exploding pens?” says Ben Whishaw’s Q. “We don’t really do that anymore.” May I ask why not? Gadgets are a huge part of what truly defines Bond, yet Skyfall is too dour in note, too afraid to make a full-on departure from the new rules laid by series reboot Casino Royale to really commit to a full-on revival. I can only hope the film’s successors don’t hold the same reservations.
I want to talk about the film’s climax, which introduces a particular figure from Bond’s childhood that seems all-too tailor-made for a certain Scottish thespian to make a cameo appearance, though the character is played here by Albert Finney. You could go back and forth on whether or not actually bringing in said thespian would undermine the gravity of the film’s climax, but either way, it’s interesting to think about the old man potentially returning to the franchise he helped pioneer.
Skyfall will likely be remembered as one of the best Bonds. It elevates the series to a new level of craftsmanship, while still bringing back much of what made the films so great in the first place. But like Craig, Skyfall lacks a certain charm to it that keeps it from completely evoking old feelings from years past. We’re still a ways away from the glory days of Goldfinger, but Skyfall is nonetheless closer than we’ve been in a long time. Here’s to another 50 exciting years of Bond.