OK. Here’s the thing about the James Bond franchise. There’s a lot of it. At last count, there were 23 official films produced by EON Productions, two unofficial films (1967’s spoof Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s 1983 return in Never Say Never Again), the dozen or so original Ian Fleming novels on which the films are (loosely) based, several others by the likes of Kingsley Amis and John Gardner, comic strips, comic books and more behind-the-scenes companions and factoid books than you can shoot a laserbeam watch at.
Because of this, James Bond has been a difficult character to write stories about for some time. How many space-based superweapons and world-conquering villains can there really be? How many women can he bed? How many gadgets can he use? The challenge with any new Bond film – his most visible medium, by far – is to either use these tropes and reconfigure them in an interesting way, or throw them all out and start again. 2006’s Casino Royale was only partially successful, resetting Bond for a post-9/11 era but embracing his brutal, Cold War roots. 2008’s Quantum of Solace went too far in trying something new, smothering the fun in frenzied camera work and complicated plotting.
Skyfall begins, much like You Only Live Twice, with the Death of James Bond (Daniel Craig). That’s no spoiler, though: He survives the stylish opening credits (and Adele’s underrated theme song) only to flirt with retirement, living on a secluded beach somewhere entertaining bar patrons and seducing the ladies. His “death” though, was part of a greater failure on the part of M (Judi Dench), the stalwart head of MI6. Held accountable by British civilian bureaucrats (including an excellently-used Ralph Fiennes), things aren’t looking good, and they only get worse. MI6 is bombed, and James Bond dutifully leaves his idle (and somewhat idyll) life behind to return to London.
As the saying goes, men want to be James Bond, and women want to be with him. Skyfall, however, introduces (reintroduces, really) the idea there’s a cost to his lifestyle. A dark maw threatens to devour any who would live 007’s life as a blunt instrument On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. His angry, unshaven demeanor hints at what he’d become without a world to save, and his nemesis, Raoul Silva (a scene-gnawing Javier Bardem) hints at what happens to the agent who’s grown tired of doing so.
Where more recent James Bond outings – especially Pierce Brosnan’s turn-of-the-millennium pretty boy – piled on the action and CGI, Skyfall dials it back, letting Bond’s life away from duty drag a bit, and then takes its time as he trains and tests to return to service. The time dedicated to the haggard spy, and MI6 in the wake being attacked at its heart, achieves something audiences don’t see too often: Effective character development in a Bond picture. In Skyfall, it’s not about what he does to survive; it’s why James Bond is able to survive.
Skyfall, akin to paranoid Watergate-era thrillers of old, actually succeeds in building some true suspense. This slower approach, crafted by longtime Bond scribes Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with Hollywood professional John Logan and executed with a sure hand by director Sam Mendes, puts the audience on edge when action is imminent, and gives them some time to breathe between set pieces. When the fists fly, like in a fight sequence high above Shanghai shot like a master class in cinematography by Roger Deakins, the audience feels there’s something real at stake.
Luckily for Bond, the mission he was on with fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) at the time of his “death” – tracking down classified information stolen from MI6 – is a loose thread tied to the attack in London. Receiving his gadgets, such as they are, from the new Q (a witty Ben Whishaw), Bond tracks his assassin to Shanghai, where he meets Sévérine (as Bérénice Lim Marlohe). Bond naturally entrances Sévérine, a servant of the villain responsible for breaching MI6. Like any good Bond girl, she puts her life in danger in the hopes of escaping her shadowy world, but there’s a desperation not seen in Bond girls of the past. Sévérine is scared, but also scarred.
While there’s little resemblance to Roger Moore’s cheesy camp, there are more moments of genuine humor in Skyfall than Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace combined. Yet Skyfall is squirmingly comfortable with a raw … sexual incorrectness that recalls Sean Connery’s Bond. This, along with many of the callbacks to Bond’s long history on film, might be baffling to casual moviegoers. As well, longtime fans of the franchise might be expecting something a little more lighthearted, and not so studied. Bardem plays Silva unlike any Bond villain that’s come before: He still monologues, and still threatens innocents with his plots, but he’s been a human weapon for far too long, and will have his revenge on those he believes are responsible. He is Bond’s dark mirror, revealed to have a twisted fascination with M, and sharpened, unlike 007, into a terrifyingly efficient blade.
To escape Silva’s grasp, Bond must metaphorically flee into his own past and hide out alongside an old family friend Kincade (a welcome Albert Finney) to protect M. In doing so, Skyfall is the first Bond film in recent memory to explore the origins of the cinematic Bond, which lifts pieces from Fleming’s original works, the long series of films, and a taste of Hollywood’s recent fascination with superheroic origin stories. It adds up to an interesting glimpse into what created Bond, and what continues to drives him forward. The conclusion, like all the action, is beautifully rendered; not only is it exciting, but emotional. A tall order for a movie about a superspy known for his taste in martinis.
Skyfall succeeds in taking the character of James Bond – and those familiar with him – so far away from what they’re used to it takes him, in a way, right back to the beginning. The introduction of Q, along with some other familiar faces, promises the roundabout reimagining Casino Royale only partially achieved. The forces behind James Bond should now be ready to put aside the psychological exploration, and just let Bond save the world next time. And get the girl, of course. B+