The James Bond film franchise has stood for 50 years. It has lived, died, returned, died some more, returned again, and as the longest-running blockbuster franchise in history, it constantly walks the line between life and death regarding the series’ potency. There likely will always be another James Bond film, but the character’s relevancy is always in question. Can the modern audience accept Bond in a world where a grittier spy like Jason Bourne seemingly has more power to engage audiences? Isn’t James Bond a relic that can’t convincingly survive in a post-9/11 world? The latest Bond film, Skyfall, explores these question is a fascinating, compelling manner and does so within one of the series’ most exhilarating, perfectly crafted, and absolutely captivating entries to date.
After a jaw-dropping chase across the streets of a Turkish city, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidentally shot by his partner Eve (Naomie Harris) after failing to retrieve a drive that reveals the identities of MI-6 agents across the globe. Bond is presumed dead, but the larger issue of the list’s disappearance looms over the leadership of MI-6’s chief, M (Judi Dench). After MI-6 headquarters is attacked, Bond comes back from a quiet life living on a beach playing drinking games with scorpions only to find that he’s not quite the same special agent. “There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step,” parliament liaison Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tells Bond. But 007 is determined to retrieve the drive and protect M, which brings him into contact with the dangerous, vengeful Silva (Javier Bardem).
As a spy-action film, Skyfall has everything. Director Sam Mendes has once again proven himself to be a master of capturing the essence of a genre. Paired with a strong script by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, Mendes realizes the action thriller to its full potential. Part of this is due to bringing in top-tier talent like Director of Photography Roger Deakins whose cinematography is unsurprisingly gorgeous but also mesmerizing when it’s applied to the exotic locales the Bond franchise is known for. Thomas Newman‘s score is propulsive without ever being overbearing, and all of the stunt work is not only mesmerizing, but essential in what Mendes is trying to accomplish in examining the identity of the James Bond franchise.
The James Bond franchise didn’t grow out of mind-blowing special effects. It grew out of daring stunts where the director had to give up a little control and trust that the scene would play out. Employing elaborate stunts is part of the film’s constant defiance of modern filmmaking conventions, and yet Skyfall continually acknowledges how the world may have left James Bond behind. How can a man in a tuxedo and armed with a Walther PPK make a mark when the Cold War is finished and terrorism can be conducted from a laptop?
Skyfall is constantly looking both backwards and forwards. The movie feels like a fight for the soul and identity of James Bond to the point where half the lines of dialogue could serve as commentary on the franchise’s place in the current marketplace of action movies, particularly the spy genre. Casino Royale is a terrific Bond movie, but it feels like Bond playing by Bourne’s rules. It’s grittier, it’s edgier, and while it has some faithful nods and inclusions, it also has a waiter asking Bond, “Shaken or stirred?” and Bond replying, “I don’t give a damn.” There was no “Q” in Casino Royale. There were no flashy gadgets. Bond had been reinvented and made far more appealing after the flops of Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day.
Skipping past Quantum of Solace (a movie that will assuredly be forgotten especially since it offers nothing to the franchise other than having been made in between two of the best movies in the series) Skyfall now faces Bond with the choice of reinvention and reestablishment. If James Bond fails to adapt, will he die? Can the character survive if he’s stripped down to nothing? What do we as an audience expect from 007 and his movies? At his core, who is James Bond? Is there a personality or simply a collection of accouterments like care, girls, and gadgets?
Watching Skyfall play with this question is its most rewarding aspect for a film nerd, although the movie eventually reaches the point where its self-commentary becomes a tad overbearing. Thankfully, the story, characters, and the action are always present to stop the movie from being a dry evaluation. Bardem plays Silva with a devilish glee, but it’s not simply a matter of chewing the scenery (although never underestimate the power of a competent hairdresser). His motives are crucial to the subtext, and Bardem, a master of his craft, manages to find both sympathy and dark humor within his monster. Berenice Marlohe, in by far the largest role of her career, acquits herself well as a Bond girl, although the script makes the wise decision of how best to employ her in relation to the overall story. Skyfall also marks the return of Q (Ben Whishaw), this time re-imagined as a hip computer whiz rather than a beleaguered R&D workers who hands Bond new toys. With his snobby but charming performance, Whishaw makes us hope that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Q.
Or other characters, for that matter. Most, if not all, of the Bond movies have “James Bond will return…” in the credits, but Skyfall has its eye on the future in a more concrete fashion. Until this movie, the Bond franchise has always had an element of looking back as it seeks to find its next Sean Connery. Skyfall eschews this pattern by choosing to look past the actor, and instead examine the character and his world. It’s a wise decision because Daniel Craig is not Sean Connery, and we should be grateful for that. Craig was an unexpected choice for Bond when he was announced to play the character in 2005. He’s blond, lacks the softer features of previous Bond actors, and has an underlying intensity to the point where we’re left to wonder if the character can have fun. Thankfully, Craig has had the range to make the character playful when need be, but Skyfall works to establish a new Bond rather than an anti-Bond. We know that Daniel Craig’s Bond is almost the polar opposite of Pierce Brosnan‘s Bond, but a strong character can’t exist simply as a commentary on other characters or other franchises. Bond can’t find his own voice if his words are dictated by others.
Skyfall is an attempt to be the final word on James Bond of the Daniel Craig era. It points definitively to what the series should achieve and what it needs to leave behind. It is not simply a matter of reinvention versus reestablishment, but trying to find the balance between the two. The other spy franchises will keep coming. Bring them on. James Bond has been around for fifty years, and Skyfall is a miracle of taking the franchise’s seniority and making it feel fresh without ever going retro. By looking to James Bond’s past and his present, Skyfall has made a powerful case for 007’s future.