Has the James Bond franchise come full circle? Are we now at a point where there are no more secrets to the world’s most famous globe-trotting, womanizing, martini-guzzling spy? By the time Sam Mendes directs Skyfall, his entry in the half-a-century-old series, to its logical conclusion, we’ve actually experienced cinema of regression, watching as the film delves into the character’s roots before witnessing them burst forth to let their genre heritage flourish. Since Daniel Craig took over star duties in 2006’s excellent Casino Royale, we’ve seen him take Bond from a debonaire MI6 agent to a British cousin of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne; with Skyfall, we come to understand why, and also see Craig assume the traditional mantle we expect him to bear in the role.
The film literally starts with a bang– in fact, several of them. Mendes’ name isn’t one typically associated with high-end action theatrics, and after a few minutes of watching Craig and the luminous Naomie Harris chase Patrice Rapace through a crowded Turkish marketplace, it becomes immediately clear that the British auteur isn’t pulling any punches. Maybe nothing better showcases his attitude than his decision to “kill” Bond; 007’s line of work often leaves him bruised and battered, but Mendes gives him a death-and-resurrection through-line here, one that lets both the director and his star question the character’s place in a world which differs so greatly from the one Bond was born into fifty years ago.
Today’s megalomaniac villains don’t play by the old rules. They don’t have iron-jawed henchmen; they’re not bent on annihilating the human race with nerve toxin; they don’t want to rob Fort Knox or create new civilizations under the sea. They do not favor the overt, and have made their bread and butter of cyber-terrorism. So when Bond unofficially passes away at the end of the film’s opening sequence, M (Dame Judi Dench) is left to pick up the pieces of his demise months later and attempt to deflect scrutiny of her leadership and competence, and her efforts to do so become undermined by an attack deep within the heart of MI6 itself by someone from her past.
Beleaguered and beset upon by enemies on all sides, M finds a reprieve and an ally in Bond when he comes out of hiding and the game is truly afoot. His reappearance marks the start of the film’s eventual return to the basics of the franchise, but Craig, Mendes, and the god-like Roger Deakins have a lot of ground to cover before they get there, and together they make the journey one of the most essential pieces of cinematic blockbusting of the year. From Shanghai to Macau, all the way back to London and eventually to the highlands of Scotland, Skyfall builds a reverse sort of momentum, starting off big and getting smaller and more personal as the film employs story-through-action and peels back the layers of Bond which remain after Casino Royale and 2008’s far inferior Quantum of Solace.
Because the goal here isn’t just to choreograph gorgeous fight scenes shot in the dark, lit against a city skyline and involving occasional bursts of illuminating gunfire; or to introduce one of the best antagonists the series has ever seen; or to allow our hero opportunity after opportunity to spout of pithy one-liners in between the moments where he frets over his age and concretely-proven mortality. No, Mendes wants to finish the job Martin Campbell started six years ago and get to the core of what makes Bond tick, and as the film brings 007 back home in a very real way– the “Skyfall” of the title turns out to have deep significance to him– we’re given a fresh, new, and brilliant perspective of the character before the series promises to get back to its essence in future installments.
In other words, Skyfall has layers, and in its complexity purists might find disappointment. The random sexual encounters Bond experiences here are much-reduced on a number of levels compared to his past exploits; his gadgets are less playful and less plentiful. But the film very loudly points to the character’s history in everything it does. Can anyone deny that this is a James Bond film when he fights off assailants in a pit containing hungry komodo dragons? The absurdities of the older films, which of course supply them with the charm and allure that makes them so beloved, aren’t absent from Skyfall, but they are tempered by Mendes’ desire to dig into character and Deakins’ ability to make a fistfight in a Shanghai tower look quite as gorgeous as a boat ride across a lake to an exclusive Macau casino.
And that’s a good thing. Skyfall‘s excesses recall its ancestry, but its artistic and narrative drives provide it with its own individual identity as a film. When we first meet our villain, Silva, played with decadent unbridled glee by a marvelous Javier Bardem, we expect him to sound off on his vision for world domination or explicate his nefarious plans to seize control over one planetary asset or another, all in the name of infamy and ego. But Skyfall isn’t an archetypal Bond film, and Silva isn’t an archetypal Bond heavy; he wants revenge for being betrayed by MI6 while in their service as an agent not unlike James. He’s 007’s mirror image, a man similarly haunted by old, lingering wounds and fueled by his desire to suture them shut once and for all; they exist on opposite sides of the same coin, one and the same despite their differences.
So in a way, Skyfall is a film about Bond reconciling with his past as a character in order to become the figure of cinema iconography we recognize him as. How else to view a Bond film in which the last act sees him break his souped-up Goldfinger-era (I believe; a diehard can correct me if I’m wrong) Aston Martin out of hiding for one glorious climactic spin? Skyfall serves us both the rough-and-tumble Bond and the suave Bond all in one sitting, reminding us why the character matters and organically taking the franchise back to its familiar beginnings. This is without a doubt the best, most thrilling blockbuster of the year from top to bottom, and hard evidence that genre movies don’t have to take themselves too seriously or play too broadly to be great.