James Bond is a man with a serious identity crisis. This is nothing new for the world’s most famous secret agent, and over his now 50 year history (the November release of Skyfall falls perfectly on the anniversary of Dr. No. half a century prior) we’ve seen many men fill the shoes of the shaken not stirred superspy. However, the one thing they all had in common was consistency, at least in their approach to who Bond was, and each actor hewed pretty close to their own set of cards. When we met Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, he was a calculated, vicious, and altogether heartless piece of work, a man more at home in a darker and grittier modern action franchise than his predecessors. Yet, in its final moments, there was the spark of something else, the Bond of old, the suave and sophisticated gentleman agent, visible in his delivery of his classic “Bond, James Bond” catchphrase.
Then we had Quantum of Solace, a moody, depressing, and altogether dreary entry into the 23 film saga. It was Bond at his most angsty, emotions riding high just under the surface, and a plot that struggled to move past the unanswered (but not particularly interesting) questions surrounding the death of his one true love. As any Bond aficionado will tell you, it wasn’t really a Bond film at all, and with the action sequences veering into the so-shaky-we-can’t-see-a-damn-thing territory clearly trademarked by Jason Bourne, it’s hard to see any of the unique elements that made Bond such a beloved character in the first place.
Enter Sam Mendes, Academy Award winning director and distinctly drama-oriented storyteller. As a lifelong Bond fan, he seems to understand what it is that makes the character tick, and from the opening chase sequence, we’re reminded that there are reasons to love the guy beyond the gunfights and the brawn. Bond’s intellect shines through, coupled with his showboating and overtly masculine tendencies, which tend to result in leaving a pretty serious amount of destruction in his wake. The only problem is that you can’t really have your cake and eat it too, leaving Mendes to dig out of the crater left by Solace and mount a slightly disjointed, but altogether entertaining Bond movie. It’s easily the most “Bond” of the Craig films, and concludes a uniquely crafted origin trilogy for the character, landing us just where we want to be to see his next adventure, a point we were pretty sure we had arrived at oh, I don’t know, two movies ago?
Now don’t get me wrong, to say this film is anything other than a resounding success is an understatement. Javier Bardem alone brings this film head and shoulders above the previous two, and is one of the strongest Bond villain performances to date. Craig slips back into the role like a comfortable pair of shoes, and Judi Dench is wonderful as always. The Bond/M dynamic remains a strong part of what makes the latest iteration a successful dramatic story, and Bardem serves to complicate that relationship. The emotional core of the story is in the intersection of those three characters, and again, this acts as a departure for the Bond franchise. There’s a family dynamic here that isn’t simply a colorful backdrop for the central conflict, but is, in fact, the point of the film, allowing Mendes to dive into the dramatic and artistic territory that he’s known for, while keeping the pace swift and the action omnipresent. The editing keeps things moving when the story calls for it, but things also slow down quite a bit from time to time, deep breaths to avoid the fatigue and help the movie to earn its over 2 hour runtime.
For fans of the genre, Skyfall is the rare gem that manages to be both the dramatic and emotional character study and the epic visceral thrill ride of a studio tentpole. After all the components are revealed and the puzzle is assembled before your eyes, it’s hard not to like what you see, and the results should satisfy even the most nitpicky of fanboys. Do yourself a favor and wade far away from spoiler territory with other reviews you read, including interviews and articles about the project. The cast and crew seems very open and excited to discuss some of the more thought provoking and franchise altering moments of the plot, and it would be a shame to have the surprises ruined in advance. Be wary, and you may yet preserve your initial viewing experience.
Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.