Spoiler Level: Low
Early in Skyfall, the 23rd of the "official" James Bond films from Eon Productions, Bond (Daniel Craig) is undergoing a series of tests at MI6 to determine whether he is fit for duty. In one sequence, he is made to take part in a word-association game, which he treats with his trademark irony and disdain. To the word "day," Bond responds with "wasted." With the word "murder," Bond associates "occupation." To the name of his superior, M. (Judi Dench), Bond—who knows damn well she's watching—shoots back "bitch."
In all of this, only one word seems to draw a genuine, irony-free response from Bond. Offered the provocation "country," Bond quickly, and firmly, responds with "England." It's a fleeting moment, but a nice one: after all, to what else has James Bond ever exhibited any loyalty? Bond has always been rather amoral, not terribly concerned with justice and only rarely (and briefly) exhibiting any belief in friendship or love: what Bond believes in, what he has given over his life to, is Great Britain. He is a Hand of the Empire, or, as creator Ian Fleming once described him, "an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department."
"Super-spy James Bond" is primarily a function, not a character: he has a job, not a life. A few characteristics have been assigned to him over the years (mostly by the Eon films, which celebrate their 50th anniversary this year): he likes his martinis shaken, not stirred; he is quick with a dry quip in the face of certain doom; he says his own name in a reliable last-name-comma-first-name-last-name format. Other than that, he is a cypher, with little background and few defining traits other than his willingness to do what must be done to serve the Crown.
This kind of essential unknowability is a quality 007 shares with other British pop-culture heroes like Sherlock Holmes and The Doctor, and—as with those other heroes—it may be the key to his immortality: like them, Bond can be re-invented anew for every era, and every era can get a Bond to fit the times. (Think of the smug excesses of Roger Moore's Bond in the Reagan-Thatcher years.) There will always be an England, no matter how its power waxes and wanes, and so there will always be a Bond, who will be reborn periodically with a new face, a slightly new sensibility, and a reliable fondness for strong women and weak martinis. (Asked in Skyfall to describe his hobbies, Bond lists one: "resurrection.")
Since 007 was resurrected as Daniel Craig in 2006's Casino Royale, the James Bond franchise has found a new lease on life, along with increased critical and box-office respect: suddenly, this long-in-the-tooth franchise seemed not only fresh but exciting. However, it may surprise some to realize that Casino Royale’s director, Martin Campbell, also helmed the 1995 Pierce Brosnan outing Goldeneye, and that all of the Daniel Craig Bond movies—including Skyfall— were written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who were also responsible for 1999's The World is Not Enough and 2002's Die Another Day. So, as the only real new blood behind the new Bond, is it Daniel Craig who deserves the lion's share of the credit for the revitalization of the franchise?
Perhaps. Though the underrated Timothy Dalton (1987-1988) gave it a shot, no other actor in the Bond pantheon has brought such an undercurrent of emotional complexity to the role. (Sean Connery—still the definitive 007 for many of us—brought many wonderful things to the franchise, but emotional complexity was not one of them.) Craig's weathered (but handsome) face, and his haunted bulldog demeanor, makes this preposterous figure somehow serious and complicated: if Bond is, as I've argued, something of an empty tuxedo-shirt of a character, Craig fills that shirt with soul and gravitas.
But of course the real explanation for the reboot of the Bond franchise is the success of 2002's The Bourne Identity and its sequels. By the time Brosnan's last entry Die Another Day was released in 2002, director Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity was already a tremendous hit, and its grittier, more down-to-earth approach to the action-spy movie made the Bond film's space-laser, ice-palace, invisible-car sensibility looked pretty silly in comparison. Brosnan was let go, and Daniel Craig was hired to be a grittier, more down-to-earth Bond in Casino Royale.
I liked Casino Royale, mostly for Craig's performance: whether his is the most faithful interpretation of the character from Fleming's novels is arguable, but I do find him to fit perfectly into that description of Fleming's above. He's not as suave and sophisticated as some of the previous portrayals, nor—I would argue—does he seem as smart: this Bond is a "blunt instrument," a creature more of instinct than intellect. (It is very believable that this Bond was kicked out of Eton after a "brief and undistinguished career," as Fleming noted in You Only Live Twice.) Where Brosnan's Bond was a fencer, Craig's seems like a bare-knuckled pugilist: there is something damaged and, at times, almost feral about him.
As much as I liked Casino Royale as a film, however, I found myself questioning whether I was responding to it as a Bond film. Director Martin Campbell dropped or delayed some of the traditional markers (the opening shot down a barrel of a gun, the signature theme music), and left out some essential characters (notably Miss Moneypenny and Q.) altogether. But it was more a question of whether it had the James Bond tone. Though I claim Connery as the definitive Bond of my youth, the truth is that I really grew up during the Roger Moore years, and so—as much as I fight against it—there is an inborn expectation that a Bond movie will deliver terrible puns, ridiculous gadgets, male-fantasy-fulfilling women, and absurd spectacle. I can't watch those movies now—most of them really are terrible—but there is still an expectation that a Bond film will be fun. In Casino Royale, it didn't look like it would be fun or cool to be James Bond: in fact, it looked kind of brutal and unpleasant.
And this depressing mood continued through the nearly unwatchable Quantum of Solace in 2008. For Craig's second outing, Eon took a chance on a good director—Marc Forster (Stranger Than Fiction)—who had no experience with action films, and it didn't pay off: Forster's attempts at fast-cut action sequences in the mold of the Bourne films were disastrously, nauseatingly incomprehensible, and the entire film suffered from a sluggishness and heaviness that robbed it of any fun whatsoever. No one wants to return to the tongue-in-cheek flippancy of the Roger Moore era, but Quantum of Solace didn't have a single moment of levity. Did Bond—as Batman had done—have to swing so far away from its own heritage?
Which brings us finally to Craig's third outing as 007, Sam Mendes' Skyfall.
Skyfall takes about two seconds to reassure us that we are back in Bond country: the very first shot, of Bond walking down a corridor, evokes (without recreating) the traditional barrel-of-a-gun opening, but it's a few iconic chords of the Bond theme that instantly make us feel we're in safe hands. It's not quite old-school Bond, and it's not pandering to the fans, but it's just a hint of the classic Bond flavor that was missing from the two previous films.
And that's the line that Mendes—not an obvious choice for a director, but, as it turns out, a brilliant one—deftly walks throughout Skyfall, from the perfectly evocative theme song by Adele to the final, franchise-sustaining scene. Mendes knows that this stuff is supposed to be fun, and he never forgets it even as he brings the darker, more serious tone and the emotional underpinnings that elevate the Craig movies above the silliness of previous eras. He knows a little of the Bond flourish and flippancy goes a long way, and for my money he delivers just the right amount. There is, for example, a moment—you can see it around 2:15 in the trailer above—when Bond makes an impossible leap into the disintegrating car of a high-speed train, and after he lands he pauses—for just an instant—to adjust his cuffs. Taking longer to describe than it takes to play, it's a witty and iconic moment that reminds you that Craig is not just any secret agent: this is James-motherfuckin'-Bond, and yes, it would be cool to be him.
That moment takes place during the traditional pre-credits sequence, which is—again—a wonderful hybrid of the more down-to-earth sensibility of the current films and the absurdly elaborate stunt pieces of the earlier Bonds. Mendes establishes his action credentials quickly: this sequence begins as a simple car chase—as Bond and another agent, Eve (Naomie Harris, a delightful addition to the team) pursue a fleeing man with a stolen database—and then morphs several times (and across several modes of transportation) into something more inventive and delightfully implausible. It would be ridiculous to describe any such sequence as "believable," but the creativity of the stunt design combined with the immediacy and raw physicality of the filmmaking makes us more than willing to suspend our disbelief.
The mission ends badly, with Bond's apparent death. (Spoiler-alert: he's not quite dead, though he ends up a bit worse for wear—physically and emotionally—from his near-death experience.) The database with which the miscreant escapes is the list of MI6's undercover operatives around the world, and the blame for its loss lies squarely on the shoulders of M. (Judi Dench), who comes under fire from a government oversight committee chaired by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). However, as becomes increasingly clear, this standard spy-movie MacGuffin is something of a red herring: the true motivation for the plot is much more personal, a vendetta held by a mysterious man called Silva (Javier Bardem) against M. herself.
Since the Cold War ended, the relevancy of secret agents like Bond—and the appropriateness of their methods—has been a conscious theme in the Bond films. (In the first meeting between Dench's M. and Brosnan's Bond in 1995's Goldeneye, she called him "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur," and a "relic of the Cold War.") It's a theme in Skyfall as well, as both Mallory and Silva—in different ways—question both the ethics of MI6 methods and whether there is still a place for super-spies—those boys with their toys—in the modern world. It's a theme present in that marvellous line Mendes walks between the old school Bond and the new school, and it's underlined by Bond's new Quartermaster, or "Q.", played by the brilliant Ben Whishaw: giving Bond a gun and a radio for his mission, Q. asks him is he was expecting an exploding pen. "We don't really go in for that sort of thing anymore," Q. sniffs.
The question of what Bond movies can go in for these days is a prickly one: the films are now aiming for more realism, but realistic terrorists with realistic motives are not the kinds of villains a Bond movie can really handle, nor is the sort of behind-the-scenes government-toppling for which intelligence agencies are famous quite the politically-correct fashion these days. Even now, a Bond movie's plotline must always be a little absurd, and his villains must always be slightly cartoonish, to really work. However, marrying these elements—and the elaborate set pieces one expects from a Bond film—to a more realistic, gritty tone is a tricky endeavor. This was one of the fronts on which Quantum of Solace rather failed, but it's a front on which Skyfall succeeds gloriously. Bardem's villain is a little cartoonish—edging up to, but not quite over, the cliff of camp—but in a delightful way, and Silva's vendetta against M. makes the scale and stakes of Skyfall smaller, and more personal: this is not Bond fighting to save the world from annihilation or domination, but struggling to save his superior from death or (perhaps worse) indignity.
This personal scale makes Skyfall a different kind of Bond film, and—particularly in its last, climactic third—something does feel like it's missing: instead of a stunt-heavy standoff in the villain's secret lair to save the world, we get a stunt-heavy standoff of a different sort to save one old woman. But why not? What we lose in shark-infested traps, bomb-defusal, and bowler-hat wielding henchmen, we gain in more intimate, immediate threats and some touching (though never maudlin) exploration both of Bond's past and of his complicated relationship with the imperturbable M.
This intimacy, taken too far, would not be good for the Bond franchise—we do not need or want a touchy-feely James Bond—but it must be recognized at this point that casting Daniel Craig as the first new Bond of the 21st century was a stroke of genius. Craig—with his craggy face and his deep reserves of intensity—is able to make Bond human and emotional without making him too accessible: we see a great deal going on beneath the stoic surface and casual quips of 007, but we don't always know exactly what. He remains distant and mysterious, even as he dares to be human and vulnerable.
The real hero of Skyfall, however, is Sam Mendes, who builds on the gritty new foundation of Casino Royale and shows how it is possible to advance this 50-year-old film character in new directions and still pay homage to his past. It's a very difficult formula to get right—as Quantum of Solace proved—but Mendes demonstrates here that we don't need to jettison what was fun about previous incarnations of the character just to get this more substantive modern take. We can have it all: the grim protagonist and the outrageous villain; the realistic fights and the komodo-dragon pits; the genuine character work and the sly one-liners; the dark tone and the sense of fun. Mendes has made a film that should please Bond fans of any age, whether they first encountered the character in Doctor No or in Casino Royale. In this sense—by successfully marrying 007's no-doubt endless future to his rich and varied past—it's entirely possible that Skyfall may be the best Bond movie of all time.
And now a brief, special bonus review from my girlfriend, who is usually known as The Unenthusiastic Critic, but whom we'll have to call The Disturbingly Enthusiastic Critic here:
"The man looks good in a suit. And out of suit. And in a shirt. And out of a shirt. And in the water. And out of the water. And unshaven. And clean-shaven. The man looks good."