Fifty years after James Bond ordered his first vodka martini — shaken not stirred — he has become a cultural icon and a bit of a Cold War relic. Donning an impeccable tux, swilling a few drinks, driving too fast in an Aston Martin and having casual sex with every scantily clad woman who catches his eye makes Bond a bit of a dinosaur. The actors may have changed, but the smarmy swinging-sixties vibe has remained.
In Skyfall, director Sam Mendes (Away We Go) pays tribute to the Bond of yore while burning that image to the ground. It’s a bold move for the franchise, and it pays off: Skyfall is without a doubt the best Bond movie since Dr. No.
The film finds MI6 in dire straits. A hard drive containing the identities of all British spies embedded in terrorist organizations is stolen. This puts boss M (Judi Dench: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) in a particularly bad position, since the government is already questioning the effectiveness of her tactics. Not only is her job in jeopardy, but her favorite agent, James (Daniel Craig: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), is shot and presumed dead during the disastrous operation.
I’m probably not spoiling anything by letting you know that Bond doesn’t die in the first five minutes of the movie. But his resurrection is a process. Instead of immediately returning to mother England, Bond takes time to drink, pop pills and grow a beard.
When MI6 is blown sky high by the mysterious terrorist Silva (Javier Bardem: To the Wonder), Bond knows he must return.
But bullet, booze and pills have taken a toll on the only man in MI6 who M trusts to go after Silva, who seems to have a personal grudge against her. Can James get back in the game? Will M keep control of MI6? And just what is Skyfall?
The best part of Skyfall is the originality it brings to a series that had become depressingly predictable. In the capable hands of Mendes, characters get motivations, emotions and nuance. If this is what comes of getting an art-house director to take over an action franchise, then I’m starting a petition to get Wes Anderson to direct the next Die Hard installment.
Bond fans still get their familiar tropes, from the cars to the guns to the girls. Craig even manages to fit a Bond, James Bond into the dialog, but it’s almost a throwaway moment, easily missed if you’re not listening for it. But Mendes isn’t satisfied to rest on these easy identifiers. Instead he chooses to blow them up or re-imagine them. Even the look of the film is more interesting than ever, with reflections, angles and depth of field to keep the movie visually unique.
Skyfall isn’t the first Bond film to update 007’s image. Casino Royale boldly brought a less polished Bond into the gritty new millennium with brutal fight sequences. But the key to the agent’s transformation is Craig.
The first blond Bond, Craig makes 007 more visceral and cruel than his predecessors. His Bond is a very angry man who masks his pain and rage with superficial charm. The slips in this veneer bring a more human and interesting character to the screen. Craig makes Bond a person: a scary, unhappy and violent person who happens to use his gun for the good of his government.
Silva is also one of the more interesting villains of Bond history because his motivations run deeper than mere world domination. Bardem manages to be both campy delight and legitimate menace.
You’ve got an enhanced part to play, too. This fascinating update of the iconic series expects viewers to bring their brains to the movie.