The Scottish Highlands. Komodo dragons. Dueling pistols. Vintage cars. These are a few of my favorite things. And all of them are in Skyfall, a movie that renews our faith in the pertinence and durability of this 50-year-old franchise. I won’t call it the best Bond film ever made simply because I can’t readily rank the top four or five. But does it stand in the top four or five? Without the slightest doubt.
There are many, many, many reasons why, starting with Daniel Craig’s magnificently gritty turn as 007. The opening sequence finds him shot in the field and left for dead, only to stagger back to M16 months later as it faces its darkest hour. He looks like hammered shit, there’s shrapnel in his shoulder, and he’s apparently dropped all pretense and started taking his Scotch intravenously, but he’s ready to throw whatever he has left against the enemies of queen and country. Few heroes fit so well in our fractured post-9/11 times, and few actors could embody him as ideally as the aptly named Craig.
His challenger (Javier Bardem) feels appropriately post-millennial as well, a former ally threatening to destroy M16 not by blowing things up but by revealing their secrets on YouTube. He lives in the burnt-out remains of a chemical factory, surrounded by humming hard drives and nursing wounds both physical and spiritual that absolutely refuse to heal. The danger he represents is diffuse, viral and very, very real. It stares back at Bond from the bloodshot eyes in the mirror: compounded by the nasty compromises required in his world, and fed by the terrifying fear that any mistake could prove fatal.
At the same time, all of that rough-hewn 21st Century despair flirts with a much older era of Bond: the one with the hot girls and the cool gadgets. Director Sam Mendes finds cleaver ways to slip in some of the old magic. I can’t reveal most of them because their discovery constitutes one of the film’s many joys, but we’ll use Q (Ben Whishaw) as an example since he’s popped up in the ads. He possesses a combination of cerebral detachment and cat-like curiosity that you suspect Desmond Llewelyn’s version possessed in his youth… and may start snapping at 007 the same way once the damaged goodies start piling up. He and the film’s myriad other nods to the Sean Connery days gain a refreshing new wrinkle when filtered through the lens of modern times. Skyfall doesn’t lean on them the way the franchise did at its low points, when they had become old hat and everyone seemed to be going through the motions. Mendes finds the humor in them, but also reminds us what was so cool about them in the first place, and how – yes indeed – they still have a role to play as the franchise moves into its second fifty years.
That arrives on top of heaping fistfuls of the action and glamor everyone presumably paid to see. Mendes stages set pieces with the strong assurance one expects from an Oscar winner, playing head games with mirrors and light to turn seemingly mundane fights into virtuosos. Bardem’s witty villain makes manifest all the implied homoeroticism some of Bond’s earlier villains while still bringing that crazy-scary vibe that won him an Oscar. The white-knuckle battles atop moving trains, careening subway cars and in the crumbling halls of an abandoned estate work because they look so incredible, but also because the director emphasizes the consequences at stake. Quirky composer Thomas Newman puts his own spin on the old John Barry score, while veteran DP Roger Deakins finds the right shades of darkness to offset his lush, glowing lights. Skyfall even gives Judi Dench a terrific curtain call as M: punctuating the role she spent 17 years redefining.
It thus feels like every Bond film and yet no Bond film that has come before it. It cements Craig’s status as a top-notch embodiment of the character and draws a supremely satisfying close to the first stage of his work. (We still have at least two more movies to come.) It connects the character inextricably to his roots in the Ian Fleming novels, while nodding agreeably to every trend along the way… not as tired clichés but as invaluable pieces of the puzzle that brought 007 this far. Most importantly, Skyfall injects the franchise with a mainline shot of adrenaline, rescuing it from the middle doldrums of Quantum of Solace and charting a clear course for the future. Based on what we see here, that future looks bright indeed: one of the most iconic figures in all of cinema doing what he does best, with no signs of slowing down. If that doesn’t make you stand up and cheer, then this bold and beautiful bit of secret agent Awesome will be completely lost on you. Also, you’d better check your pulse, because you might be dead.