With “Casino Royale”, Daniel Craig stepped up and owned the living hell out of the role of James Bond. After Pierce Brosnan’s turn as the iconic British spy, which never felt like much more than a caricature of Sean Connery, Craig’s vaguely psychotic rendition of Bond brought life back to a franchise that had become stale. Craig plays the part with a callous coldness that gives a gritty, real-world edge to the character.
His next effort, “Quantum of Solace”, was a lesser attempt, one that fell flat on almost every level. “Skyfall”, the 23rd film in the Bond cannon, is something of a rubber match in Craig’s tenure as 007. He has one victory under his belt, but he also blew game two, and blew it bad. With “Skyfall” you get to see how he, and the franchise, respond to that misstep. The results prove that he wasn’t just a flash in the pan, and this film is every bit as good, if not better, than “Casino Royale”.
In “Skyfall” Craig brings a rough-edged swagger back to the role. With Academy-Award-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) at the helm, this is also the most personal Bond story since “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. That chapter, the only one with George Lazenby, gives a different view of a character you think you know. You experience Bond genuinely in love, and bear witness to his world being rocked by tragedy like nowhere else in his 50-year history. “Skyfall” also shows Bond in a new, different light, and does something no other films have done: pull back the curtain and offer a glimpse into his shadow-crowded past. The script also has way more laughs than you might expect.
“Skyfall” embraces Bond’s history, and includes in-jokes and touches that fans of the series will get a kick out of. At the same time it dispenses with some of the more tiresome, tedious clichés. He bangs every beautiful woman he meets, drinks a martini, and you get a banter-filled meeting between Bond and Q, played with youthful snark by Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas”). This exchange, however, is more practical in nature rather than the handing out of random gadgets and gizmos that have become little more nonsensical and annoying plot devices as time went on. Young Q is actually pretty rad, and serves as the onscreen embodiment of the old versus new/young versus old/technology versus humanity theme that permeates the film.
True to form, “Skyfall” begins with a fast-paced scene to get your attention. However this is one of the best instances of rising action you’ll see in any film this year, and you’re not likely to find a better chase scene anytime soon. After falling to what most assume is his death, Bond disappears for months, wallowing in alcohol, a tropical beach, and bitterness, feeling betrayed by mother figure M (Judi Dench). Still, he has an itch, a desire to get his groove back and return to his old life. It takes an explosive attack on MI6, and a missing list of deep-cover agents, to bring him back into the fold. Bruised and broken, both mentally and physically, he starts a globetrotting search for those responsible.
The biggest issue with “Quantum of Solace” is that, while it has all of the bells and whistles, the action is overblown and there is never anything at stake, or any potential for disappointment. You never for one moment believe that Bond might not save the day. In “Skyfall”, he is so worn down, so beaten up by every facet of life, that failure is a very real possibility. It makes him human and relatable in a rare way, or at least as much as an international man of espionage can be.
As a counterpoint to this emotional weight, you have Javier Bardem as Silva, the primary antagonist of “Skyfall”. Over the top, and sporting a ridiculous blond wig, he plays a flamboyant foil to 007. Bond soaks in his vengeance-fueled drive. Silva, on the other hand, goes about his intricate plots with a gleeful zest. One is all shadow, the other all light—another pervasive theme of the film, whether or not technology has removed all shadow and grey area from the modern world. This trend of opposites even extends to their appearances: Bond’s face is all worry lines and hard-earned creases, while Silva’s is smoothed out and decadent.
“Skyfall” is big and fast and feels like a Bond movie is all the ways you want it to, but doesn’t feel like a Bond movie in ways that have become hackneyed and insufferable. The outcome delivers the best of both worlds. Full of winks and nudges, the movie concludes with a scene sure to please longtime fans of the franchise, and is the most satisfying—emotionally and action wise—episode in the family in quite a long time.