The latest in the series currently celebrating “50 years of Bond,” Sam Mendes’s Skyfall is the first of the Daniel Craig outings to marry what has become a hallmark of the last two films (“James Bond goes parkour” action scenes and an unforgiving non-sentimental focus toward the job at hand) to the romance and nostalgia that have kept these movies going through changing times and different actors portraying everyone’s favorite agent with a license to kill.
We re-join Bond already in progress on a mission to retrieve a just-stolen hard drive that includes a list of all the embedded agents MI6 has placed in nefarious organizations around the world (because apparently the Brits are still obstinately old school and haven’t transferred stuff like that to “the cloud” yet). As Bond struggles with the thief, M (Judi Dench), fearing the loss of the hard drive, gives the go-ahead for a sniper to take the bad guy out. Unfortunately, Bond is the one that is hit, and he falls to what is believed to be his death.
Sometime thereafter, MI6 and specifically M find themselves literally under attack by an unknown assailant, a situation which draws Bond back from the dead and out of his self-imposed retirement. M is also under attack from a British bureaucracy that believes it’s maybe time for M and Bond to be put out to pasture. This means, of course, that in his third film in the role, Daniel Craig already has to go through the “Maybe he’s too old for all this secret agent stuff” scenario and then the dutiful Rocky-esque “Eye of the Tiger”-style training sequence.
Before he is really ready, Bond is sent by M to see who is out to get them. And this is where Skyfall gets it right. The creakiness in the franchise has come less in the crazy gadgets and the struggle to keep up with the times than in trying to come up with yet another megalomaniacal crazy guy with some fantastical idea to take over the world, extort the world, blow up the world, own all of the world’s gold or silver or water or newspapers or whatever. No, this one is all about revenge.
Enter Silva, a former agent and favorite of M’s that she “gave up” to the other side after he became uncontrollable. Well, he’s back, and as played by Javier Bardem, he’s got a lot of mommy issues to work through as well as a competition/attraction thing with her new favorite agent. And since Craig’s Bond has recently put to bed his own revenge issues, the subtext of the chickens coming home to roost plays on a couple different levels here.
Bardem’s Silva versus Craig’s Bond alone is worth the price of admission. The two square off like a lethal metrosexual secret agent version of Ali vs. Frasier as they fight and feel each other out (almost literally, in their set-piece mutual introduction) in multiple rounds, as Bond seeks to protect M. Bardem and Mendes occasionally make a slight misstep, overplaying Silva’s flamboyance as a Bond villain, as opposed to a hardcore, bent-on-vengeance madman. But that is a minor quibble, as the film highlights a striking difference between Bardem’s scorned agent gone wayward and the good soldier in service “to God and Country” that Craig’s Bond, for all of his independence, remains at the end of the day.
Skyfall rebounds from the general disappointment of Quantum of Solace to deliver on the promise of Casino Royale. It achieves an effective balance between the ever-escalating action sequences that each successive Bond picture apparently demands (I expect some future villain to just spontaneously combust during the climactic chase scene/fight to the death), fresh use of charismatic talent (Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, and Ralph Fiennes all deliver the goods with style), and nods to the legacy (the last-name-first introduction, “shaken not stirred” martini, and the return of the legendary Aston Martin, etc.). A franchise like this has a lot of people to please with each go-round, whether they be video-game-addled fanboys new to the series or traditionalists still asking themselves “What would Sean Connery do?” Mendes manages to do so as seamlessly as possible, both keeping Bond’s eye on the prize and letting us enjoy the ride as much as possible.