Is James Bond still relevant?
That’s a question many Bond fans (myself included) have been pondering of late, particularly given the “Bourne”-ripoff disaster that was “Quantum of Solace.” And it’s a question Bond himself asks in his latest outing, “Skyfall” – a brooding, meditative masterpiece that serves as one of the series’ finest chapters.
Naturally, the answer – delivered in a flurry of action that blends Bond tropes from past and present – is a resounding YES.
After one of Bond’s missions to Istanbul ends in seeming tragedy (seen in a dazzling opening gambit), 007 (Daniel Craig) is presumed dead. He returns to London, however, after a mysterious cyberattacker cripples MI6’s operations and threatens Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench). As Bond seeks a missing hard drive containing the covert identities of NATO’s agents in terrorist cells, he soon encounters brilliant-but-deranged ex-agent Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva has a secret vendetta against M, and will stop at nothing to kill her…making Bond’s mission a far more personal struggle.
I’ve never seen a Bond film like this before – and I have nothing but praise for the change. What viewers won’t find here are goofy villains with insane world-conquest schemes (though “Skyfall” is not without its humorous moments). The narrative cohesion of “Skyfall” is head-and-shoulders above Bond films of earlier days – rather than a series of action segments held together by the thinnest of implausible plots, this movie works as a holistic unit. Not only that, but it’s riveting – a word I never thought I’d use to describe a Bond film.
What this film is really about, though, is the clash between the world of yore and the world of today. James Bond, now in his 50th year of gracing silver screens, is a relic of the Cold War whose latest endeavors have been scattershot at best. In “Skyfall,” for the first time, Bond is thrust headlong into a chaotic new world of shadowy nationless attackers. He may carry a Walther PPK, but physical bullets can’t strike distant criminals hunched over glowing computers. One might think that the very raison d’être of the series is worth questioning at this point – and that’s precisely what “Skyfall” does with aplomb.
Silva is a genuinely terrifying antagonist for one reason alone: he is relevant. Viewers have seen angst-ridden psychotic killers before…but few who choose to manifest their rage via sophisticated electronic retaliation. With the threat of cyberterrorism constantly growing, “Skyfall” offers a disturbing vision of future warfare…while simultaneously recalling the heroic ideals of times gone by.
And this is where “Skyfall” soars. “Casino Royale” was an outstanding film, but it didn’t feel like a James Bond movie. “Quantum of Solace” merits no discussion. “Skyfall” finally hits the sweet spot – updating Bond’s conflict and providing a tightly structured story, yet never forgetting the series’ roots. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that it’s fantastic.
The technical merits of the film also deserve a special mention. Mercifully, the shaky-cam style popularized by “Bourne” and its ilk is almost completely gone here. (For that matter, I don’t recall any straight-up car chases either…these interminable sequences are not missed.) Instead, “Skyfall” is beautifully filmed, taking its time rather than jumping from shot to shot. It gives the movie a richer, heavier texture that complements the gravity of its storytelling. Adele’s theme song also deserves a special mention here…and the abstract opening-title sequence, over which the song plays, is one of the series’ finest.
I do have one quibble with this otherwise exceptional movie. Director Sam Mendes said in pre-release interviews that he and his crew watched Christopher Nolan’s films for inspiration…and while that makes for incredible cinema, the influence of “The Dark Knight” is perhaps too undiluted here. There’s a lengthy sequence midway through the film that feels familiar…perhaps too familiar. Certain key elements (disfigured laughing villain who constantly seems to be a step ahead of the authorities, a fierce interrogation scene that goes horribly awry, the antagonist disguising himself as a police officer, an ancestral home playing a key role) are just a bit too reminiscent of Nolan’s Batman to seem entirely original. That said, they’re deployed masterfully…it’s simply a minor distraction.
Further borrowing from Nolan’s playbook, there are some really interesting themes on display here – moral idealism vs. pragmatism, the necessity of sacrifice, and the realities of growing older, among others – but these are mostly left unexplored. Given that this is a Bond film, and the mere inclusion of such elements is a rarity, it’s enough to mention that “Skyfall” is a bit more cerebral than one might expect.
Any fans of this franchise already know what kind of objectionable content they’re in for – innuendo-laced dialogue, brief sexual imagery, and loads of mostly bloodless violence. It’s a Bond film, and that doesn’t change here.
Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. Whether or not you’re a fan of James Bond, “Skyfall” is a grand achievement that demands to be experienced. Highly recommended.
A wickedly intense and utterly compelling blockbuster…and my favorite Bond movie of all time.
Normalized Score: 8.7