Skip ahead to the year 2002, when MGM released Die Another Day, the last of the Pierce Brosnan Bond films. I remember watching that film and thinking, "Have the Bond people not seen the Austin Powers movies?" Die Another Day was an endless and unironic parade of the silliest Bond tropes that Myers had been good-naturedly skewering. Bond had an invisible car (an invisible freakin’ car!). There was a hotel entirely carved from ice. The villain had a disfigured henchman with diamonds embedded in his face. There was a horrible theme song sung by Madonna. And, the pièce de résistance was the villain’s master plan for world domination, which involved a giant laser in space melting the polar icecaps. Dr. Evil would have loved that plan! It was clear at this point that the Bond series needed to be seriously reinvented.
Also in 2002 came the first of the Matt Damon films based on Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series of books. One of the things that made the Bourne pictures successful was the action being more brutal, in-your-face, and seemingly realistic. There’s a great scene in The Bourne Identity where Damon kicks a guy’s a-- with a rolled-up magazine. The Bourne films ushered in new ways of staging shooting mayhem in contemporary action films.
The Bond reinvention came in 2006 in the form of Daniel Craig. Casino Royale was a reboot, sort of taking the Batman Begins approach to James Bond. It was an odd concept, but it worked. Craig was the new Bond, but he was younger and just received his Double-Oh status. Judi Dench returned as M, the role she’d played in the Brosnan films. When you have one of the best actresses alive, you keep her in the role. Bond was younger but the setting stayed the same and he had the same boss. The continuity was wonky, but the movie was great. Casino Royale was a hit and one of the very best films in the series. Craig was immediately accepted as Bond, despite some fanboy lamentations about his blond hair. I think he’s a better Bond than Connery, and he’s surely the best actor to ever don the tuxedo.
The second film of the Craig era was Quantum of Solace, a clear step down from its predecessor, which was badly hampered in the script stages by the writers’ strike of 2008. Minus a screenplay, Quantum of Solace was simply wall-to-wall action with no story or character beats. It proved my theory that “non-stop action” isn’t what you want in an action movie.
So, now we arrive at Skyfall, the 23rd movie in the Bond series that marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. No’s release in 1962. It’s clear the producers are trying to make up for the misfire that was Quantum. Skyfall has the most ridiculous pedigree of all Bond films by a country mile. Oscar winner Sam Mendes signed on as director (the first time an Oscar winner has ever directed a Bond film). Nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins was the cinematographer, while Tony Award Winner John Logan wrote the screenplay.
Skyfall is one of the very best Bond movies, though not quite as good as Casino Royale. It never has one of its action sequences fire on all eight cylinders like that insane parkour chase that opened Casino Royale.
I’ve said for years that I’d love to see the Bond films move away from their tight formula, and I’ve finally gotten my wish. This is not a “Bond saves the world” story. There is no last-minute escape from the villain’s ridiculous lair as it implodes. As the most played-out tagline in cinema history says, this time it’s personal.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that, in the opening set piece, Bond is inadvertently shot by friendly fire and presumed dead. All that stuff is in the trailers. Bond is living a pretty nice life until MI6's headquarters are bombed by terrorists. This brings Bond back from the dead and back into the Secret Service.
It turns out the terrorist in question is Silva (Javier Bardem – look, another Oscar winner!), a former protégé of M’s who was betrayed and left to be tortured and disfigured. Silva is back for revenge, and, like Bond, he has some serious mother issues. I love how the rebooted Bond films have actually delved into the character’s backstory.
And, that’s really it this time, which is awesome. There is no plot to take over the world. I loved that Skyfall is a more personal and character-driven story. This is not to say that the familiar Bond tropes aren’t on display. They are. They’ve just had the cheese removed. There are the exotic locations, the babes, the martinis, the henchmen, and the gadgets.
Oh, speaking of gadgets, Q makes his debut in the rebooted Bond universe, this time played by Ben Whishaw as a young computer hacker type. The equipment Q supplies for Bond is decidedly old-school and it’s pretty nifty. In fact, there are a lot of old-school flourishes in Skyfall. As Bond says as the third act gets underway, “We’re going back in time.”
Ralph Fiennes shows up as Malory, a government bureaucrat who’s set up for a significant role as the series moves on. By the time the end credits role, the entire Bond supporting cast is in place. And, I mean the entire group.
SPOILER ALERT: This may or may not involve a certain secretary.
Bardem makes for a superb Bond villain. It’s great for the baddie to be somebody that is a real physical threat. Auric Goldfinger was just an old, fat guy. Silva is a genuine physical threat, and he’s also quite mad. I wouldn’t have thought Mendes would be such a nice fit for the material, but he is. And, Deakins has crafted what is surely the best-looking, most elegant Bond movie ever. There’s a scene in a high rise in Shanghai that is absolutely gorgeous. And, Adele’s theme song is the best in years; she channeling Shirley Bassey.
My only other complaint? The gun barrel scene should come at the beginning of the movie and not at the end, dammit. But, other than that, it’s great to have Bond back in business.