It might be reasonable to assume that a series like James Bond, now in its 50th year, might be getting a little creaky. That might have been true a decade ago, but now in the new millennium, this series has been beautifully reinvented. It is ironic to say that by starting over with Bond’s origins, the series is now up to date. We feel that we’re not just following the same tired formula but that the adventures of 007 have new surprises waiting for us. He is discovering things about himself and we are discovering new things about him. This is not only a great entry to the series, it’s a great film on its own.
With Skyfall – the 23rd James Bond adventure – the writers and producers of Eon Productions have done for Bond what Christopher Nolan did for Batman, they have taken a character that we know all too well and given him a refit that is better suited for the new millennium. That was true six years ago with the superior Casino Royale – which introduced Daniel Craig to the role – and that is especially true now with Skyfall, a brilliant entry in the series that has a new kind of earthiness but also respects the reasons that we fell in love with Bond in the first place.
Under the direction of Sam Mendes, whose films include brilliant character studies like American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Jarhead, this entry is less of an action fantasy and more of deeper study of characters than have ever been allowed by this series. Oh, the action is there, but there is more to it than simply action and shoot-outs. After the vapid nonsense of recent action pictures like Taken 2 and The Bourne Legacy, this film is a breath of fresh air. We are compelled to follow Bond anywhere even when he drives a caterpiller over a trio of Volkwagons atop of moving train.
Surprisingly, the plot of Skyfall isn’t centered on Bond, but on his ever-confident MI6 boss M (Judi Dench). Early in the film M makes a crucial order that leaves Bond apparently dead, but also leaves an important hard drive in the hands of an unseen enemy. It contains the names and information of agents in the field which are threatened to be exposed. Getting it back isn’t the point; this film is a lot smarter than that. Judi Dench’s performance is deeper and more thoughtful than you might think. She plays M as a woman who comes to realize that time has passed her by and that her tenure at MI6 is nearing its end. She turns to Bond for help this time not just for king and country, but for her very safety. What grows in their relationship is really quite touching.
The source of M’s troubles comes from a soft-spoken psychopath named Silva (Oscar-winner Javier Bardem) whose reasons for exposing the MI6 agents are far more personal than simple global domination; he wants to use computer technology to turn international crime into a free market. There’s something in Silva’s nature and his history that leaves us with more information than simply a guy who wants to commit an evil act. He is less a function of the plot than a fixture of M’s history. He has a reason for wanting her dead that is more solemn and personal than the fact that he is just a bad guy. Bardem’s performance reveals a man who bears deep physical and emotional scars. He also makes an unexpected move on Bond that we haven’t seen before.
The deep nature of the film extends also to Bond himself. This series has always been protective of Bond’s background, only letting minor hints of his history sneak in. Here we get just enough of his background to humanize him, and to help us understand what creates his cold blooded nature. There is a touching moment when we understand a little about his upbringing while at the same time the meaning of why he flinches when a doctor mentions the word “Skyfall.”
Daniel Craig, in his third go-around, has brought something new to the character, an upfront vulnerability. He beautifully embodies the saddest contradiction to being Bond, that a man whose life involves traveling, killing and bedding multitudes of women has no time to maintain a life with traditional details. Better than any actor before him, Craig reveals what makes the cold-blooded nature of Bond by reminding us that he is a man who can never have a life, only a lifestyle.
His girl in this entry sticks around only briefly, but she leaves an impression. She is Severine, played by French television actress Bérénice Marloh who is more assured and playful then most Bond girls. Unlike the previous girls who sport porn star names, lovely figures and little personal style, Severine has confidence and sophistication but also a vulnerability that remind us a little of Marlene Dietrich. There is a beautifully played moment when she converses with Bond in a casino and her playful banter changes as he uncovers something about her past just by looking at her.
Of course, all the deep humanity of Skyfall doesn’t take away from the action. It is made palatable by the fact that the action is mostly based on logic. The stuntwork is good but it works in connection with the plot. What we see is happening because it comes out of the story. We get an exciting chase atop of train, a chase through a London subway tunnel and a shootout at a crumbling manor fitted with booby traps. What is interesting here is that the third act doesn’t just degenerate into routine action but actually adds something to the story. There is so much to this James Bond adventure, more that we expect; more humanity, more creativeness and a story that leaves us wondering where this new venture for Bond will take us next.