The hype over Skyfall being the next Best Bond Flick Ever!!! was to be expected, and not just because it’s essentially the culmination of a reboot trilogy: after Casino Royale established the middle-aged blond Bond of Daniel Craig, minus most of the gadgets and plus a dizzying number of chases/fistfights, Quantum of Solace immediately swamped the rethought character, now refitted for a new century, in a needlessly convoluted plot and — and this was new for a Bond film — too much action.
This is the real deal, though, and what’s surprising is how fast you know it: the opening pre-credit sequence is a real shot of adrenaline, purporting to kill off the Cold War icon once and for all after a motorcycle rooftop chase (you heard right) and a game of chicken with a speeding train and what looks like the world’s biggest backhoe (ditto). Adele’s excellent leaked soundtrack theme gave everyone high hopes for this installment, but she’s just the grace note. The whole sequence, including some very Bond titles, is a real work of art.
Once it gets going, however, you realize that was all just a red herring. The real surprise of Skyfall is how new director Sam Mendes, a master at portraying desperate characters (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) reveals the real Bond at last. Oh, the trappings are there — the martinis, the tuxedo, the Aston Martin. There’s even some gadgets this time out, sort of. Shanghai is gorgeous — all fireworks on the water, paper lanterns, Chinese dragons. Thomas Newman’s faithful score cleverly comes in and out at the most traditionally Bondian moments.
And yet there’s something entirely new to this chapter: introspection. Having been marked for termination by Judi Dench’s M in order to save other agents, our hero takes a little vacation, only to return and discover he’s outmoded. In a post-Assange, post-Anon world, terrorism is not fought with a gun, much less fists, and just to keep his job James has to take his training all over again, revealing to himself just how old and worn out his body’s become. When he meets his new Q, it’s a barely-legal Ben Whishaw, a hacker who respects Bond’s legacy but questions his relevance. Our villain is no evil mastermind or corporate kingpin with his own island but rather a deliciously foppish Javier Bardem, an ex-agent who represents James’ own spiritual crossroads; he’s half-Assange, half-Bond. Turns out he feels betrayed by MI6 as well.
It’s a perfect setup for the superspy to start questioning his life: his mortality, his job, his purpose. Bond is the traditional unencumbered man, the lone wolf every man secretly longs to be, but it comes with a price of anomie; he can never stand still, even when his body starts to demand it. He lives moment to moment. Some critics complained that all the constant action in the first two Craig films made him seem like Jason Bourne, but like Bourne, Bond is constantly on the run. Not towards his identity, but from it.
This is what Mendes forces him to confront, and the result is the real Bond at last. This Craig reboot trilogy was designed to do for the Cold War icon what Chris Nolan did for Batman — leave the trappings, remove the silliness, and build the character back up from the ground up. This trilogy had three different directors, however, and so here it’s Mendes who’s finally completed the task, sending our hero back to his ancestral home in Scotland, source of his own orphaning, to confront a direct attack by his doppelganger.
Combined with the gravitas of Bardem and new addition Ralph Fiennes, some excellent set pieces (including a magnificent scene in the London tube intercut brilliantly with Dench defending her own relevance), and a by-God woman of color as a love interest, one that doesn’t just bed Bond but also snipers him, the result is an installment that packs the stylish punch of the best Bond while actually revealing our man’s soul. “To hell with dignity,” Dench snaps at Fiennes. “I’ll leave when the job is done.” Mendes doesn’t have to make that decision. And now, neither does the franchise.