We thought we’d seen the full extent of James Bond’s “origin story” back in 2006, when Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale re-imagined the character for a new generation of moviegoers. Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes apparently disagreed; his Skyfall brings the beloved super-spy’s formative years to an definite conclusion, reintroducing several familiar series staples and placing the post-reboot 007 in a “new” context that loyal fans will find refreshingly nostalgic–proving that, sometimes, the best way to reinvigorate an old formula is to go back to the basics.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Mendes abandons the darker tone of the previous two films to indulge in the excesses of the Moore era. Skyfall is unmistakably set in the same grounded (though not necessarily “realistic”–this ain’t Argo) world of espionage as Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace–and it stands on the same basic foundations. Daniel Craig continues to play a Bond torn straight from the pages of Fleming’s novels (see: Doctor No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice)–cold, cruel, hardened by his physical and psychological scars, haunted by his failures–and his tumultuous relationship with Dame Judi Dench’s M remains an integral part of this characterization.
The opening minutes of Skyfall reinforce the difficult truth that 007 learned in Casino Royale: that his life is worth less than Her Majesty’s fingernail clippings. Before we even hear the first chords of Adele’s gorgeous title song, M has ordered Bond to leave a fellow agent for dead and made him the victim of friendly fire. Shaken and disillusioned, he falls off the grid for three months, vanishing in a haze of substance abuse and meaningless affairs. But when a sadistic cyberterrorist strikes at the heart of MI6 itself, he dutifully reports back to the bitch that nearly got him killed–realizing, perhaps, that she’s the closest thing to family he has left.
At this point, M steps out from behind her desk and takes a surprisingly proactive role in the narrative, joining Bond in an uphill battle to defend the relevance of their somewhat archaic methods in a rapidly-changing culture of counterintelligence. These themes–staring down the ghosts of the past, gazing into an uncertain future–resonate through almost every scene, sometimes with delightful subtlety: consider 007’s preference for cutthroat razors, his fondness for the Aston Martin DB5, his debate with Ben Whishaw’s baby-faced Q over the symbolic meaning of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Consider the climactic showdown, set against the backdrop of Bond’s childhood home, in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.
And consider Javier Bardem’s formidable villain, the product of one of M’s countless “tough calls.” In many ways, Raoul Silva represents Bond’s reflection in a cracked mirror–a flamboyant and effeminate counterpoint to the male fantasy that 007 has always personified, but still his equal in strength, cunning, and sheer charisma. Both men were reshaped by tragedy and suffering, forced to confront their own insignificance–but while Bond managed to claw his way back into the light, Silva sank deeper into a personal Hell of despair and self-pity. He is the Joker to Bond’s Batman–the monster that, under slightly different circumstances, our hero might have become.
All of these elements add up to create the most emotionally-satisfying cinematic experience in the history of this long-running franchise. By the end of Skyfall’s 2.5-hour runtime, Mendes has shut the door on one loose trilogy and set the stage for an infinite number of exciting adventures to come. I can’t imagine a more appropriate gift to commemorate the classic series’ 50th Anniversary.
[Originally written November 10, 2012.]