In a brilliant piece of fan mythology, avid James Bond viewers have come up with an adequate reason as to why James Bond has changed appearance, and age, over the fifty years of his film franchise. That mythology begins and ends with one idea: James Bond is not a man, but a job. He is an orphan that is recruited at a young age and trained aggressively until he is old enough to be released into active duty. When the current James Bond dies or gets worn out, he is replaced with a new man, who’s name is legally changed to James Bond.
Each Bond has to find himself. He has to come up with his own ways to cope with the job.
Of course, none of the films explicit say this, but it’s hard not to believe in this piece of fan fiction. It just makes too much sense. Like Batman, James Bond is a symbol, not a man, and no other film in the franchise has been more aware of this than Skyfall, the best James Bond film ever made.
When I first started reading reviews for this one, I was surprised that this sentiment felt unanimous. It seems like everybody agrees that this is the ultimate bond movie. I went into the movie with doubts. I was going to find a reason to disagree.
I couldn’t. This is the perfect Bond film.
From the opening shot, this is Daniel Craig’s movie. His Bond is stoic, angry, vengeful, cool, sexy, and cold. His journey as James Bond has been an amazing one, and these three films have formed a very cohesive trilogy thematically for the aging spy.
Skyfall understands that there will be an inevitable new Bond when Craig’s contract is up, just as Craig embodies the inevitable new bond that he has followed. And instead of ignoring the previous generations, this movie makes literally hundreds of allusions and direct references to every 007 film that has come before it.
However, it never feels forced. Not even when Javier Bardem’s brilliantly realized Silva offers Bond a fifty year old Scotch (the same age as the franchise). Not even when characters constantly remind Bond of his age, of his increasing juxtaposition against the world. It feels fresh because Craig’s performance is so strong.
We can see the years of active duty in his eyes. He’s tired and aging. He can’t fight the way he used to, and technology is making him obsolete.
When Dr. No, the first James Bond film, was released fifty years ago, nobody could have known that an iconic film franchise had just begun. The formula was there, but it was a bit shaky. The makers hadn’t congealed all of the elements that make a perfect Bond film, because they didn’t yet know what they were.
In From Russia, With Love the makers were starting to find their groove. Location-hopping jumped into the mix, as did the solidification of a theme song and a “Bond girl.” And, most of all, the film brought a dense, labyrinthine plot with it.
But it’s that third film that finished the process of building a formula. Goldfinger is often considered the stencil from which all following Bond films are made. It has the theme song, the iconic villain, the complex plot, the dead Bond girl, and a playful yet stoic Bond.
With Craig’s outings, we started with Casino Royale, a brilliant deconstruction of the Bond formula that loosely realizes how Bond became the agent that he is. Like Dr. No, there are elements that don’t quite fit into the formula, but there’s no mistaking whose franchise it belongs to.
With Quantum of Solace, viewers were faced with an impenetrable plot and incomprehensible action sequences. Bond was darker and more brooding than ever before, and the dead Bond girl, once again, became solidified. Like Fron Russia, With Love, audiences didn’t take kindly to the complexities of the film and the dark tone.
So now we have Skyfall, the Goldfinger of the the Craig films. This movie takes all of what works from the first two movies and throws them together into a tight formula that both innovates old ideas and embraces classic iconography.
This is even showcased with the choice of theme song. Adele embodies the spirit of a classic British songstress, and yet she is the face of modern music. She is a walking paradox of pop culture, as is James Bond, and her inclusion into the film only strengthens its themes.
Skyfall also follows Goldfinger with its villain. Javier Bardem is the best Bond villain in years. Perhaps the best ever. He is gleefully evil and hammy next to the cool and collected Craig, and his physical presence is both hilarious and terrifying. We believe in Bardem’s villain because the first hour of the movie is a slow build-up to his entrance, which is fantastic. Bardem lends the levity that was so sorely missing from the previous installment, and he also tips the scale in a way that no other Bond film has done before.
Director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, Jarhead) does a fantastic job with the material, and he has made his best movie. Mendes has never been very good with subtlety (see: American Beauty and Revolutionary Road), and he has always been at his best working with material that has clearly defined lines between good and evil, so a Bond film is strangely perfect for his sensibilities.
However, in addition to Mendes and Craig, this is director of photography Roger Deakins’s (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) shining moment. What happens when you give the best cinematographer in the world an infinite budget to play with?
For starters, you get that amazing, beautiful, strange, surreal sequence in the abandoned building in Shanghai with reflections of jellyfish projecting over silhouettes, or the gorgeous shot of Bond standing on a boat in Macau as fireworks explode behind him. Skyfall is brilliantly shot, and one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Period.
And I could go on forever. Skyfall is great because it knows where it stands. It isn’t desperately flinging its history into the mud like Quantum of Solace or gleefully embracing its silliness like Die Another Day. Skyfall is, like Goldfinger, the perfect combination of every element that makes this series great, and in Craig’s final two Bond films, he’ll have a hard time topping this one.