By Carl Kozlowski
For the past 50 years, James Bond has been jet-setting around the globe, bedding exotic women while saving England and the rest of the planet from nefarious villains. Yet while the 23 films in the series have been spectacular fun with mind-boggling stunts, they’ve mostly had a kitschy vibe with an overarching sense of humor.
But with the arrival of the newest incarnation of Bond, Daniel Craig, who debuted in 2006’s Casino Royale, the series took on a darker, more realistic tone. The series’ prior entry, Die Another Day with Pierce Brosnan in the lead, had taken things too far over the top and left moviegoers rolling their eyes more than dropping their jaws.
Craig walked a dangerous tightrope in Casino, making the series more serious while avoiding the rote and boring messes of two disastrous films—The Living Daylights and License to Kill—of another prior Bond, Timothy Dalton. Dalton’s joyless performances nearly killed the series altogether, but Craig has managed to make Bond a two-fisted badass while maintaining just enough of a smirk to elicit grins and chuckles from fans when appropriate.
His second turn as Bond, in 2008’s Quantum of Solace, had a much sloppier plot that collapsed in its second half. But with the new Skyfall, Craig has teamed up with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) to craft an adventure with the series’ best villain since Goldfinger—Javier Bardem as a Joker-like former British agent out for revenge against the MI6 agency leader, M (Judi Dench). The result is riveting from beginning to end.
The film kicks off in Istanbul, with Bond giving chase to an enemy agent who has stolen a list of British secret agents in advance of having them killed. While engaged in a typically insane fistfight with the thief atop a speeding train, Bond’s fellow agent Eve is ordered by M to take a shot and attempt to kill the enemy agent, thus saving Bond and the list.
But when Eve shoots Bond instead, sending him crashing into a body of water buried under a driving waterfall, he is presumed dead. Of course he’s alive but furious that the shooting was ordered, and at first he remains hidden and enjoying a life of booze and babes in the faraway island to which he disappears.
But when MI6 headquarters is devastated by a terrorist bomb and numerous agents are killed, Bond swallows his doubts about M and reports back for duty. He is shipped off to Singapore and then Macao, desperately seeking to recapture the lost list of agents now being tortured and killed on videos that are humiliating the British government as they go viral on the Internet.
He captures the man behind the killings—former agent Silva (Bardem), a charismatic sociopath whose bleached blond hair recalls the villainous Silva in From Russia with Love—in quick fashion. But it turns out Silva wanted to be captured, in order to infiltrate the new MI6 headquarters and hack his way into destroying all their computers before escaping to kill M.
With his beloved boss in grave danger, Bond decides to take her personally to hide at the now-decrepit estate in which he spent his tragic childhood. The goal is to lure Silva there for one final showdown, and therein lies the film’s only weakness: While the climactic battle is enormous and intense by most standards, fighting amid a dark house in the Scottish countryside simply feels less like a Bond movie and more like a revenge film, such as Last House on the Left.
Skyfall manages to not only give Bond a genuinely intense enemy, but also makes the heroic super-agent stare death in the face, wrestle with his own conscience and sense of patriotism and ultimately confront his past and extremely dark childhood in a way he never has before on film.
Craig rises to the challenge with a multilayered performance that makes Bond unpredictable even after five decades on the world’s movie screens, and the rest of the cast—including the terrific Bardem and a solid Ralph Fiennes as another of Bond’s agency supervisors—matches him. Skyfall sets a high standard, but with director Mendes already signed on to direct the next entry in the series, it seems there’s plenty more in store.