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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series. Maybe that's why the 23rd official Bond film, Skyfall, spends so much time defending old things, old methods, and old ideas. In fact, a variation of "Sometimes old ways are the best" is said almost any time the explosions let up—and that exact phrase is repeated at least twice.
This heavy-handed argument may come off as grumpily defensive to some—Get off 007's lawn!—but it seems intended to be a declaration for the series' relevance, both a celebration of Bond history and a return to it.
Surprisingly, Skyfall strays from the deeper, grittier, more human Bond introduced in 2006's Casino Royale and continued in Quantum of Solace. For the first time, Daniel Craig's Bond isn't so dark, moody, or conflicted. It's back to lighter fare; thankfully it's not overly silly or dopey. And when it's all over, the pieces are in place to continue the franchise as if Casino Royale never happened. The quips are back. The odd nemesis with a weird trait is, too. As are the flirting, the winks at the audience, and the tone-deaf, insensitive commentary on women.
This is your father's James Bond. And director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) makes it thrilling, fun, and fresh. For Bond devotees, there are great homages and treats.
Skyfall opens with Bond tasked to retrieve a top-secret list of MI6's undercover agents. While this action sequence starts with a fairly standard car chase, it builds to proper levels of Bond audaciousness as he drives a tractor over cars—all of which are being transported on top of a speeding train. The pre-credits sequence ends with a quiet and poignant voiceover of a character declaring: "Agent down." The list is out. MI6 director M (Judy Dench) is under fire for a hasty, controversial call. And Bond is out of commission.
M's character has been more integral in the Craig films than in most of Bond's past, and that remains the case here. (After all, if you have Judy Dench, you use her!) In the wake of Britain's largest intelligence leak, the Prime Minister and a key official (Ralph Fiennes) are cracking down on M, MI6 and the double-0 program.
Are M and Bond washed up, played out? Are they relics of an "old-fashioned" golden age of espionage? Is MI6 itself an outdated institution—not fit for this new world and modern warfare? Several scenes involve debate over whether an "antiquated instrument" like James Bond is still needed in a digital world where a young computer wiz like the new Q "can do more damage on [a] laptop in [his] pajamas than [Bond] can do in a year in the field."
Worse for M, the enemy (a computer terrorist named Silva played deliciously by Javier Bardem) is directly targeting her. It's personal.
As has been the case since Casino Royale, the strength here is strong work by top actors and actresses. While we've seen Dench and Craig do what they do in these roles, they bring more depth and some surprises this time around. Bardem, meanwhile, is the most memorable, interesting Bond villain in the Craig-era and still further back. Like in No Country for Old Men (an alternate title for this film?), Bardem combines barely contained menace and polite creepiness.
As Skyfall talks about age and relevance, what emerges is a fascinating theme about death and the circle of life—in with the new, out with the old. Casino Royale and Batman Begins were often compared when they released less than a year apart, and now Skyfall shares a lot thematically with The Dark Knight Rises. Both are about rising and falling, with a lot of symbolism throughout. Take a note of Skyfall's many scenes featuring characters literally climbing or falling. Characters fall as the consequence of actions and must choose to rise . . . and choose how.
The death/resurrection motif here is highlighted by two parallel journeys. Both Bond and Silva were once very much the same and fell victim to controversial decisions into metaphorical death. But when they rose, they choose starkly different paths. But why? What is the difference between them? It's left for our judgment.
One return to the James Bond of old is not so welcome. Skyfall includes insensitive, negative commentary about women. We expect Bond to sleep with and dismiss random women. But when we look at assumptions, connotations, and implications in Skyfall, there are deeper problems.
Three key female characters are shown in varying positions of power and leadership. And all fail. Two make detrimental mistakes that cause substantial tragedy and consequence—chiefly affecting male characters. The female Prime Minister of England is a meddling complainer upstaged by a subordinate male who is depicted as the voice of reason. To get results, he has to covertly go around her. And one female field agent finally realizes in the end that her rightful place is behind a desk.
In the end of the film, Bond realizes the only way to defeat his new enemy is to retreat to old ground. To gain the advantage, he must return to an old setting he knows well—out of the digital world. M asks: "Where are we going?" "Back in time," James asserts.
Skyfall takes the same journey; back to what the Bond franchise knows—for both better and worse.
Skyfall is rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. There are two sex scenes; one is a quick glimpse of a couple in silhouette and another is in a shower obscured by steam and foggy glass. The credits sequence features naked female silhouettes. An interrogation scene contains implied homoeroticism. A man performs self-surgery on an old wound with a knife. Death scenes include gunfire, knife wounds, neck-snapping, and strangulation. A woman is coldly and abruptly executed with no mourning or remorse.