James Bond is really the original movie franchise. The early films of the 1960s with Sean Connery in the role of Ian Fleming's dapper but cunning secret agent grabbed the world's attention and never let go. Bond endures, and as much as one can credit the simple virtues of a well-conceived fantasy figure, it's also due to smart producers who felt they owed the character a fresh approach every so often.
Bond differs from contemporary movie epics: the character remains a vehicle for grown-up fantasies. As appealing as the action has always been for all ages, the Bond universe is a funhouse mirror of the real world. It magnifies danger and pleasure, simultaneously sophisticated and silly. Bond didn't travel in the same gritty world of intrigue that John LeCarre essayed, and on screen Bond moved even farther from reality as the films became a phenomenon. Once Connery left the series it had already created its own sense of formula. The films could in no way be taken seriously by the late 1980s. Happily, the producers have experimented with the series often, and each time they've bent the material back towards its origins. And being a reflection, however fun, of the real world has been a challenge, as times and global political climate have moved on.
The Bond films of the 1990s were enjoyable, but one can easily imagine the series sliding back into self-parody. That's why one applauds the decision several years ago to tinker again with Bond, winding it back even further both to Fleming and reality (or as close as one can dare). With Casino Royale the Bond films really enjoyed a serious shift that was a success in every way. Daniel Craig was a very grim 007, with only the very slightest of smirks. Many who grew sated with the easy pleasures of the flashier previous films choked a bit on the no-gristle recipe the producers offered. But what a feast it was for those hungry for the best Bond might be.
Which brings us to Skyfall, the latest Bond film. As the third film featuring Craig, it really delivers all that this new approach promised. It feels astonishingly fresh. Its virtues are plentiful, from the best Bond theme song (courtesy of Adele) in many decades, to a villain who is a genuine, abundantly interesting character. Rather than repeat many of the series' formulas, the new film adds them in at angles that make for a Bond film full of surprise. Craig fully owns the Bond character in this outing, and is well served by a screenplay that challenges the secret agent to prove himself within its narrative just as the character must in popular culture, as he strides the decades, leaving the Indiana Joneses and Harry Potters along the path.
Interestingly, Bond often was pitted against the sort of bloated, power hungry technocrats who in the real world do great harm. (What would the Koch Brothers do with a laser weapon satellite?) But the villain in Skyfall (Javier Bardem as "Silva") is a product of the world of espionage - a fallen spy bent on revenge. There's just slight embroidery that suggests Julian Assange (who shares a hairstyle with the film's villain along with the habit of releasing sensitive material on the web). Bond spends a lot of time at home in the United Kingdom in Skyfall, a real departure for the globetrotting spy. It's fun seeing Bond deal with a crowded rush hour on the tube, but there's plenty of weight to the film, and it portrays a ruthless profession that could easily produce a twisted villain (Silva) or a twisted hero (Bond).
The loyalties that are central to the plot are not simple, and this is easily the most profound Bond in that sense. We're still dealing in escapism, and Skyfall manages an interesting compromise- essaying a world of intrigue short on nobility without crumbling beneath any real world issues.
Director Sam Mendes is a real asset: he gets so very much from the interpersonal scenes, and yet he brings a fresh and clever approach to the action in the film. A scene that takes place in a Shanghai high-rise at night is inventive and stupendous, and the finale is fresh and satisfying, far from the spectacle one expects. Judi Dench, as Bond's superior, is more prominent than ever, and Dench really makes the most of the opportunity. A supporting cast that includes everyone from Ralph Fiennes to Albert Finney is expertly used. Naomi Harris brings an awful lot to what is usually a throwaway character (the "good girl"). Indeed, Harris plays a more prominent role as a fellow agent with intelligence and wholesome beauty (but not too good an aim) than the femme fatale of the piece (Bérénice Marlohe).
As always, a James Bond film will offer no insights or grand messages, just a droll but intoxicating escape from the real world. But no one drinks a martini for nourishment. Skyfall is a strong martini with its ingredients shaken to perfection.
Directed by Sam Mendes
2012, 143 minutes, PG-13