Fifty years ago, James Bond made his silver screen debut with Dr. No starring a young Sean Connery. Over the years, the role of Bond’s mantle has been worn by other up and coming actors as well as some veterans who’ve put their own spin on the character while each new movie expanded on the character’s universe. Some worried about the franchise’s future when MGM had problems with solvency, and after four years of putting together a new film, Skyfall hits the silver screen hoping to be more like Casino Royale and less like Quantum of Solace. Audiences of the former will be pleased to discover Skyfall follows suit continuing along the same vein of the critically acclaimed Casino Royale which was a reboot showcasing a grittier and ruthless version of the character. This new movie wonders what role spies have in our modern age. Perhaps it plays too closely to the chest — the filmmakers and financiers wondering whether James Bond was still relevant after his disappointing outing with Quantum might have had some of their worries spill over and influence the script with its themes of inadequacy, ageism, and betrayal. The last four years must have seen some powerful hand wringing and deadly serious contemplation because the result is a movie that feels like it has everything to lose.
Daniel Craig returns as MI6 agent 007, older, edgier, and still haunted by the outcomes of Casino Royale. Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) becomes strained — more so — after a decision leads to Bond getting shot. Presumed dead, he takes a break from the violence and rigors of being a spy. As he overhears news of terror attacks in his home country, he returns even as his superiors question the ability and need for the shadow protectors working in the dark to keep the world safe. Bond follows a lead to Shanghai and comes face to face with a predecessor (Javier Bardem) who is M’s darkest secret.
In his 50 years as a cultural icon, the mythos of James Bond has grown into something much more than a literary character which Bond started as. He and his surrounding cast of characters have been treated as absolutes — characters who are exactly who they are — and each new entry into the series continued that legacy by giving us more of the same while reflecting current events. Distilled, Bond is a tuxedo-wearing womanizer who drives fancy cars, keeps himself ahead of the curve with the latest in spy gadgetry, and travels the world as a one-man wrecking ball removing threats to Queen and country. Skyfall goes above and beyond that with a bit of addition by subtraction. It pays homage to the older movies, but makes a clear statement that this new direction is distinct reimagining that could exist on its own. After Q, who we meet again for the first time, gives Bond a package with contents that seem underwhelming only because we’ve come to expect flash and gadget wizardry, he asks, “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” It’s a Goldeneye reference, and there are other nods to the past movies. But the new has come to replace the old, and while some may expect exploding pens and cars that drive themselves, they’ll find a stripped down Bond making a case for a deft human touch, a killing stroke that also knows when to restrain itself. As nations wage war with automated weapons systems and missiles that drop out of the air, Bond is manual labor. He’s imperfect and unrefined, but he’s effective, and this modern movie that’s part origin story and part reboot picks itself up, fixes its cuff links, and makes its presence known as one of the best, if not the absolute best, in the series.