Unfortunately there hasn't been enough time to shake off the memories of 2008's misguided and dismal James Bond entry Quantum of Solace. Here was a film that not only failed to capitalize on the stunning and reenergized momentum of Casino Royale, but one that tossed away everything that made the Bond series so special.
With the success of the Bourne films, the filmmakers behind that project felt the pressure to reinvent Bond yet again for a modern action audience. Gone was Bond's style, replaced with nonsensical chaotic cinema technique and a blaring audio landscape. Had Bond just become the sloppy version of Jason Bourne and if so why continue the series?
It is this existential question that is on the mind of the newest 007 entry, Skyfall; just in time for their 50th anniversary. Even James Bond himself admits that he's been in the game, "Maybe too long." Can a series that has scrambled from film to film to find its modern identity, lest we all forget the incredibly goofy Die Another Day, justify a reason for its continued existence?
Under the direction of Sam Mendes (American Beauty) the answer is a resounding, "Yes!" Skyfall isn't just the best Daniel Craig entry in the series but the best James Bond film ever made. Not only is it a bold step forward for the series, exploring aspects of Bond's character never before attempted, but it also operates as a reverential love-letter to all the films that came before it. Who would have thought that the simple answer to all of Bond's problems would be to keep what works and reinvent what doesn't?
Skyfall begins, in typical Bond style, with a high-speed chase that pushes Bond to his limits and sets up the stakes that will follow. However, by the end of that magnificently constructed chase, one that bests even Casino Royale's parkour sequence, Bond finds himself shot and potentially dead at the hands of his own partner. It is only when he returns that he is forced to confront the reality that MI6 is under attack by a cyber terrorist, out for revenge on M, and by their own government that sees the agency as irrelevant in the modern world.
Skyfall acknowledges the weakness of the Bond brand by presenting Craig's Bond as an aging and physically broken man. His redemption and success has never meant so much before, for it not only will determine the literal continuation of MI6 but also the longevity of the Bond character in the popular culture.
Surprisingly enough, it seems that Skyfall's greatest influence is that of the Christopher Nolan Batman series, particularly The Dark Knight. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the villain of Skyfall, ex-MI6 spy Silva (Javier Bardem). Just like the Joker, Silva delights in his derangement and relishes his ability to challenge not only Bond's physicality but also his sexuality. He is a mad-dog whose psychopathy holds up a mirror to Bond's past, but also to Bond's own loyalty to country.
Skyfall slowly strips Bond of all of his artifices, one by one. The end of Skyfall leaves him exposed in a way that no other Bond film has ever attempted. Mendes knows that in order to modernize and reinvent Bond it means getting to the very roots of what makes him an enduring character. Skyfall is at its most emotionally complex and dramatic in its final moments, as the film's scope narrows to the very tip of a blade.
All of this is serviced by the unbelievable work of Roger Deakins's (The Shawshank Redemption) cinematography. Never before has a Bond film looked this good. Deakins has created a true work of beauty that continually outdoes itself. There are consistent moments that challenge the impossible and could serve as the standout "show off" moment of any other film. Here they come faster than bullets, but never in a way that distracts from the film. Every exotic location has a unique visual palette, with a rooftop scene in Shanghai whose beauty and complexity has to be seen to be believed and even then its sheer spectacle will astound.
In a year of Hollywood films that feel as if they are fulfilling an obligation, Skyfall is able to move beyond that and prove that not only was this Bond entry necessary but it is now the defining benchmark of modern action cinema. Skyfall embraces the old, martinis and Aston Martins, while not only reinventing Bond but making him better than ever. Just like The Dark Knight proved that comic book literature could be taken seriously, Skyfall proves that when shaken, not stirred, the Bond formula can still work better than ever.
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