There's a particular, special kind of pomp that greets the clockwork release of James Bond's cinematic escapades every couple of years. It's a pomp that at once underscores each new installment's role as the storied series' leading edge, while at the same time highlighting its ultimate transience as just one small cog in the machine that is, first and foremost, "The Franchise." The most successful of its kind. More than any individual film in the vast, ever-expanding catalogue, the Bond films' place of permanence comes from the totality of that catalogue, the breadth and width of which has long since rendered the films a kind of pop culture perpetual motion machine, ensuring that they carry on simply because they carry on.
It's for this reason that Skyfall, 007's 23rd official movie (arriving exactly 50 years after Dr. No and Sean Connery first started the run), feels like such a game-changer -- more, even, than Casino Royale, which rebooted the whole dang thing six years ago.
Coming on the heels of an interminable four-year delay (after 2008's Quantum of Solace) as home studio MGM got its financial house in order -- with a real question as to whether there would even be another one -- producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (whose EON productions has stewarded the series from the very beginning) turn in an entry that's expansive and personal and beautiful, but also packed with enough homages to Bond's cinematic history to remind us why he endures.
The story for this installment, penned by series vets Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and newcomer John Logan, centers on a list of covert NATO operatives stolen from British secret service agency MI6 and placed in the open (which, in 2012 terms, translates to viral videos and YouTube), thus endangering the lives of countless deep cover spies in the process. With the burden of accountability placed on erstwhile MI6 head M (Judi Dench, getting the most to do in this, her seventh film), the terrorist incursion turns out to be the handiwork of Raul Silva (Javier Bardem), a disaffected former double-oh agent with a particular, personal axe to grind with M. The ensuing cat-and-mouse quest sends Bond traipsing across continents before ultimately coming home to fight the most personal battle he's ever fought.
In the midst of the usual Bond-style sturm und drang, the rebooted-007 played by Daniel Craig (with a verve and confidence that can only come from this being his third time in-tux) finally makes the acquaintance of gadget-dispensing Man Friday Q (played by Ben Whishaw as a twenty-something computer hacker, a far cry from the character's crotchety Desmond Llewellyn persona). Also new presences are the lovely Eve (Naomi Harris), an ally for Bond in the field and off, and Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a government bureaucrat whose past proves extremely valuable (as, indeed, will his future). Seeing these key entanglements play out and click into place, we realize how much we missed the familiar trappings that are just as much a part of the 007 mystique as the man himself.
All due credit to Wilson and Broccoli for bringing on Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes to shepherd this 50th anniversary adventure, which fleshes out Bond's heretofore hidden history like never before while clearly pointing the way toward the series' future. Mendes, who previously worked with Craig when the star had a key supporting role in 2002's Road to Perdition, brings a methodical, refined eye to the proceedings, helped along by the luxurious cinematography by Roger Deakins. Also worth noting is that Skyfall is the most London-centric Bond film ever, with an extended chase sequence that has Bond tailing Silva from the Tube subway through the city's streets to an extended shootout at Parliament Square.
And as for Silva, with a blonde coif like Robert Shaw's Red Grant but a characterization more in line with Heath Ledger's Joker, Bardem is imminently, unnervingly watchable, but the character's motivations aren't really fleshed out beyond a spotty back story to set him up as the "but for the grace of God" mirror image of Our Man. Indeed, his constant, sneering references to M as "mother" underscore the maternal role she's come to play in Bond's life, much more than when Dench played the same part opposite the Pierce Brosnan iteration. Also a cipher is Severine, the requisite Bond beauty played by Bérénice Marlohe, who seems set to be a much more central figure than she turns out to be. Not necessarily a loss, but in terms of giving the story depth, it feels more like a digression than a dive.
If there's one thing Skyfall is, it's ambitious. And while that ambition takes perhaps too much breathing room at 143 minutes, it still deserves applause for finding creative and interesting ways to keep the series from growing staid (as it has so often in the past). After getting the big Batman Begins-style restart in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (the former to considerable critical acclaim, the latter less so), Skyfall serves as the de facto third leg of double-oh-seven du jour Daniel Craig's "Becoming Bond" trilogy. While it does leave Bond's world shaken and stirred, it also neatly re-stacks the deck to segue seamlessly into the character we've always known, giving plenty of reasons for 007 to soldier on for 50 more years at least. A-