We live in a world where an iPad is considered obsolete six months after its introduced. How does a character like James Bond, who made his first appearance on screen (officially anyway) fifty years ago, remain relevant in 2012? That is what the unusually thoughtful new Bond picture, 'Skyfall,' seeks to find out.
This twenty-third Bond film (officially anyway) contains all the franchise's requisite elements and characters -- including a few that were excluded from the last couple installments. It is thrilling, sexy, and beautifully photographed. There are chases and sex scenes and elaborate fights, and at one point Bond drives a motorcycle onto a train because that looks a lot cooler than just getting on at the station. But 'Skyfall' also contains some sincere contemplation of what Bond means to the world half a century after his introduction. The 007 franchise has outlasted five leading actors, along with countless supporting players and their replacements, not to mention the entire geopolitical environment that birthed Ian Fleming's gentleman spy. Why is he still here? What are we still watching for?
The man who currently plays Bond, Daniel Craig, is just 44 years old, not exactly a senior citizen (Roger Moore played Bond until he was almost 60). So the film's cold open is used to give him a taste of mortality. A hard drive containing the identities of every undercover NATO agent on the planet has been stolen, and in the race to get it back Bond is gravely wounded and presumed dead. M (Judi Dench), his boss at British Intelligence even writes his obituary. Here director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan tacitly acknowledge the bad reviews from both critics and audiences that hounded the previous Bond film, 'Quantum of Solace,' and the nagging feeling -- which is almost as old as the character himself, at least when his last movie was crummy -- that the character has outlived his pop cultural usefulness.
But the funny thing about Bond is that every time he's written off -- on or off-screen -- he seems to come back with a new trick up his sleeve. After an attempt on M's life, Bond returns to pick up the chase for the hard drive by, amusingly, tracing the shrapnel left in a wound in his shoulder from the pre-credits' chase. As Bond follows the trail of breadcrumbs to a fiendish super-villain named Silva (Javier Bardem), M faces pressure from the government, represented by a crusty bureaucrat named Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), to resign in light of her department's recent screw-ups.
Bond has come a long way from the days of Blofeld, Goldfinger, and death rays aimed at Sean Connery's crotch, but 'Skyfall' manages to balance modern action concerns and conceits with many clever but subtle nods to 007's long history. Silva, like all good Bond villains, has his own island fortress, and he doesn't mind indulging in a bit of monologuing, but he's also much better than his peers at keeping his ultimate plans secret (and in copying some of his moves from The Joker's playbook from 'The Dark Knight'). Several of Bond's most popular recurring sidekicks make their first appearances in the new Daniel Craig continuity, identifiably drawn from their old counterparts but with smart, contemporary gloss. Gadgeteer Q, for example, returns in the form of Ben Whishaw, younger, geekier, and more concerned with computer hacking than designing jet packs or pens that explode.
Craig himself has, from the beginning of his run in 2006's 'Casino Royale,' represented a more "modern" Bond: less wisecracks, less philandering (NOTE: still some philandering), more intensity, more brooding, more muscular action. He continues that interpretation here. Craig's Bond is easily the most grim in 50 years, even moreso than the early Connery, who loved to crack jokes when he killed people (Craig looks pained when the script calls for puns).
With the wrong screenplay and the wrong set of filmmakers, he would be deadly dull (and he came dangerous close in 'Quantum of Solace') but Craig works in 'Skyfall,' which isn't necessarily a serious movie, but which does take the idea of Bond seriously. The jaw-droppingly gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins certainly doesn't hurt; the movie looks so good, it feels like a prestige picture that just happens to be about a dude fighting bad guys in a giant gila monster pit in a Macao casino.
It's difficult to talk in much detail about exactly how the film ponders Bond's mortality at 50 without getting into spoilers, so instead let's consider that original question that the film addresses: what does he represent now? The answer is best summed up by a scene between Silva and Bond at Silva's evil lair. After a bit of homoerotic flirtation -- a fairly new touch for the series -- Silva challenges Bond to a pistol duel for the life of a woman -- a classic trope (see: 'The Man With the Golden Gun'). Before they begin, Silva offers 007 a glass of 50-year-old scotch. A vodka martini, shaken not stirred, would certainly have been the traditional beverage for the occasion, but Silva's aged Macallan, which shares a birth year with 'Dr. No,' is the perfect metaphor for Bond in the 21st century: improving with age, growing richer and more complex with deep flavor and light accent notes. Younger audiences may prefer the cinematic equivalent of Four Loko: highly caffeinated action that goes down faster and more frenetically (think 'Transformers'). 'Skyfall''s not meant to be guzzled. It should be savored; appreciated as a delicate creation that has not only withstood the test of time, but been enhanced by it.
'Skyfall' hits theaters on November 9.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’