Outside Casino Royale, James Bond films have mutated in to emotionless battles between a one man army and a maniacal tyrant dedicated to the world’s death. The aforementioned tyrant typically has some physical deformity and a penchant for destroying the world as dramatically as possible. Mike Myers’ lampooning of such nonsense is well deserved. Of course, with the Bond franchise, how could one forget about our titular hero’s insatiable lust for exotic women? When he’s not making use of his inane explosive gadgets, Bond is finding just enough time to bone any woman who may find themselves at a party he’s infiltrating. If anything, women are a renewable resource for Bond’s globetrotting ways. This constant, repetitive premise never differentiates James Bond from any other action franchise in the multiplexes, thus making James Bond himself almost farcical. No matter how many times he saves the world, and no matter how many different locales he finds himself in, James Bond’s adventures may grow in scope, but his presence and impact are undeniably muted. How does one make the world’s most dangerous and suave agent percolate in an aging franchise? Scale back the franchises incessant need to put the world in danger and make it personal. Skyfall does this admirably.
Taking risks by circumventing franchise tropes, most notably avoiding the use of Bond girls and overstated gadgets, Skyfall finds Bond (Daniel Craig) displaced from his MI6 position after a mission has gone awry. Perceived dead, Bond lives a quiet life on what seems like an uncharted island. But Bond’s retirement is short-lived when a specter terrorist, one aided by computer hacking, attacks M (Judy Dench), Bonds’ fearless leader. Feeling an obligation to the woman who has dutifully supported his career, Bond slips out of retirement and returns to Britain as a broken and disheveled man. Invariably, Bond’s layoff from the espionage field reveals tears to his physical fabric, a clear indicator of a man losing a step to the hands of time. Bond arrogantly returns to capture M’s stalker, a move that ultimately finds him face to face with the elusive man he has been chasing: Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent turned international terrorist that seeks enjoyment from desecrating humanity. If this was a typical Bond film, Silva would hold the world hostage, and Bond would bone his way to a final showdown that would find him outwitting a villain that seemed unattainable. We don’t get that Bond. What we receive instead is an introspective film that finds Bond and Silva not battling for the world, but for the life of M. Suddenly, the world shrinks, and each gritty moment hits harder than the threat of nuclear devastation.
Skyfall’s detour from typical Bond affairs is refreshing and overdue. Helping the film slip past its franchises own conventions is director Sam Mendes, who makes his foray in to the action genre. Known for his small character driven films, most of which feature fractured characters slowly dissolving in worlds built on lofty expectations (e.g. American Beauty and Revolutionary Road), Mendes injects Skyfall with characters that have an eroding emotional core. Bond, for one, is seemingly a step behind physically and mentally, finding him distrusting his place in the espionage game. Craig’s tired face and crystalline blue eyes lend Bond a physical presence that is more sympathetic than it is suave. Acting as Bond’s antithesis is Silva, a rogue agent that once mirrored Bond’s career ascension, but fell victim to agent protocol, something he squarely blames M for. Mendes, along with the film’s screenwriters, ensure Silva’s danger by giving him the opportunity to deliver unsuspecting kills, one of which revolves around an expected love interest. Mendes maintains the surprises by letting Javier Bardem lurk in Silva’s skin uninhibited. His monologues are soft-spoken, but the passion that burns in Bardem’s eyes is frightening, as he creates an alarming amount of dissonance between the words spoken and their latency.
The unbridled passion that Bond and Silva have for their current and former boss makes the action sequences staged by Mendes burst off the screen. Gritty, fast paced, and bruising, Mendes shoots action like a veteran, which is surprising for a director that has made his ilk off suburban dramas. Supplementing Mende’s direction is a screenplay that pays homage to the franchise’s notorious tendencies, as well as throws away whatever expectations the audience has come to expect from Bond’s international antics. Now, gadgets are laughably disposed of, famous lines are hidden and Bond women don’t needlessly find themselves helping the debonair agent save the world in the end; it’s the official rebirth of Bond’s relevance in the film landscape. Mendes whittled down the world, peeled back the perceived thick skin of the world’s most famous agent, and created a film that extends the life of a fifty year old franchise that needed resuscitation.