James Bond has been through some tough times recently—and I'm not talking about Die Another Day. Or any of the Timothy Dalton installments for that matter (a cluster of sequels better kept in their neon, shallow '80s graves.) I'm talking about the insufferably agonizing film Quantum of Solace. Let's be real for two seconds: The last James Bond film was utter trash. I mean, I think I remember it being ... pretty? Like, very colorful. That's about it. And I saw it three times. If I can't remember the plot after three times, chances are it's not that memorable, because I've been able to find a plot in everything. Trust me, I've seen Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver.
This Bond, however, has fully recovered from the rut the franchise found itself in after its last installment. James Bond has made a comeback, as cool and suave as ever, pushing several subplots out of the way that were deemed unnecessary in the last two installments. James Bond as a character has found middle ground in this film between the last two depressing Daniel Craig installments and the general silly macho stereotype left on the franchise by the previous actors.
Skyfall finds Bond returning to MI6 after being left for dead in a high speed chase of an unnamed contract killer who stole a flash drive containing the names of every undercover agent in MI6. As the film unravels, we find that thief was hired by a cruel, deformed ex-agent, played by a wonderfully malicious Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character has a personal vendetta against MI6, particularly Judi Dench's character, M. Bardem's Raoul Silva is bent on the destruction of M, as she had left him to die when he was captured and tortured by enemy Chinese forces. Because of this, he feels that he can find a way to get James to identify with him, as Bond's near-death experience at the beginning of the film came about from M's orders.
The Skyfall installment has provided the franchise with a well-needed clean up. It is a very smart action film, balancing its butch, over-the-top stunts and explosions with actual heart and dignity. Craig plays an aging James Bond with spot-on accuracy, displaying the veteran spy with a silent grace that a lot of the other Bonds could not quite capture; indeed, most of the Bonds—including icons such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore—had not quite captured the dimension of the character. Daniel Craig does this with relative ease, allowing himself to be both an ode to primal masculinity and a portrait of raw, human emotion.
Bardem is just as powerful as Raoul Silva. Bardem isn't the archetype Bond villain; he portrays a villain in pure form—complex, twisted, brilliant. A lot of the Bond nemises in the past have, like Bond, crumbled to common stereotypes, seeking only wealth, power or dominance. Silva, however, is ultimately a man seeking revenge against M, a woman whom he once deemed a maternal figure, for abandoning and slighting him. Bardem plays Silva as a tragic figure betrayed by the world he tried so hard to protect.
Judi Dench plays M with her most stunning performance in the franchise. Played with an icy indifference, M slowly thaws through the course of the film as she begins to realize how much she cares about her agents. A woman racked with guilt, she spends the bulk of her screen time trying to regain composure after letting the flash drive slip out of her hands, causing the deaths of agents stationed across the globe. M sees no other option but to be cold, as whenever she allows herself to be emotional in any way, someone ends up dead. Dench's performance as the head of MI6 has finally taken away the mystery of M in the series—not only a boss, but a maternal figure trying to find the best way to help the many rather than help the individual.
However, the writing and powerful performances distract the audience from the film's fatal flaw: the film's action sequences, which are—with the exception of the opening and ending scenes—bland in comparison with the other Bond films. It is my only gripe with Skyfall: Ironically, the dramatic sequences are more powerful and adrenaline-pumping than the actual action sequences.
The film is directed beautifully by Sam Mendes, whose past credits include American Beauty and The Road to Perdition. Mendes tries to make the action sequences as visually appealing as possible, but his efforts often come in forced and pushy, as though he were trying to pull off explosions with some sort of artistic decadence. However, Mendes handles the more serious moments of the film with blatant honesty. As I said, a lot of Skyfall’s most high-octane thrills come from the chilling delivery of Silva's antagonizing threats and laughter in his glass cell, only a computer virus away from being released and hunting M down with a cold vengeance.
Everyone in Skyfall delivers. The writing is clean, witty, and at times, scary. Although the action sequences could have been handled better (Note to the director: explosions in action movies don't have to be as smart as the rest of the film), Skyfall carries on with dignity and power, telling a story of redemption, forgiveness, and the true bond (pun intended) that can be forged by years of trial and tribulation. Is it the best film in the franchise? I suppose at this point, only time will tell. However, Skyfall is the most honest and possibly the most heart-wrenching installment of the franchise.