James Bond, now 50 years old as a franchise, has struggled to find his place in the modern cinematic scene. Both in his own universe and next to towering transforming robots and lush worlds of dragons and hobbits, the question is raised: is there still room for an aging but still spry warhorse like Bond? In a way, Skyfall represented a last chance for Bond. After the excellent Casino Royale was greeted with less than overwhelming praise, and Quantum of Solace earned a great deal of well-deserved stick, would this be Bond’s last hurrah, or the turning point of the series back towards success?

Courtesy MGM

As Skyfall opens, we catch up with 007 and a fellow agent named Eve in Istanbul as they pursue the murderous thief of a valuable hard drive. Chase scenes aren’t innovative in the world of the espionage action-adventure, but this one transitions smoothly from cars to motorbikes to a train, and heavy industrial equipment also gets involved. In addition to its shifting scale, the sequence is also wonderfully and cleanly shot, with clear establishing images and well-positioned fights. Then Eve tries to shoot down the thief while he and Bond struggle on top of the train and… well, let’s just say things go pear-shaped.

If the theme of Skyfall somehow eludes you after the opening sequence, M will nail it down for you. In the wake of the Istanbul incident, M is called before the civilian government and her headquarters is bombed. When Bond returns, he is put through some tests to ensure his skills are still up to scratch, and then is sent out after whomever is targeting M and find out for what purpose. By focusing on the relationship between 007 and his employer, and making them personal targets of the villain, Skyfall maintains a tight story focus that was lacking in Quantum of Solace while keeping the character-driven narrative that made Casino Royale such a success.

Courtesy MGM
“Is… is that Jean Yves you’re wearing?”

Speaking of villains, Javier Bardem brings us the character of Silva. While he has no plans for world domination, he does have most other affectations of a classic Bond villain: a remote and menacing lair, a distinctive physical presence, and a tendency to do a lot of talking. Added to this are his past history with MI6 and the Byzantine nature of his plans, to the point that he becomes almost Joker-like in his anticipation of his enemy’s moves. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a turn of events towards the middle of the film that feel distinctly like they were cribbing notes from The Dark Knight. I can’t slight them for their choice in material, and it’s certainly not a direct copy-paste, but it’s not something you can just un-notice.

However, Bardem’s performance, like those of the rest of the cast, is full of nuance and personality. Daniel Craig’s Bond goes through the process of finally honing down that surly, unrefined edge of his, and seeing him suave it up in a Macau casino feels like coming home; this is the Bond we’ve been waiting for. Dame Judi Dench is incredible as always, making M even more personal and bringing her closer to Bond than she’s ever been. The newcomers are all top-notch as well, with Ralph Finnes supporting the democratic and bureaucratic process while his loyalty to MI6 and our heroes remains in doubt, Naomi Harris bringing levity, complexity, and sensuality to the character of Eve, French actress Bérénice Marlohe smolders in classic Bond girl fashion as Sévérine, and relative newcomer Ben Whishaw rounds out the cast as the new Q, a bespectacled technology expert that is wonderfully juxtaposed with our classic two-fisted hero. Despite winks to the audience here and there, nothing feels phoned in or strictly by the numbers. The cast has a natural ease with the material that makes them both easy and delightful to watch.

Courtesy MGM
I love that kitschy bulldog on M’s desk.

Also helping Skyfall‘s case is excellent direction and stunning cinematography. Sam Mendes is perhaps best known for slower-paced, contemplative pieces such as American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Jarhead, but he clearly knows how to convey action as much as he does emotion. The sight of Bond jumping from the catwalk of a backhoe onto a train car is just as compelling as the look on Bond’s face at the firing range at MI6. He balances the emotionality of the moment with its movement and energy perfectly. He’s paired with Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers of our time – his credits include The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, Doubt, and most Coen Brothers movies including Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, and True Grit. He makes every shot of Skyfall gorgeous, including some shots that could easily be framed and hung on a wall. Good writing with well-acted characters is usually enough to sell a movie, but Skyfall could also succeed on visuals alone. Put together, and we have one of the best Bond films to come along in decades.

Firing as it does on so many cylinders, flaws in Skyfall are hard to find. It does run a bit long, but given its focus on characters and narrative, this is somewhat understandable, and very little of the running time is spent idly. Some references and in-jokes may fly over the heads of some audience members, especially at the film’s conclusion. This, however, is also purposeful: the message is clearly that Bond has come full circle.

Stuff I Liked: Silva’s entrance. The inclusion of exotic animals of death. The practicality of Bond’s equipment. The sequence in the Shanghai skyrise. The fact that MI6’s bunker is, at least in part, connected to Churchill’s.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: We never find out what, exactly, Sévérine does for Silva. And while it’s not a gripe, I’m a bit confused by the timeline of things; considering this is a new Bond, I’m not sure he has a direct connection to the exploding pen mentioned by Q or the old Astin Martin. I’m not complaining about these things being in the film, mind you; I’m just not sure this Bond is the same Bond who used these gadgets. A minor point.
Stuff I Loved: The opening sequence. M’s characterization. The way Ralph Finnes’ character is clearly trying to do the right thing even if it’s pissing off M or Bond. The exchanges between Bond and Silva. The quips. The martini. Pretty much the entire third act of the movie. “Welcome to Scotland.”

Bottom Line: The best way to sum up Skyfall is with three words: Bond is back. In addition to being a great action movie with good characters in interesting relationships, it’s a Bond movie through and through. Here’s hoping we get more like this, and that the days of ultra-camp embarrassments like Octopussy and confused messes like Quantum of Solace are finally behind us.