Movie Review: James Bond Goes Both Ways In SKYFALL

It's the strangest Bond film in 43 years. Is it also the best?

If you caught the recent James Bond retrospective Everything Or Nothing, you know that Eon Productions can be a very sentimental bunch. They like their anniversaries and their traditions and their benchmarks, and so there's been no shortage of the company making a Big Deal out of Skyfall being both the 50th anniversary of the franchise, as well as Daniel Craig's third entry.

On top of that, fans have been clamoring since around the end credits of Casino Royale for a return to the Bond "formula." They want the gadgets, they want the car, they want their Q, and they want their GODDAMN gun barrel sequence at the top of the film! While all this is happening, you also have star Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes bringing their own priorities and concerns to Pinewood Studios, trying to keep Bond fresh and maybe even vital in a post-9/11, post-Dark Knight, post-Jason Bourne world. It initially seems like two creative mandates at odds with each other, but it's surprising how often the film succeeds at having it both ways. Reactions are going to be mixed, I suspect, but one thing is certain: in attempting to pilot the franchise backward and forward simultaneously, the filmmakers have delivered the most unusual Bond film since the truly great (and truly bonkers) On Her Majesty's Secret Service in 1969.

It's certainly the most colorful entry since that psychedelic one-off. In one single scene - an exciting, unconventionally-filmed fight inside a glass high-rise - cinematographer Roger Deakins restores to 007's world a lush, rich color palette absent from the franchise since the '60s. And indeed, the film spends quite a bit of time serving up scenes and grace notes that seem designed to call back specific moments of the past 50 years. You want a larger-than-life villain with a secret island lair, but hate The Man With The Golden Gun? You're covered. You want to see Bond use deadly reptiles as stepping stones? You no longer need to queue up Live and Let Die to do so. You liked From Russia With Love's fight on a train? Well, here we have a fight ON a train. (Yeah, so did Octopussy, but let me have that one.) Itching to see a marksmanship contest between Bond and an over the top baddie? Thunderball and Moonraker both have that, but Skyfall does it better.

Comparisons to The Dark Knight have sprung up, partly due to Mendes' recent comments and partly due to a villain who evokes that film's Joker in more ways than one. Truthfully, the film feels closer to The Dark Knight Rises, though it's much more successful in the execution. It's a continuation of the current, grounded take on the material, and there's plenty of darkness, but it's also a film determined to lighten things up and remind you that what you're watching is supposed to be fun. And while the humor feels like a specific departure for Craig's iteration of Bond, it's the "thinking man's blockbuster" stuff where the whole franchise breaks new ground. Where Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace strove to be about the man, Skyfall is about the job. From the first scene, the film is preoccupied with the same sort of "expedient amorality" John le Carré (and, to his credit, Ian Fleming) wrote about - the tough, unsentimental decisions at the heart of the espionage game, and the toll those decisions take - both on those who make them and those who live or die at the mercy of them. In the pre-title sequence, we find Bond and a fellow field agent (Naomie Harris) in Turkey, chasing down a stolen hard drive containing the names of every MI6 undercover operative. Yes, it's sort of ridiculous that a list of MI6 operatives would all be on one hard drive. Not to give it a blind pass, but complaining about plot conveniences in a Bond film is like going to a Christmas party and whining about all the red and green. During this often thrilling sequence, we watch as M (Judi Dench), in the name of national security, allows (if not incidentally orders) the deaths of two of her operatives.

One of those agents is 007 himself, sent plunging off a bridge by a bit of friendly fire into title designer Daniel Kleinman's moody vision of purgatory. Kleinman's opening credits - full of women, skulls, gravestones and funhouse imagery - are a callback to everything from vintage Ian Fleming dust jackets to Roger Moore's entries (a hint of the juxtaposition to come, perhaps). To compare Kleinman's work here to his previous contributions is an apples/oranges thing, but rest assured they're great, working perfectly with Adele's theme song, and full of evocative imagery that will have you rewinding the Blu-ray in a few months' time.

Our mystery villain, not content to have absconded with the leaked list of agents, next blows up M's office real good, making sure she's able to watch from a safe distance. Meanwhile Bond, presumed dead, is essentially three months AWOL in Turkey - drinking, popping pills and moping on the beach, M's unfeeling "take the bloody shot" command still ringing in his ears. But the attack on MI6 compels him to return to London, where he finds M under professional fire and MI6 going to the mattresses. They've relocated to an underground area used by Churchill during the war, and it's down here that Bond is put through a battery of physical and psychological tests. He seems to do poorly at all of them, but M tells Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a bureaucrat breathing down her neck, that Bond has passed and is fit for duty. After a memorable first meeting with his new quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), Bond zips off to Shanghai, gets into an awesome fight with the criminal he'd left on the train back in Turkey, and makes his way to a floating casino in Macau, where he encounters the gorgeous Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), some Chinese goons, and a couple Komodo dragons before facing down Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent who's gone spectacularly rogue, toppling economies and creating chaos for fun, and targeting MI6 - and M in particular - for revenge.

Silva is the embodiment of the film's themes regarding M and her expendable dark knights. M's on-the-job ruthlessness has left Silva without a country, an identity or an acceptable amount of bone in his skull. Given up to the enemy years ago in a move by M to save other agents, Silva is scarred in every sense, and turns to "doing secret missions on (his) own" because he doesn't seem to know what else to do with his skillset. It's a great bit of motivation for a Bond villain, and Bardem's Silva is without question the defining villain of Daniel Craig's run as Bond. Most Bonds seems to have at least one "dark mirror" adversary - Connery had Red Grant, Moore had Scaramanga, Brosnan had 006 - and Silva eclipses them all. He's a true Ian Fleming grotesque, a pastiche of villains from the novels (Hugo Drax's disfigurement) and films (Scaramanga and his private island lair), but most significantly he's the first villain from the Craig era who's just a flat-out madman, and Bardem is perfection in the role. The villain also speaks to Bond's arc: 007, still smarting over M ordering the shot that sent him off the bridge, knows she lied about his test results in order to return him to active duty, and he sees in Silva the end result of M's "at any cost" determination. The last two films had M questioning whether she could trust Bond; Skyfall uses Silva's backstory to flip that dynamic, fueling Bond's doubts about whether he can trust M.

Early news that the film focused on M as much as it does was cause for concern. But Mendes and the screenwriting team have gone beyond just giving her something to do; M's role in this film is the most vital she (or any M) has ever been to the proceedings. We're feeling the weight of M's job more than ever before here as she dispassionately sends agents to their probable doom. That's been the job for 50 years of films, but for the first time we're exploring the ramifications of it, and it's exciting and fresh. M's story gives the entire film its engine, and her role here is a massive improvement over the nagging mother figure she'd been turned into in recent years. Dench is obviously aware of this and rolls with the film's twists, turns and tonal shifts, handling both the pathos and surprisingly abundant lighter moments with equal amounts of talent.

Daniel Craig is also clearly relishing this go-round. The script gives him a full spectrum to play, from a "physical wreck" that recalls the literary Bond of Fleming's You Only Live Twice, to the cocky, self-assured 007 fans have been waiting for since 2006. Bond is enjoying himself again, verbally sparring and flirting with fellow field agent Eve (their exchanges are some of the best in the film), with Sévérine (theirs not so much) and, in a surprising scene that will likely be a hallmark for Craig's run, with Silva. The film also acknowledges the real-time gap between films, portraying Bond as a weary lifer. Gone is the "newly licensed 007 finding his way" vibe. We're on the other side of it, looking at the end result of a life (or a half-dozen years, at any rate) lived as Bond, and Craig plays the hell out of it.

His mileage is played up nicely by the casting: Eve can barely contain her attraction to Bond, but enjoys teasing him about his age, of which she looks to be about half. And the best age-related exchange is between Bond and the new Q, who gets a thorough teasing from Bond about his inexperience and his complexion (pro-tip for America and non-Mott The Hoople fans: "spots" is British slang for "pimples"). Their dynamic has been cleverly inverted from that of the older films: Bond is now the impatient old grouch, while Whishaw's Q never seems to raise his voice. Their exchanges provide the biggest laughs in the film, which was always the purpose of Q's scenes, but it all feels new. Neat trick, that. I've said for years the new films didn't need to have Q; Whishaw makes me wholeheartedly retract that statement.

In fact, to my surprise I was happy with just about every return to "the formula." Down to Bernard Lee's original leather office door from 1962, most of Skyfall's return to classic Bond elements feels "correct," give or take a few awkward double entendres and puns which feel clunky-to-forced, as if they belong to an earlier era (or at least an earlier draft). There's an added sting to the bad jokes in that they feel as if they're just a script polish or two away from actually working.

The film is 143 minutes long, but doesn't wear out its welcome. There's none of the impatience of Quantum of Solace on display; you get the sense everyone is here to play, and they're going to take their time in the sandbox. The film's final siege in the Scottish countryside feels a little traditional on paper - insert your own Home Alone/Straw Dogs/Death Wish 3 jokes here - but it's executed marvelously and beautifully rendered by Deakins' cinematography. And if the finale feels a little standard or even predictable, the film's final moments will send you out of the theater energized and ready for more. When the dust settles, Skyfall might not be the best film of Craig's run - it lacks the fresh, revelatory energy of Casino Royale - but it's certainly the most satisfying.

With the review proper out of the way, let's geek out a bit, shall we? As a major Bond nerd, here are some of small and not-so-small things I absolutely loved about this film, all of which have next to nothing to do with film criticism. Spoilers ahead:

James Bond is not a code name. Fans' wrongheaded attempt to have every Bond film exist as part of one single continuity most often manifests itself in the undying idea that "James Bond" is a code name for a long line of secret agents. It's a theory that's been thrown around since 1967's spoof Casino Royale, all the way to a recent installment of Alan Moore's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are many ways to pick this theory apart, but Skyfall closes the door on it with a glimpse of Bond's family home - and the graves of his parents. It's not only a nice nod to Fleming's backstory for the character, but it establishes once and for all that James Bond is the cinematic 007's birth name.

007 in London: In the novel Moonraker, Bond never leaves the UK. It's one of the absolute best books in the series, and part of that might be due to the absence of globetrotting; Fleming was writing for post-war Britain, and as a result spent pages and pages describing expensive food and exotic locales. In Moonraker he wasn't as compelled to go into travelogue mode (though he still prattled on about meals), and the gap is filled with extra characterization and detail about Bond's life, his relationship with M and the day-to-day of MI6. And it's great stuff! While I love the Nolanizing of the well-worn "super-villain secret island headquarters" on display in Skyfall, the non-UK locations honestly feel a bit obligatory, the same way there has to be a scene in every movie of Bond in a tuxedo. James Bond in London is a great fit, from the clandestine "new digs" of MI6, to the National Gallery, to the chase in the London Underground (a set piece first floated in an early draft of On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

Untold Tales of the Aston Martin - Somewhere between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, Bond apparently got himself a 1964 Aston Martin DB5, complete with ejector seat and machine gun housings in the front panel. (I'm not sure if we're meant to assume it's the car he won in Casino Royale; the steering wheel is on the opposite side here.) Is the film alluding to six years of unseen Bond adventures in which he tooled around in this thing like a proper superspy, or is Daniel Craig's 007 the Patient Zero of Bond nerds, building the car for himself and wishing for the day he could use it? (I love Devin's observation, made offsite, that the car is how Craig's Bond sees himself.) Mark my words, Bond fans will be ripping their hair out trying to parse the meaning of this out-of-nowhere inclusion of the tricked-out DB5 for years. Speaking for myself, I love the attitude that allows for the DB5 to be in the film without explanation, but it's harder to reconcile that carefree approach with the insistence that your Bond movie - the one that has Daniel Craig jokingly threatening to use the ejector seat button on M - is somehow above having the trademark gun barrel bit at the top. (The only thing hurting the placement of the gun barrel at the end was Quantum Of Solace did the same thing, diluting the effect here.)

M & M - This is the one everyone saw coming, and while the execution seemed a little abrupt (and just plain weird; trying to make the murder of a 77-year-old woman feel poignant is bound to be an uphill battle), it makes perfect thematic sense within the film that M has a day of reckoning. The moment feels genuine, and Dench has earned it. However you slice it, it was time for a change, and it's hard to not be happy with the new appointment. The franchise now has a frankly terrific supporting cast in place; I couldn't be more excited for Bond 24.