Here we go again.
Ian Fleming’s 007 was retro-fitted and re-booted in 2006’s Casino Royale, going back to the beginning and reconfiguring the secret agent as a cut-throat rookie in over his head with the girl of his dreams. Bad things happened, and I don’t feel like I gave enough credit to the picture at the time, but it wears extremely well over repeat viewings—which is largely the pleasure of James Bond movies.
Look, none of these films is particularly great, but the formula works like comfort food. Indeed, when the new Daniel Craig administration deviated from it in 2008’s Quantum of Solace—depicting Bond as a rogue psychopath out to avenge the events of Casino Royale—audiences revolted.
I still maintain that it’s a more interesting film than most. Despite being hobbled by the writers strike and a terrible director, Quantum dealt out real-world consequences for the young 007, laid the groundwork for a super-terrorist organization that would presumably pay off in sequels, and built to an ending in which Craig had come of age and could at last step into that iconic gun-barrel opening we used to see at the start of every Bond movie.
Skyfall scraps all that, beginning with the notion that James Bond is an over-the-hill, prehistoric relic from a distant era. (This strikes me as odd, since we’ve seen Craig assigned to exactly two missions thus far, and he looks a little youngish for all these jokes about how old he is.) Ditching all the breadcrumbs left behind in Quantum and even abandoning beloved supporting characters (We miss you, Felix Leiter!), the movie begins with a pulse-pounding, genuinely amazing action sequence that Skyfall never tops, and the opening credits kick off with Bond left for dead by Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
He spends a lot of his free time drinking and outwitting scorpions, only to come back to England months later when M is threatened by a mysterious terrorist played by Javier Bardem. Judi Dench’s off-handedly maternal rapport with 007 has been such a highlight of these past couple pictures, so of course Skyfall has to go and fucking blow it by explaining everything. (Yes, this is exactly what we needed: expository monologues about James Bond’s sad childhood.)
It takes about an hour to get to the point, when Bardem finally appears in an ostentatious long-shot, once again boasting an absurdly comic haircut. He minces and insinuates, shoots women in the head and even strokes Bond’s cock while he’s got him tied to a chair. It’s a deliriously over-the-top turn, perhaps the most outlandish Bond villain since Michael Lonsdale in Moonraker.
So what’s it doing in this movie? Don’t ask director Sam Mendes. He can’t decide if he’s shooting a chilly noir or a Roger Moore camp classic. Ostentatiously bearing the load of 007’s 50th big-screen anniversary, Skyfall is chockablock with references to previous Bond pictures, constantly interrupting the action so aficionados can pat themselves on the back and say, “I recognize that from a movie I saw before!” Fan service is familiarity that breeds contempt, so when an otherwise compelling scene is interrupted just so Bond can fight Goldfinger’s Odd-Job in a kooky CGI lizard pit while reprising action beats from Live and Let Die, I began to feel like I was on a theme park ride.
Daniel Craig is still a phenomenal 007, lethal and brusque in ways Pierce Brosnan could only dream. There’s also a terrific supporting turn here by Ralph Fiennes, who manages to make his receding hairline look menacing. And attention must be paid to the gobsmacking digital photography by the legendary Roger Deakins. Skyfall might be the most gorgeously shot movie I have seen all year, and I say this as somebody who hates digital.
But Skyfall’s problems are the same that riddled The Dark Knight Rises. Much like the interminable amount of time spent waiting for Batman to become Batman again, we have already spent two movies wanting to see Daniel Craig finally become James Bond—and before the opening credits, they’ve knocked him out of commission. And then we have to start all over again.