This entry in the Bond franchise has a quieter sense of scale, often delivered through big beautiful shots like this one.

One of the things that surfaces most while watching Skyfall is that there will be no replacing Roger Deakins. He shoots the goddamn shit out of this film, using lighting and shadow to noticeably evoke the themes as well as delivering some of the most gorgeous images of not only 2012, but of any Bond film. So it is that I wanted to open this review with a big old hand for an aging cinematography wizard.

Being the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise, Skyfall is full of reversion to the old formula. It never quite goes all the way back to the cartoon Bond era, but tries to erect a fusion between the grittier, more worldly Craig term and all those “old ways”. Skyfall has on-the-nose references, one-liners, and jokes referring to a basic premise: the old ways are sometimes the best ways. It’s not quite an apology for reintroducing Q division, a car with guns under the hood, etc but it is certainly  a message to the audience. As a result, Skyfall is somehow simultaneously the most serious and somber of the recent Bond entries while also being far and way the most goofy. I think I prefer the full-bodied revision that is Casino Royale but I suspect that Skyfall is the better film.

Shadow is a prevalent motif in Skyfall.

Much of Skyfall is concerned with relevancy. Is Bond still relevant, injured and aging? Is M relevant with her failures and sentiments? Is MI6 relevant in an age of extreme visibility and rampant terror? The ongoing project of the Craig Bond films, which I’m sure is just as unintentional as it is interesting, is trying to find a way to make Bond, the icon and institution, relevant in our modern age. In many ways, Skyfall is a confident, but introspective statement about this. It’s not only saying that some of goofier trademarks abandoned in the last two films still okay, but that Bond himself and the world he inhabits are just as vital as ever. The film even features a not half-bad defense of human intelligence and clandestine operations in a world that assumes sophisticated terrorism.

What is perhaps most refreshing about how Skyfall engages this project is how well it walks a line between taking itself too seriously and not seriously enough. While re-embracing some of the old Bond articles (Moneypenny, gadgets, villains with private islands, and so on) it makes light of others (eject buttons, toothpaste explosives, and so on). Sometimes this movie gets very dark, but there’s always the stiff-upper-lip British resilience and that semi-catty-semi-cheesy-always-charming sense of humor that these movies have always had.

Another glorious, heroic damn shot.

A lot of this is owed to Craig, who is such a slamdunk as Bond that I bet there will be death threats if he leaves the role. But really, Skyfall is firing on all cylinders. Every actor is doing their bit, with Judi Dench, playing M, unsurprisingly doing great work with her expanded role. Because this is one of the best casts I can remember in any Bond film, the whole thing steps up another notch. This is also what makes the fact that Skyfall is far more measured about its action (with one exception) than Bond films tend to be. For being two and a half hours long, most of the running time is taken up not by long, complex chases but by drama and dialogue that are about character and ideas.

That said, Skyfall is still in the Bond tradition of big action to beat all big action. The opening chase is where Sam Mendes and his production team really let their hair down. Most of the other action is smaller scale, more contained, and of course more intimate. It’s no accident that the big scene is how Bond winds up injured and on the lam, setting up his characterization for the rest of the film and also spiraling into its commentary on the role of MI6, the antithetical premise of Silva (Javier Bardem), and the enigma of M.

Really just a great, silly sequence that would have been at home in a Mission Impossible film. And that’s a compliment these days.

For Skyfall to be one of the greatest Bond films, it also has to have one of the greatest villains. Bond has always had a rogue’s gallery that dovetailed between goofy and menacing. The Craig films have probably been slightly lessened for not having great villains. Until now. Javier Bardem is a fucking cyclone in Skyfall. He is also Craig-Bond’s version of Brosnan-Bond’s 006 from Goldeneye. That is, Silva is the un-Bond. Once suffering for loyalty to country and M much as Bond does, Silva makes it his mission to destroy her. His motivations are as personal as they are insane and Bardem’s tweaky performance coupled with some really fucking nice writing are what make Silva’s larger-than-life Bond villainhood work. The private island, the army of thugs, the hilariously omnipotent hacking prowess… it all rests on Bardem’s extremely capable shoulders.

When he was first introduced, the film risked deep-sixing all of that before it really got going. Now, James Bond has long been a symbol of masculinity and tradition not just to the Brits but to manly men around the world. His philandering, alcoholism, and casual attitude to murder are all part of his mystique and are parts of the deconstruction and justification that the Craig films have at times engaged in. Here, Silva flirts with Bond and fills their first scene together with a menacing but earnest sexual tension. Within moments, Silva is this pent up crazy queen whose affectionate antagonism of Bond is derived from a desire to fuck him. This has many problems when you consider the social and gender context of Bond. Then in a single line, the film manages not only to sidestep this difficulty but also challenge decades of assumption about Bond’s iconic, outdated sense of masculinity. As Silva says “first time for everything” while patting his legs, Bond responds with “who says it’s my first time?”. So even if Bond is maneuvering, the willingness of the film to even go there is a surprise worthy of applause. There’s also that Silva is playing a game with Bond here, trying to find a way to shake him up and unsettle him. When the sexual teasing doesn’t work, he changes tactics. The scene comes off perfectly.

Homophobes will shudder but my audience was amused by Bond’s risque comeback and Silva’s surprise.

So it turns out that it isn’t a desire to fuck Bond that sets up Silva’s attitude toward him, and therefore has nothing to do with why he’s a great villain. It’s that they are two of a kind, the last two rats, in Silva’s eyes. To him, Bond should be just like him. But as the movie progresses, it’s clear that Bond could never be like Silva. Not only has Bond gone through entirely different issues with the agency and M (and honestly, Silva’s suffering seemed worse than a somewhat debilitating bullet wound), but he also represents the down but not out. He’s a believer and he always has that something extra to give. The film acknowledges this beautifully with the back and forth over the ceramic bulldog. It’s a perfect representation of who Craig’s Bond really is.

Even though Skyfall gives a lot more to the characterization of M than previous films did, it’s still all about who Bond is. This is the first time we see where he came from, and the furthest down we’ve seen him. Even his emotional trauma at the loss of Vesper Lynd (salved by sweet vengeance) was nothing compared to the possibility that he can no longer be 007. The film handles his inner turmoil and resilience with subtlety. Bond does not break down, but shows strain throughout the film. It humanizes him, a thing that these Craig term films have done differently with different installments. I mean, there’s still that Bond is one tough motherfucker. At the same time, even he ages and even he gets doubts.

But maybe only he tears shrapnel out of his chest just cuz it’s annoying him.

For most of the film, Bond is on the ropes. Yes he’s still confident and still a supreme ass-kicker, but it’s not his lack of confidence that’s the issue. It’s a lack of confidence in him. From everyone but M. Bond isn’t physically or psychologically ready to be what he was, but M’s belief in him both allows for the possibility of recovery as well as the inspiration to get there again. It’s as unsentimental an execution of that relationship as you could imagine. It helps, though, in trying to understand why Bond isn’t as angry at M as Silva even though he was “betrayed” in similar fashion, and thus why Bond could never become Silva. It’s not as if the film ever flirts with the idea that Bond might go rogue. It’s simply a matter of questioning how much he can take, and answering why the personal level of all this spy drama matters at all.

It is important for the film’s full effect that the audience understands all this. It also makes Bond potentially more heroic and sympathetic than he’s ever been. We like Bond because we see him dealing with all this shit but he soldiers on with wit, charm, and a can-do attitude. Through Bond we can also understand M, her choices, and why she’s worth saving from Silva, especially to Bond. That M is a mother figure to Bond and Silva both is another link between them, and it has never been as explicit in Bond’s case as it is here. Through getting more information about his origins, we understand his motives about her better. By understanding this mother role she fills for him, we understand Silva’s fucked up, semi-tragic relationship to her also. The film gets through this stuff with clarity, momentum, and so much poise that it becomes grandiose.

The film often pauses to gently remind us that Bond is a vulnerable human under all the bluster and superspy skills.

Which sort of brings me to one of the big franchise-changers that this movie introduces. In Skyfall we find out that James Bond is his actual name, not a handle that comes with the 007 classification. For a long while, fans have suspected that 007 and James Bond are an identity and all the men who have been Bond over the years were actually different men with Craig simply being the latest. Skyfall tells us that no, James Bond is his real name and we can pretty much disregard any sense of continuity prior to Casino Royale. I think I prefer it the other way around but also understand why, on the 50th anniversary, they would come down firmly with an answer about this. Alternatively, they could have kept this a mystery and never revealed Bond’s family name while still exploring his childhood the way they do here. But this is what was decided and it recontextualizes the franchise in a way that will probably reveal itself over time. To those who care.

Another thing that Skyfall has changed for whatever remains of the Craig term is the supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes steps in as the new M, Ben Whishaw (yay Cloud Atlas!) as Q, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny (in the most telegraphed SURPRISE of the movie). Now it isn’t just Bond against the world, with a little M to back him, but a whole core cast of whitehats. What’s next? recurring villains?

Naomie Harris zomg.

They are all welcome additions.

Whishaw gets to be the young foil to Bond in a nice reversal of the older dynamic. His hacking scenes get fucking ridiculous. So cringe-inducing you have to close your eyes, bite a pillow, and wait til it’s over. I sort of wish he was used more, really, to make up for that shit. Helpfully, he fills Q with the cocksure smarm of brilliant youth and it plays very well against Craig’s more worldly confidence.

Harris is a capable and sexy Moneypenny who seems like another Bond girl for most of the film before she tells us where her place is. That she winds up being a secretary after showing that she is a pretty decent field agent feels a bit clumsy but it could also be used for intrigue later on. I wouldn’t mind a Bond film that focuses squarely on the two of them on some series of adventures. They have great chemistry and Harris is just one of those actresses I have a huge crush on anyway.

Fiennes more than the others gets to surprise us. Most of the twists and turns of Skyfall are obvious a mile away but played so well that it doesn’t matter. In Fiennes case, he is playing a bureaucrat with a bit of a history and it seems like he’s going to be an administrative foil to both Bond and M. Then it turns out he’s on their team, willing to get his hands dirty and abandon prudence when the situation calls for it. He’s a worthy successor and you come out of the movie both liking him and seeing the potential for clashy bromance between he and Bond.

Seriously, that hacking sequence feels like a youtube parody of hacking sequences.

I think the last thing I want to cover here is, appropriately, the final big sequence of the film. At the old Bond family homestead, Albert Finney has a small role as George R. R. Martin who has apparently kept up the property all the years James Bond has been away. When Bond arrives there with M, Silva in pursuit and about to strike, the three of them pool their considerable resources and old guns to mount a defense. This was my favorite action sequence in the film. Something about Bond seems to belie the kind of small-scale home assault type of thing that is a long-standing set-piece for action films. Think Assault on Precinct 13 but in a mansion. Think of Home Alone but with automatic weapons (so The Aggression Scale kind of?). Shotgun-shell booby traps, lightbulbs that EXPLODE, and Gurm with a sawed-off. It’s bananas but the good kind.

Beyond the satisfaction level of this kind of sequence, there’s also that this tiny patch of Scotland is where the film is visually at its highest point. Some of the shots are simply incredible, elevating the sequence so that it doesn’t even matter whether you’re watching a Bond film or anything, it’s just pure cinema.

Example. And so evocative in terms of character.

Skyfall is visually the best Bond film. It is also probably the best in terms of fusion of franchise elements and overall characterization. Does this make it the best Bond film of all time? It deserves to be in the Top 3 at least. Ultimately, beyond the scope of the franchise, it’s more important to appreciate Skyfall as not so much one of the greatest Bond films, but also just a great action film all around.

Even though it may be overdoing it a bit in reminding us of the relevance of Bond the institution, the movie sets about backing the sentiment up in abundance. What more could you really ask? It’s been a long wait but Bond hasn’t lost even half a step.

No, suh.