Sam Mendes' "Skyfall" isn't just good by James Bond movie standards; it's great by regular movie standards.
Until now, it was very easy to compare a new Bond flick to its predecessors, and simply not hold it to the same standards as other movies. It's not an action movie, it's a Bond movie! Every modern entry in the series seemed to be nothing more than a checklist of essentials. Glib remarks? Check. Cool toys? Check. Cartoonish villain? Check. Scantily clad companions? Check. As long as those boxes were filled in, it meant that the film had succeeded as a Bond movie, but not much else. The 007 franchise was happy exist in this formulaic bubble for decades, but as audience's tastes began to change, the producers of the series were forced to shake things up.
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Enter "Casino Royale." The 2006 Bond film introduced audiences to a new 007 (Daniel Craig) and a more realistic and consequential Bond universe. The reboot was a hit. People loved this lean and hungry new super spy and the more believable world he inhabited. Sadly, the gains made by "Casino Royale" were quickly erased by its terribly bland 2008 follow up "Quantum of Solace." Four years later, and with an Academy Award-winning director in the driver's seat, Bond is back in "Skyfall" — essentially a reset of the reboot.
Instead of the traditional gadget-filled cold open, in which 007 blows up the baddies and gets the girl, "Skyfall" instead opens with Bond on the ropes in Istanbul. His colleagues are dead and their assassin is making an escape with a mysterious package that is of some importance to MI6. After a thrilling pursuit involving cars, motorbikes, trains and even construction equipment, it appears as though Bond will get his man — that is, until a bad call from on high gets Bond shot and apparently killed. Presumed dead, a grizzled and wounded Bond soon finds himself back in Her Majesty's secret service when a new threat tied to his fateful mission emerges.
With "Skyfall," the structure of that oh-so-familiar 007 movie formula is mostly followed, but for once, it's not all about the guns, the girls, the gadgets, or even the villain (more on him later) — it's about Bond. There are plenty of guns and girls in "Skyfall," but here Mendes has created a rare bird: a character study in action movie clothing, one that delivers in spades on both fronts.
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What makes "Skyfall" really work is that for the first time in a very long time, Bond is a character and not a caricature -- he's a person imbued with genuine pathos and an arc of his own. Craig's 007 isn't the near-invincible superhuman that the majority of the previous films depicted the character as. He's a combination of extraordinary skill and extreme luck, but this Bond gets shot, he gets beat up, and sometimes he even loses. Sometimes.
The character gets put through the wringer in "Skyfall," and it definitely takes both a physical and mental toll on him. As it turns out, being a super spy will wear a person down over time, even if your name is James Bond. Due to events early in the film, there's a large section of the movie where Bond simply lacks what was previously a quite considerable mojo. This truly down-and-out Bond is not one that audiences have really seen before, but it's a turn for the character that naturally leaves room for one heck of a comeback.
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Standing in the way of Bond's comeback is the villainous Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). A mirror image of Bond in many ways, Silva is a former M16 operative who was also sold up the river by the intelligence agency and suffered greatly as a result. But where Bond returned home to nest, Silva struck out on his own, creating a tech-savvy criminal syndicate that works for the highest bidder. Almost none of the tropes of previous Bond baddies can be found in Silva. There are no grand schemes for world domination or destruction, nor does he possess a cartoonish insanity (he does have a pretty awesome island hideout, though). Instead, Silva is believably psychotic and out for only one thing: revenge. It's a frightening change up.
Bardem's twitchy and legitimately unsettling performance helps to elevate "Skyfall" above its predecessors, and puts the film in an entirely different category altogether. Silva is sure to be talked about as one of the greatest Bond villains of all time, if not one of the most memorable villains, period.
"Skyfall" is well shot and wonderfully acted — two descriptors that are rarely applied to Bond movies — but that's not what makes it great. What makes "Skyfall" worth seeing is that for the first time in the character's 50 year history, audiences finally get to see the real Bond. More often than not, he's still the super human that this kind of escapism requires, but he also finally feels like a flesh and blood human being. A person with weaknesses, with fears, with doubt — all the things that a character like him would need to overcome in order to be super agent 007.
Bond may return to his casual killings and nonchalant exploits in future films, but because of "Skyfall," audiences will always know the dark corners that character has been and could easily return to.