All the talk last year heralding Skyfall as an anomaly in the James Bond franchise missed one crucial detail: Skyfall isn’t just a James Bond movie, it’s the ultimate Bond movie.  Screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have cobbled the picture out of iconic signifiers from the venerated action series.  We get an epic pre-credits teaser, as Bond (the great Daniel Craig) and Naomie Harris’ inexperienced field agent hunt an assassin (Ola Rapace, former husband of Noomi) through Istanbul, merrily bouncing from car to motorcycle to train to backhoe (often at the same time!) in pursuit.  Bond faces not one but two stuffy authority figures (Ralph Fiennes, not the bad guy for a change, and returning M. Judi Dench) that question his rough-and-tumble methods.  The film transitions fleetly between gaudy locale to gaudy locale, including a psychedelic fight to the death atop the skyscrapers of Shanghai and a blood-red-hued casino in Macao that comes equipped with its own man-eating Gila Monster.  And lurking behind it all: Javier Bardem’s giggling, flamboyant rogue agent (shades of Goldeneye‘s 006, if 006 dressed like Julian Assange, lost half his jaw to cyanide poisoning, and evinced an interest in Bond that gleefully crossed the line from professional rivalry into sexual fascination) who plots from the security of His Own Private Island (Idaho).

But there are Bond movies, and there are good Bond movies, and Skyfall falls (no pun intended) squarely in the latter category.  This is Craig’s best Bond outing – it makes Casino Royale seem slack and unfocused – and at its finest moments, it evokes the lean, effortless mix of spectacle and brutality that Goldfinger and From Russia with Love captured so well.

The key is the attitude that director Same Mendes and John Logan use in approaching the aforementioned Bond tropes.  I exclude Purvis and Wade because they’re more legacy caretakers than actual screenwriters – left to their own devices, they inflicted The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day on the world, whereas Logan contributed to Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo, and last year’s brilliant Coriolanus.  He’s a real writer, and Mendes is a real director (he helmed American Beauty, Away We Go, and Road to Perdition, among others), and together they view Bond through a healthy veil of skepticism.  In a world where Jason Bourne and Christopher Nolan’s Batman features have usurped Bond, not just in visceral thrills and scope but also in sociopolitical resonance, what could the once-and-future 007 possibly have to contribute?

Mendes and Logan engineer that question into Skyfall‘s central narrative.  That opening sequence might be spectacular, but it also ends with a shock: before Bond can destroy the bad guy, M. makes a spot judgment that leaves 007 physically devastated and psychologically adrift.  The Bond we see for much of Skyfall resembles one of John le Carré’s tortured spooks – insecure, wobbly, with a fundamental doubt in MI6 that runs more personal that professional, thanks to Dench’s flinty, unsympathetic turn.  When Dench entered the Bond universe in Goldeneye, she was little more than an ironic foil for Bond, a strong woman given supremacy over cinema’s most misogynistic hero.  Here, though, she’s practically Craig’s co-lead, and Skyfall pivots on their complex-twisted relationship.

M. has groomed Bond from his tragic orphan beginnings, presenting herself as a mother figure who he will only satisfy after the next mission, and Bond falls for this manipulation so thoroughly that when she betrays him, he loses the only governing principle in his life.  He’s a 007 who doesn’t know what his status means anymore, and if that condition wasn’t thematically obvious enough, M. is facing a House of Commons committee hearing calling into question the moral clarity that MI6 has claimed over twenty-two increasingly ludicrous Bond movies.

Now, being as this is a $200 million crowd-pleaser, and being that Sony, Fox, and MGM all want – nay, need – the Bond franchise to keep chugging along, it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that eventually, Mendes and Co. weigh in positively on the 007 mythos; surly and bleak and distraught might please the critics, but they don’t light the box-office on fire (just note the anemic performance of last year’s The Bourne Legacy).  Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for treating Bond as a character rather than a construct.  That feeling gives Skyfall what little plausibility it has, and please don’t take “little” as a put-down.  Ever since Bond engaged in a zero-gravity, laser-gun battle in space, plausibility hasn’t ranked high on the series’ To-Do List, so even a modicum of it can feel like a surplus.

As a result, Skyfall is the first Bond since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to establish a legitimate threat, here personified through Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva.  The particulars of Silva’s megalomaniacal agenda are patently ridiculous – in his quest to burn every undercover operative working for MI6, Silva apparently has enough digital acumen to, in order, a) detonate the offices of MI6’s top brass, b) unlock every door and gate connected to London’s CCTV network, and c) crash a subway through one track into another one, and all with a smirk and a few keystrokes.  But Silva himself is terrifying, as magnetic a movie baddie since, well, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  Bardem conveys this madness with a playful touch.  As Mendes introduces Silva in a single-take, extended monologue, Barden teases out the speech’s bizarre twists, gliding along with Roger Deakins’ deliberate camera moves as if he were a psychotic Cary Grant.

The role only gets juicier from there.  Under all his weirdo affectations, Silva is even more damaged than Bond, and Bardem pushes that same revulsion/attraction towards M. to a raw, simmering pitch.  By the time we reach Skyfall‘s cataclysmic finale, Silva seems capable of anything – along with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant in From Russia with Love, he’s the first Bond Big Bad to put our hero at risk.

This power exchange – Bond vs. M. vs. Silva – powers Skyfall through its occasional missteps.  At 143 minutes, the film is surprisingly brisk, which makes its midsection lull all the more unfortunate; we spend about twenty minutes too long at Silva’s gangster-run casino, getting exposition we don’t need from an underutilized Bond girl (Bérénice Marlohe) we don’t care about.  Even more troubling are the uncomfortable gender issues that arise at Skyfall‘s dénouement.  As good as Harris and Fiennes are, the revelations surrounding their characters infuse the movie with sexual politics that should have died alongside JFK.

And Mendes’ need to craft a Bond that competes with Bourne and Batman often finds him stealing whole cloth from the Bourne and Batman movies.  Bond’s broken-agent-trying-to-get-back-in-the-game shtick is strongly reminiscent of Bruce Wayne’s struggle in The Dark Knight Rises; the ambiguity surrounding MI6 shares a kinship with Bourne’s CIA shenanigans; and wonderful as he is, Silva and Heath Ledger’s Joker have much of the same DNA, from off-putting facial disfigurations to a predilection for including their own incarcerations into the grand design of their master plans.  To Mendes’ credit, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and he appropriates these beats skillfully.

Skyfall saves its grandest trick for the end.  Most Bonds get more expansive as they go on.  This one gets smaller, narrowing the world around its three leads until they’re trapped in a hell of their own making.  This hell recalls Home Alone as much as it does Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, but it’s emblematic of Skyfall‘s commitment to the dark side that one thinks of Straw Dogs at all.  Moments like these make Skyfall stand out, and guarantee its legacy in the Bond canon.

MGM/Fox/Sony’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy is one of the year’s finest looking HD releases.  Roger Deakins received an Academy Award nomination for the film’s cinematography, and it’s picture-perfect here, sleek and crisp and textured.  The disc also has a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that’s predictably impressive.

Like most of the Bond Blu-rays, Skyfall comes stacked with bonus supplements.  We get two audio commentaries (one with Mendes; another with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson and production designer Dennis Gassner); the fourteen-part Shooting Bond documentary; scenes from the Skyfall premiere at London’s Royal Albert Hall; a soundtrack promotional spot (highlighting Adele’s full-throated, Academy Award-nominated title song); and the theatrical trailer.

I’d long given up on James Bond.  To its credit, Skyfall makes me want to rejoin the fold.

Skyfall is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: A Case for SKYFALL as the Best James Bond Adventure...