The James Bond franchise has been an omnipresent part of Western culture for longer than most people alive can remember. My parents were toddlers when Dr. No came out in 1962. And 50 years later, it’s still going, and for all we know, will still be going 50 years and six Bonds from now. Sure, it’s frequently stumbled or grown irrelevant from time to time, but it’s always been there, which isn’t something you can say about many pop culture phenomena.
Of course, those occasional side trips into irrelevancy have not gone unnoticed, and the James Bond character has been showing his age since at least the ‘80s. Born of the swinging ‘60s, he was very much representative of that era’s idea of the modern man: Well-travelled, with cultured tastes, and indulging in plenty of recreational sexuality. He was a wish-fulfillment role model of his era.
But times changed, and Bond found it difficult to change with them. He never seemed to fit in as well in the free love ‘70s, the action-focused ‘80s, or the political correctness of the ‘90s. The Dalton era resorted to turning him into just another cop-on-the-edge action hero to keep him feeling modern, and by the Brosnan era, the character was starting to feel like, well...
That era of the franchise addressed the anachronistic aspects of the character, portraying Bond as a flawed, morally ambiguous throwback to an older era, almost a man out of time. This approach of self-awareness had mixed results. It certainly helped give older fans a taste of what they’d been missing in their Bond movies, but it wasn't very forward thinking, as it did little to adapt the franchise to its modern setting. It was merely a stall tactic.
After the poorly-received golden age Bond circle-jerk that was Die Another Day, the Bond producers took a break for a few years to rethink things. When the franchise returned with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, Bond had shed himself of much of his baggage, but at a cost.
Gone was the Cold War, replaced with the more relevant War on Terror. Gone were the gadgets and comic side characters, like Q and Moneypenny. But while Bond certainly felt modern, he also really didn’t feel like Bond any more. The suave globetrotting ladies man we all knew and loved had become a thuggish hitman devoid of style or flash. His sexual conquests felt obligatory. He lacked anything distinguishing him from all the other interchangeable Jason Bourne knock-offs. The filmmakers had certainly realized drastic change was needed to move forward, but Bond had yet to find his new identity.
The crux of this overly long intro is that Skyfall is the film that has finally given Bond that identity, striking the perfect balance of nostalgia and respect for the franchise's history, while still being its own, thoroughly up-to-date entity. They truly put their best into this 50th anniversary entry, producing easily the best film in the series since Goldeneye. It’s dramatic and character-driven, but still supplies more than enough action, and good action at that. Sam Mendes might seem an odd choice for director, but the gamble pays off beautifully. This is the most interestingly human, yet still recognizably Bond that the character has seemed in a long time, if ever.
And special mention must be made of Judi Dench as M. She’s always been not only my favorite M, but possibly my favorite character in the entire franchise. Here, she’s moved from supporting character and mentor figure up to a full-fledged secondary protagonist. It’s as much her story as it is Bond’s, and it feels like a true culmination of her character’s actions up to this point.
Ben Whishaw's character is probably the best example of old ideas made new, which could probably have been this film's motto. He plays the new Q, a character Bond fans had been praying would come back ever since the Craig era began. The beloved late Desmond Llewelyn played the gadget-master for almost 40 years as a serious-minded older gentlemen constantly annoyed with the younger Bond's irreverent attitude. That classic interplay between the two has now been completely reversed. Whishaw is 10 years Craig's junior, and Bond's age is repeatedly emphasized throughout the film. Now, Q is the cocky young computer genius who mocks and annoys the older, field-hardened Bond. The actors' chemistry is excellent, and I look forward to seeing more of them together in future films.
And of course, mention must be made of Javier Bardem, who now has yet another chilling villain performance under his belt. It's rare in this series that villains can actually challenge Bond physically as well as mentally; they usually leave the brawling to their amusingly named underlings. Underrated foes like Alec Trevelyan and Red Grant are the exceptions, and to that list we can now add Raoul Silva. At times, they seem to be working a little too hard to make him the James Bond equivalent of the Joker, but Bardem's performance more than makes up for it. He's seductive and compelling at times, yet frighteningly repulsive at others, but at all times he’s as menacing as he is mesmerizing.
As a 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise, one could not ask for better than Skyfall. And more that that, it's just a plain good James Bond movie. Exciting, glamorous, well-written, and exquisitely filmed. For the first time since Daniel Craig took this role, I genuinely can't wait to see what they do with it next.
P.S. Naomie Harris better be in the next one. Seriously, MGM, don't let me down on this.