It's been 50 years since James Bond first staked his claim as the greatest action hero film has to offer, so it's fitting that he's suffering from a midlife crisis. I have no idea if, as some have put forward, Skyfall is the best of the 23 Bond films that have been released over the last half-century, and I'm not sure I'd even want to make a call on that if I had seen all of them numerous times.
What I do know is that Daniel Craig's Bond is my favorite and Skyfall -- the third to feature him in the iconic role -- is the one that convinced me that was the case. Craig's appearance alone -- his dirty blonde hair and blue eyes -- broke the Bond mold, but so too have his introspection, his darkness, his ever so slight existentialism. Those characteristics and tendencies were present in Casino Royale and they are as strong as ever in the latest installment in the franchise. Whether it's the writing or Craig's portrayal of Bond, there's an unprecedented willingness now to explore the Bond mythology. What motivates 007? How can he be so cool when he's constantly facing death? Do we (meaning Western society) even deserve his sacrifices, no matter how readily he offers them?
These are the questions that are easy to completely forget when you're watching a car chase in an ice palace, and yet the answers -- mysterious as they may be -- are the reason Bond has such appeal.
Skyfall is not short on dizzying action sequences, just in case you were worried. Here is Bond driving his motorbike into the side of a bridge to propel himself on to the top of a moving train. There is Bond sliding between the handrails of an escalator in the London Underground and landing, cat-like, on his feet to continue his pursuit of a bad guy. But there is a different tone surrounding those jawdropping stunts from the very beginning of the film, and it's set when M (Judi Dench) orders a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to take a shot at Bond and the baddie he is grappling with on that train. Bond is hit by her shot. He plunges off a bridge and is presumed dead, only resurfacing (with quite a bitter edge) because MI6 falls prey to a terrorist attack.
Bond's sense of betrayal is shared by the principal villain, and the perpetrator of the attack on MI6, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). The cyberterrorist is a former protegee of M, who, at least somewhat rightly, feels he has been wronged by her. Bardem, as you can imagine if you've seen No Country for Old Men, is a delightfully creepy treat as Bond's latest nemesis. Indeed, it's hard to think of a more accomplished actor that has played a Bond villain (Christopher Lee?). But credit should also go to the writers who conceived of his backstory. Mirrors feature prominently throughout the movie, but there's no bigger reflection being cast here than the one by Silva back onto Bond and also onto M, who features more prominently than you'd expect and in a weird sort of way seems to fill the role usually played by Bond Girl X.
It is discomforting to have Bond's core identity so thoroughly probed by Silva, and there's an eerie calm -- an almost noiseless quality -- to all of the visually opulent action sequences as a result. Upon their first meeting, Silva basically offers Bond a place at his side. Bond could never accept because, well, Silva is a deranged madman and why would you trust him. Yet his overture is tempting in some small way. This is a subtle but seismic shift in the Bond lore, isn't it? If 007's devotion to M and England can be shaken, then we're truly in uncharted territory, aren't we?
Yes, is the answer of course, and this new trail director Sam Mendes has blazed is one I'm happy to keep following. Bond is as interesting as he's ever been, and Skyfall, though it is the third in Craig's stint, feels like a bit of a reset as much as anything else, with a new Q (Ben Whishaw) introduced and a major role carved out for Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) in the series' future chapters. My only small request for whoever picks up the mantel from Mendes: don't make Bond and the rest of MI6 such a bunch of Luddites. The idea that Bond is some sort of vestigial organ of espionage in a world dominated by technology was a little silly. Bond and company are far too intelligent to not understand the value (and danger) of technology, and government officials who question his value are too intelligent to doubt so wholly the need for an asset like Bond, as they seem to in Skyfall.
Even in a post-Cold War, post-9/11, Internet-oriented world, they need James Bond. And so do we. Just like the world he inhabits, he's more complex than ever, and that's exactly as it should be.