It begins as it always does: a chase. James Bond (Daniel Craig) emerges from the darkness, checks on a downed agent, then continues his pursuit of a man who's stolen an important hard drive. The chase takes him and a fellow agent (Naomie Harris) through the streets of Istanbul, taking motorcycles over rooftops and using a crane to get across a moving train. It all leads to a fistfight atop said train, where Bond's partner is forced to take a critical shot. She fires. He falls.
Within the first twenty minutes of Skyfall, James Bond is presumed dead.
Of course, he isn't: that wouldn't make much of a movie. But he is reborn, both as a character and as a film franchise. Skyfall had a long road to development: it arrived four years after Quantum of Solace, which was marred by reshoots and the 2007 Writer's Guild of America strike (it's director, Marc Forster, hasn't faired well since, with his World War Z also going through hell to get made). The film was maligned by fans, who were expecting more after 2006's Casino Royale, which had reinvented Bond for the Jason Bourne era of action films. Then came MGM's - the rights owners to the franchise - bankruptcy woes, and after a while it seemed as if we may never see Bond in theaters again. And if he did make it back to the big screen, would he be able to shake off the rust?
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. Sam Mendes, who had some action experience in Road to Perdition and the underrated Jarhead, signed on as director. Neal Purvis (a Bond regular), Robert Wade (another regular), and John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) collaborated on a screenplay. The release date in 2012 would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, Dr. No. And the result was a film that not only celebrates the history of the franchise, but also manages to push it into new places while also somewhat hitting the reset button necessary for the franchise to continue.
The plot sees MI6 under attack by an unknown assailant, later revealed to be technological mastermind/hacker Silva (Javier Bardem). It's up to Bond to stop Silva from releasing the identities of all active field agents, and determine why he is specifically targeting M (Judi Dench). M is also facing the heat from a government minister (Ralph Fiennes), who's investigating the going-ons of MI6.
Mendes has crafted a terrific film that reinvigorates the franchise. The action sequences are breakneck, and possibly some of the most impressive the series has achieved to date. Craig is, as always, terrific in this role. Though Berenice Marlohe's Severine is a bit of a thin character, the real "Bond girl" of this film is M. The film spends a good chunk of time exploring the relationship between her and Bond, with a few nods to his origins that deepen both characters. Though Bardem is fantastically sinister as the most memorable villain in some time, it's Dench who steals the film, giving a phenomenal performance as the woman who made Bond who he is, for better or worse. Also great: Adele's lush theme song (if anyone was born to sing Bond themes...) and Roger Deakin's typically-innovative cinematography.
Skyfall's ultimate mission, though, is to answer a simple question: why do we still need James Bond? Bond himself asks as much in the film, and it goes to great lengths to show us why: to paraphrase the film, now more than ever, those who protect us have to work in the shadows, because that's where evil operates now. What's more, though the darker Bond of Casino Royale was a refreshing change from the cheese that had come to define the franchise, Skyfall breaks free of Jason Bourne's shadow to come back, in full force, as he should be: the death-defying hero saving the world, one plot at a time.
And I, for one, am glad he's back. A