Although the '90s revival of James Bond includes a hugely popular entry in the series, the British roots of the series felt like they'd been pushed to the background. Although the character kept the accent, Brosnan's films seemed to be made more with the American audience in mind, designed to compete with similar US blockbusters. Even Daniel Craig's Casino Royale spends most of its time elsewhere in Europe, outside of Britain (the less said about Quantum of Solace, the better). Skyfall, released to coincide with the series' 50th anniversary, both returns Bond to his homeland within the story, and installs a cast and crew that reflect the character and franchise as a British landmark.
During a crucial mission to retrieve a list of undercover British secret agents, Bond (Craig) is shot and briefly believed to be dead. Shortly thereafter, in Bond's absence, the mastermind behind the theft bombs MI6, killing several employees and hanging the responsibility on M (Judi Dench). When Bond brings himself back to Britain, the spy business has moved underground, and the employee roster now includes the watchful eye of Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and a new Q (Ben Whishaw). With her reputation on the line, M assigns Bond (and another field agent named Eve, played by Naomie Harris, with whom Bond trades playful banter) to track down the culprit.
Director Sam Mendes gets plenty of mileage out of Bondian iconography: there's a Macao casino with komodo dragons, a glass prison, even an secret lair on a deserted island. One of the film's most spectacular sequences takes place on an empty floor of Shanghai office building, inside a maze of glass doors reflecting the brilliant neon lights outside. As Bond slips toward his target, blue and green lights crawling across his face, it's hard not to think of the classic title sequences. Familiar elements like Q and his gadgets are refreshed, and Mendes does a good job of bringing in a sense of humor, even if a few jokes aimed solely at fans of the series are sort of tone-deaf. These are nicely blended with fresh elements: Bond's wavering confidence following his near-death experience, M losing a step, and finale that's more Straw Dogs than James Bond.
Mendes has also assembled a fantastic cast. The obvious showstopper is Javier Bardem as the film's primary villain, who finds a great balance between genuine psychosis and the kind of larger-than-life villain the series came to be known for (his secret disfigurement is a prime example of both notes). Scenes with Naomie Harris are arguably sexier and more entertaining than the actual Bond sex scenes, which feel a little like an afterthought. Bérénice Marlohe has a thankless role, but she makes the most of it. Meanwhile, Dench gets her biggest outing as M to date. The film revolves around her character in such a way, you'd think it was the 50th anniversary of M. Fiennes and Whishaw bring up the rear, adding some spark that will no doubt have a chance to shine bigger and brighter in future entries, and Craig is as good as always, particularly in an already infamous psychological stand-off between himself and Bardem.
The one place where the film could be fresher is in the story, which trots out any number of fairly tired cliches. Is there any doubt that Bardem's plan has more layers than Bond and M are initially able to see? There's also a slight de-emphasis on action, with Mendes preferring fistfights and gunfights to all-out car chases, even though the film opens with an exciting train sequence. In any case (although the films themselves are probably on par with one another), Mendes manages to do what Martin Campbell could not: scrub away some of Bond's American gloss and get back to a classy, uniquely British character. Call it reinvigorated, not reinvented.
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