Blair McClendon reviews the latest entry in one of cinema’s most durable franchises.

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There has always been something off about Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond. His jokes are tinged with a touch more menace than they used to be. His body is stronger and willing to take, and dole out, more punishment. The killing isn’t quite so easy or clever anymore, yet he seems to enjoy the fight the way other Bonds enjoyed the sex. From the beginning, which is to say from the franchise reboot Casino Royale, we knew this 007 was broken. In fact, in a particularly brutal torture scene we watched his enemies break him. Were it not for all the symbols of Ian Fleming’s world, the audience would be forgiven for thinking that they had invented a new character. But, when working within a franchise this big, studios can never go too far astray or they will lose an audience that came for the comforting hallmarks: the cars, the trysts, the gadgets, the drinks and “Bond. James Bond.”

MGM had a difficult task in preparing for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. They had created a new Bond, one who seemed to have shirked off the camp and the Cold War. To make matters more difficult, they had to follow up on the singularly horrendous Quantum of Solace. Under the guidance of Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins, Skyfall has done more than repent for the transgressions of its predecessor. It has, for the first time, created a Bond movie rich with visual splendor not just because of the expensive trappings, but because cinema—in all the holier-than-thou connotations of the word—has finally been infused in the franchise.

The plot of the film is admittedly overwrought and of little importance. Silva, an ex-MI6 agent, played with such panache by Javier Bardem that one wonders why he isn’t always the villain, seeks revenge against M for having been given up to the Chinese during the transfer of Hong Kong. The 00 program has more guns than it knows what to do with, but Silva has computers and intelligence. He brings a thoroughly modern brand of terror to the heart of London, while releasing the names of agents embedded in terrorist organizations around the world. The government panics, the Americans turn their back on the British for this gross breach of security, and Bond, previously thought dead, returns home to defend his country. Trying to punch above its weight, the script weaves in a Sophoclean nods that add a touch of psychosis to Silva’s character but fall flat as structural elements. Still, Skyfall isn’t entirely interested in whether or not this absurdly powerful madman wins or not. Instead, it asks: is Bond even a character we want to win anymore?

When Silva first begins his attacks on M, a virus is unleashed that causes an explosion at MI6 headquarters. She is left with a message on her screen that reads, “Think on your sins.” While it becomes clear that the battle that breaks out between Bond and Silva is of an entirely personal nature, enough references are made to the relative impotence of myth of the United Kingdom (Bond sarcastically, but tellingly, referring to his “pathetic” love of country) that it is unclear at first whether the target is M or the whole security apparatus of an aged empire. Bond’s adventures make markedly less sense in the War on Terror than they did during the Cold War, so Deakins’ camera responds by providing us with a new kind of pleasure. Bond is no longer someone we might want to be, he’s someone we just want to look at.

The entire film is justified by one such sequence where, for all of the shooting and hand-to-hand combat, the enjoyment of the scene comes less from the suspenseful question of Bond’s success than the beauty playing out on the screen. Sent to Shanghai to retrieve a hard disk with the aforementioned embedded agents’ names, he sneaks into a high-rise in pursuit of his target. Bond realizes that he’s walking in on an assassination as the shooter is targeting a man in another skyscraper. The floor is devoid of furniture, but replete with glass panels reflecting the brightly colored video ads splashed across the other buildings. 007 moves slowly, hiding in plain site behind the abstract interplay of commercial lights. When the fight finally breaks out, we see them as silhouettes lit now and again by an errant burst of gunfire or a well-refracted advertisement.

This is Bond lifted out of his new flesh and blood reality back into the status of an icon. Ultimately, this is the balancing act that Skyfall had to attempt. Like so many of the heroes parading across our screens right now, Bond is the product of a bygone era. The movie acknowledges as much, bringing back the old cars and guns and repeatedly referencing the fact that the world’s most famous secret agent seems a bit out of touch. This same fear seems to be manifesting in a sort of neurosis across the spy thriller genre. Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy all referenced a creeping anxiety not only that the old world spy games are gone and morally indefensible, but that the genre itself is on thin ice. But Bond has always been more about the idea of a ridiculously impossible secret agent who, with a little help from his friends, saves the world again and again. Skyfall is, to my mind, the best of the Bond franchise because 007 the icon has finally been packaged in a movie with real visual ambition. That James seems a little less untouchable and little more concerned about the trustworthiness of his own government is understandably concerning for those who grew up with the unflappable agent. But he exists in a new world now, one where the old myths have begun to fall away and, as the ending makes clear, if he wants to stay in the game he’s going to have to make up some new ones.