There aren't any current movie franchises as consistently long-running as the James Bond films. It's very odd and old-school now to have a series where the self-contained installments just keep coming — these days studios seem to think in trilogies and now, one fears, trilogies leading up to team-up movies — but Bond continues to persist with standalone adventures where lots of things get blown up.
That said, its persistence isn't the result of producing films of a consistent quality, but a tiring game of one-upsmanship and desperately trying to keep up with the times that have so cruelly left it behind. As newer, stupider ideas for action set pieces get conceived to attempt to top the previous films, they decided to reflect and/or capitalize on the most obvious cinematic trends of the times — Star Wars knockoffs (Moonraker), drug-fueled '80s actioners (License to Kill, but that one's pretty awesome) and overblown '90s action filmmaking and bad CGI (the entire Brosnan era). It's a bit like David Bowie, where he once defined his times but then the '80s happened and he just chose to mirror what everyone else in music was doing.
Even the first two films in the current Daniel Craig reboot era, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were influenced by comparative cinematic zygotes, the more popular Jason Bourne films. Gone were the gadgets and the sex addiction in favor of parkour, Texas Hold'em, and constant punching through the tears by a leading man more gorilla than gentleman. It was a gutsy move, but breathed new life into the franchise, because they were quality films that didn't look like the same thing we'd been looking at for more than 40 years at the time. We needed a break; more importantly, we needed to see something different.
There's nothing wrong with a lot of what we've come to know as the elements of cinematic James Bond save that they came to be associated with being "old fashioned." And the newest installment, Skyfall, has the franchise finding a balance between classic Bond and modern Bond. It's a bit like the Heathen/Reality era of Bowie, except people still care about James Bond and it's not just me going "It's actually pretty good! Not as good as the old ones, but…"
No, Skyfall is legitimately great, hitting the ground running with an opening chase scene that escalates beautifully without becoming exhausting or overdone, and with a conclusion that sets up not only the plot of the rest of the film through the loss of a file containing the identities of every undercover MI6 agent, but also one of the film's major themes — the tension between Bond and M (Judi Dench), to whom secret agents are merely tools whose lives don't matter. It's a film all about the divide between humans and the masters the serve — bosses, governments — but a theme that never stalls the energy of the film.
While it sounds like serious business, those elements are flavored by the return of Q Branch (played with nerdy Britishness by Ben Whishaw), a couple of gadgets, a classic car, a decent amount of carnal knowledge and an actually memorable, charismatic villain in the form of Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent with a thematically appropriate vendetta against MI6 that alone puts him above pretty much other megalomaniac in the franchise. If that weren't enough Bardem's performance helps forge one of the most entertaining Bond villains in years with his theatrical scenery chewing, and palpable sexual tension with our hero. Expect some eye-rollable controversy when hardcore Bond fans get their paws on this movie.
Despite the return to some familiar elements, Skyfall actually bucks the established formula of Bond films. Instead of leading all the way to some great big assault on the villain's stronghold, the film goes in a different and unexpected direction finding our heroes defending a country house Straw Dogs style while the bad guys come to them. It's something we haven't really seen before — a tense, intimate finale as our heroes face oncoming doom. I never understood why each Bond adventure had to have the same outcome of people running around a gigantic compound and falling down, and while the final set piece of Skyfall may seem like a smaller-scale version of the same thing on paper, it feels different because of what the themes and plot have set up.
If there's one great thing about the reboot of Bond it's that most of the final action scenes have been fairly varied — Casino Royale had a fistfight in a crumbling building and Quantum of Solace climaxed in an explosion factory — and I hope the franchise continues to avoid going needlessly balls-out just because they have high budgets. Every installment in the Bond series should be something we haven't seen before, and not just aesthetically as its predecessors had resigned to.
It helps that we have director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (!!) behind the scenes. Rather than the studio hacks of the last era, Skyfall boasts filmmakers who strive to make films rather than find employment. Cinematography is an important part of action filmmaking, and this unconventional pair creates some dizzyingly beautiful shots and visually exciting action sequences, like a fight with an assassin lit by the brilliant neon of Shanghai. The last two movies weren't exactly lightweights, but Skyfall is easily the best looking Bond film in the franchise's history.
Skyfall marks the 50th anniversary of Bond, which the film celebrates not with endless references to what came before (don't see: Die Another Day) but by bringing back a few welcome pieces of the Bond mythos in an invigorated modern context while retaining its now-ness. If all goes well, this signals a new phase of James Bond — one that's confident in its trappings, but also knows when to rein it in.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.