Skyfall is full of the tropes James Bond fans know and love: martinis shaken, not stirred; menacing figures lurking in exotic locales; scantily-clad women in need of rescue. But rather than resorting to a flimsy recycling of the Daniel Craig-era formula, director Sam Mendes sends Agent 007 swimming in deeper waters. Juggling the task of paying homage to the classic spy series on its 50th anniversary while making Bond relevant for a world-is-flat generation, Mendes decides to take the challenge head on, using the old-versus-new contrast as Skyfall's primary framing device.
James Bond (Daniel Craig) is getting old. When a mission gone awry leaves the spy presumed dead, Bond goes off the grid—shagging and drinking heavily to cope with his post-espionage existence. A cyber-terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters calls him back to duty, but Bond struggles with his physical test, and a bureaucratic brought in to audit the agency (Ralph Fiennes) suggests he should have stayed in retirement.
You may recognize the "aging super hero" narrative from this summer's The Dark Knight. But Skyfall takes it to its extreme, applying the metaphor at every corner. M (Judi Dench) is hauled to a public hearing to testify on the relevancy of her institution; a pensive Bond is entranced by a Turner painting of an old warship being taken to the scrap yard; the weapon of choice is computer hacking, which could render secret agents almost completely obsolete: "Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled," a pubescent Q (Ben Whishaw) tells 007. The symbolism galore is anything but subtle, but who wants subtle in a Bond film, anyway?
For a narrative so familiar, to see Bond deal his mortality adds a refreshing dimension to the expected action sequences, which are as slick and explosive as ever. A pang of panic flashes on Bond's face when he struggles to keep his grip on the under carriage of a rising elevator. A glimmer of self-doubt washes over him when he is challenged to fire a William Tell shot over the head of his love interest (Bérénice Marlohe).
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But perhaps the most fixating play on this riff is the film's villain, Tiago Rodriguez (Jarvier Bardem). Where Bond is stone-like, with Craig's chiseled features, stoic composure, and dry delivery, Rodriguez is slippery. The handsome Bardem is at first unrecognizable with shocking platinum blonde hair, flamboyant gestures, and an affecting disposition. He also lives in a post-007 world: From a castle of super computers, he implements all sorts of cyber attacks for all sorts of actors, selling the chaos he can wreak to the highest bidder.
But with Bond, it's personal. Though his methods are newfangled, Rodriguez's motivations are ancient. In a Romulus and Remus twist, Bond and Rodriguez were both trained concurrently by M, but Agent Silva (as he was called) believes he was betrayed by his wolf mother (and for all intents and purposes, he was). Now he is seeking vengeance.
The two engage in a violent and destructive cat-and-mouse game, until Bond must bring M along for the ride, stealing her away from her speakerphone and the typical comfort of MI6 bulwark. The final trap returns to Bond to his childhood, allowing Mendes to flesh out the man with the dermal-sensitive gun, and the mystic Scottish country suits the epic showdown well.
It is a bold move for Skyfall to pose the question of whether James Bond and the 007 operation are still relevant, when audiences may be asking the same thing about the franchise in general. The movie answers its own question with its climatic fighting sequence, in which Bond must depend on old school tricks and a few relics from films past to defeat his enemies.
It answers the meta-question as well. Skyfall is thrilling, glossy, sexy, and intelligent.
In another bold move, Skyfall also introduces a few new faces to carry on the classic legacies, as Dench has already this will be her last Bond film, and though signed on for another two, Craig has suggested as such as well. If 007 franchise can continue at Skyfall's momentum, whose to say James Bond won't be sticking around for another half century?
Skyfall premieres in the United States Friday, November 9.
Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter.