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Review: Skyfall

'One hell of an action movie… Shaky but stirring.'

Skyfall is not, as some have suggested, the best Bond movie ever made, although I suspect that if you reduce the film to some of its core elements you might reach that conclusion. The movie boasts one of the series’ most fascinating villains, arguably the best title sequence thus far and a sense of uncanny style that’s bound to overwhelm most comparisons within the franchise. It’s a fine Bond movie, yes, but it also has curious ambitions that prevent the film from standing too proudly on its own merits. Even though Bond’s origin was reimagined in 2006’s Casino Royale, Skyfall nearly breaks its back trying to defend the franchise’s history and reestablish an old status quo that even the film itself admits may be outmoded, and only future films can determine whether that was a wise move or not.

Yes, I’m going to be a little critical here. No, I’m not saying Skyfall is anything less than thrilling. Yes, it’s one hell of an action movie. But yes, its goals are high enough, and perhaps even misguided enough, that meeting them may create some potential problems for the franchise. No, I’m not going to give anything away, but yes, I am going to have to at least allude to some of the film’s later twists to really convey why it falls short of perfection… for now.

All is not well in James Bond land. After an opening action sequence finds Bond (still Daniel Craig, still great) missing and presumed dead, the story jumps ahead several months later, when a terrorist attack in England makes international headlines. Our hero, off his game after an extended vacation, returns home to investigate the tragedy and its connections to the fateful mission that nearly killed him (and without a license, no less).

Skyfall’s story then proceeds as many a James Bond movie did before it, with James travelling from one corner of the globe to another investigating persons of interest, usually getting them killed, and ultimately becoming the hostage of the primary villain, Raoul Silva, played with mincing charisma by Javier Bardem, who explains his plans in detail. That those plans are later revealed to be more intricate and dastardly in nature means little, considering that, if you really look at the plot closely, Silva could have bypassed the entire second half of the film altogether by purchasing an inconspicuous plane ticket.

But that would have been less fun, and Skyfall is loads of fun. Rare is the James Bond film that makes perfect sense, and Skyfall chooses not to break that mould. Instead, it breaks the mould from a cinematic perspective, putting acclaimed director of photography Roger Deakins to work lighting the hell out of every single scene. While most Bond films emphasize style over substance, to date that style has been limited to the beauty of their locations, the madness of their stunts and the wallowy excess of their hero’s lifestyle. Under Sam Mendes’ direction, Deakins imbues practically every frame of Skyfall with a luxuriousness that raises the bar for every future film in the series.

But what’s to become of every other film in the series? Again, heaven forefend I reveal any of the twists and turns of Skyfall’s storyline, as obvious as many of them rapidly become as the movie chugs along, but suffice it to say that Skyfall surprisingly shares Die Another Day’s curious obsession with the previous films in the franchise. A few offhanded callbacks to Goldeneye and Goldfinger are one thing – a confusing thing, since supposedly we’re in reboot territory and none of those things ever happened – but the plot of Skyfall finds M (Dame Judi Dench, given more screen time than usual and kicking ass in the process) defending the actions of MI6, and by extension the entire Bond series, to a governmental body that argues that international espionage has evolved. Which, indeed, it has. The question is raised that the crimefighting techniques we have come to associate with the Bond movies are antiquated notions, and the film toys quite briefly with the possibility that we are now due for a change before ultimately going in the other direction with a finale that is most unexpected, but clearly highlights the notion of protecting one’s homeland from outer threats in the old-fashioned ass-kicking way.

So Bond remains a necessity, and if future films in the franchise are at least as good as Skyfall, I am happy to declare him so. But Skyfall also departs on a strange dramatic note that could take the series in a number of different directions, back to the old, possibly onto the new, and as such only time will tell if Skyfall was a great film that catapulted the James Bond movies into an exhilarating state, or instead just a fascinating step in the wrong direction, returning the franchise to the familiar territory that Casino Royale so carefully shied away from. Until James Bond returns, however, Skyfall is more than enough to tide us over: it’s a shaky but stirring addition to the James Bond canon, and one of the most intriguing entries in the franchise.