(I was going to put this in reviews, but honestly, it delves so much into Bond movies in general that it seemed to stand alone.)
What constitutes a James Bond movie is different for everyone. The first few 1960s films established a routine amazing mainly for its spectacular and unvarying success: tall attractive male lead with touch of British dry humor and menace, fine tailored suits, fancy cars, explosions, three acts, anywhere from one to five Bond girls, and exotic locales. There may be minor tweaks re goofy gadgets and variety in chase scenes and the amount of violence (realistic or otherwise), but all in all, the formula has remained the same. And what makes the best James Bond movies is how they update and interpret that basic formula.
To trace the evolution of the Bond series is not so much to evaluate different Bond actors as to ascertain whether the particular movie interprets that formula adequately. Critical consensus displays this admirably: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Goldfinger, and From Russia With Love all are feted for stripping down and sticking to the bare bones of that formula, albeit with extra flourish depending on the film. The actor who plays Bond is crucial, yet only because he is the central element of the formula. A decent Bond like Brosnan couldn’t rescue a movie like Die Another Day that sunk under the weight of its excessive flourishes, for example.
And of those four movies above, I would contend that Skyfall is the best James Bond film yet due to its singular interpretation of that formula. In order to lay out my argument let’s break down the formula further.
1: The lead. Justifiably, people criticize the Bond series for glorifying or promoting Western male imperialistic attitudes. Some films unconsciously do so, others lampoon that attitude, and still others skilfully employ their villains to accuse Bond of arrogance and crimes. Since the Bond movies are clearly escapist, most of that debate seems rather irrelevant to me, but I can accept its validity. Consequently, Skyfall’s focus on James Bond’s personal history and role in a world that no longer has true empires is the canniest treatment of the issue. In the movie, Bond’s motives for staying loyal to MI-6 are laughed at by Raoul Silva, the villain, as he speculates Bond of stubbornly clinging to notions of Queen and country, which were antiquated even in the 1960s.
But Silva misses the point that Skyfall, in building off Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, intends to make. Bond isn’t a spy for Queen and country: he’s a spy because it’s a job that he is uniquely well suited for. He isn’t motivated by patriotism, but by his relationships and paychecks. Casino Royale set this up fairly well, displaying a Bond who is ready to give up service because it’s a soul-killing job and because he found someone. Quantum of Solace showed Bond in turmoil, grimly doing his job because it’s what he does best, after all, and someone needs to do it. Plus, of course, he enjoys it, and although it may turn him into a murdering machine, at least he does it well, and the people who pay him are usually on the right side.
Earlier Bond movies made this point somewhat. The first few Sean Connery films showed Connery as a dashing agent who was devoted to Queen and country, but mostly to winning and personal professional satisfaction. Every Bond movie shows Bond cheerily flouting protocols in favor of personal rewards, either in the form of women or revenge or the thrill of confirming his skill and egotism. Skyfall does this best since it shows the final thing that really ties Bond to his job: his relationship with M, which powers his sense of duty. Is that sense of duty merely the Queen and country, imperialistic attitude? No, it’s merely a sense of duty to his job, which, luckily, usually results in Bond being the good guy.
But not really a good guy, as Skyfall shows. Bond may have a spark of conscience left, but he follows orders more to the letter than ever before, a far cry from the Bond of Casino Royale who disobeyed orders to cruise the Mediterranean. He leaves a comrade to die and uses a woman to get closer to Silva; with regret, of course, but still, he’s a good agent…not a good man.
Earlier Bond movies tried to have it both ways. You’re always supposed to cheer Bond on, but Skyfall made it clear that when we place ourselves in Bond’s position, we do terrible things to people for sometimes unclear reasons. Obviously, it’s all coated in a veneer of panache and snappy sardonic wit and usually clean moral goals (since this is escapism, after all), but Skyfall makes that point better than most.
2: The three acts. Skyfall’s plot has its own issues, but its true success comes with it capping the Daniel Craig trilogy of Bond films; in short, being the perfect third act, or the end to the meta-formula. Other fans have delved into the Bond universe, detailing how James Bond could be a secret identity and code name, and thus continuity between the films is actually ensured, since it’s simply different British agents with similar backgrounds who assume the identity of James Bond. Others ask why we even go to that bother, since they’re just movies. Still others poke holes in the theory, showing how in Skyfall James Bond’s parents’ gravestones are actually shown, and how Lazenby’s wife was killed, but Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever seems rather ticked off that his wife is dead, and Roger Moore visits Lazenby’s wife’s grave…all of which can be explained away fairly easily by some contorted reasoning.
But let’s establish the background. Let’s presume that Daniel Craig portrays a brash, bold secret agent in his early thirties who is picked to be the new 007 and James Bond, mainly because of his skills, but it just so happens to be that his real name is James Bond (not that uncommon of a name, actually). That takes care of the back story and continuity. In Casino Royale, he attains 00 status, meets the love of his life, and encounters a huge terrorist ring. The first act, so to speak, which ends in his gradual growth as an agent. In Quantum of Solace, he becomes an even better agent, brutal and ruthless, and takes down the terrorist ring.
Skyfall is the third act, in which Craig’s Bond is now presumed to be in his late thirties or early forties, and it is some years after Quantum of Solace. He is veering fairly close to the age where secret agents (and really all combat soldiers) start assuming desk jobs. Even if you stay in excellent condition, your body simply starts breaking down in your late thirties on average, and Bond worries if he is obsolete, along with M. (This physical concern mirrors his dissatisfaction with his job and the fading allure of what he does, referenced above.)
However, he proves himself once more, showing there’s a place for a 00 even in the 21st century, and the movie ends with a perfect segue into the first few James Bond films: Moneypenny, Q, simple gadgets, and even a male M. Skyfall ties together not only the trilogy, but also (admittedly with holes and gaps along the way) knits together a plausible theory of the entire series, as well as the winning Bond formula in a nutshell. From here on out, Craig’s Bond will be more like Connery’s Bond, with a familiar cast of supporting characters, a firmly closeted past involving a dead wife/lover, and the wit, wisdom, and war-readiness of a seasoned spy.
(Quick edit: On Reddit and elsewhere there are claims that Skyfall shows Bond was human and failed at virtually every mission, and ended the film with the greatest mistake of all: taking his boss alone to an old mansion with no backup. I’m not quite sure how the film consists of Bond’s failures. True, collateral damage occurs, and Bond is reminded that he is human, but he does take out a squad of terrorists, initially capture Silva, defeat the man who shot him in the opening scene, and overall show that even if he makes mistakes, he’s still one of the best agents MI6 has. As for taking M to Skyfall, thematically it fits the close of the trilogy with Bond returning to his roots (and the cinematic Bond Craig returning to the old structure of Q, a male M, Moneypenny, and more). And the move to Skyfall does make sense: there’s less collateral damage. M and Bond don’t know whom Silva has corrupted, so they take refuge in each other. Plus, last but not least, thematically M and Bond have the mother-son relationship Bond never truly had. In essence, she is the most important woman in his life, but in order for him to become an even better secret agent, he has to lose her too, in order to become the Connery Bond.)
3: The acting, cinematography, whatnot. Every single shot in Skyfall could be a painting. Trust me; I’ve seen it far too many times. Daniel Craig has never been more assured as Bond, and even manages to come close to Connery’s levels of charm and menace in scenes with Moneypenny and Silva. Ralph Fiennes and Judi Dench are superb, as to be expected, while Naomi Campbell and Ben Whishaw both take on the familiar roles of Moneypenny and Q with gusto. The action scenes are well-choreographed and filmed, with the usual death-defying Bond stunts still managing to impress.
In short, what I like best about Skyfall is that not only does it serve as a great reboot film of the series (and having Casino Royale as a reboot makes the most sense, with the whole James Bond saga starting over after every 20 films), it also pays homage to the most successful elements of the Bond formula that enabled it to get to 20 films in the first place.