Contrary to rumor, Skyfall does not concern a chicken named Little. It does have a Wiki-Leaks plot, some kind of evil computer genius who aims to take revenge on MI6, the British Secret Service. This he does, with seeming impunity (as it goes with evil computer geniuses). But our man, James Bond (Daniel Craig), traces a skein of links/bodies that lead to the very satisfying Javier Bardem. Who’s kinda gay, but Bond deals with it in the movie’s best line. That’s all you need to know, really. Skyfall is a fine and wry third installment of the new Bond franchise. It’s not gory, but by the last scene you may exit like a dry Martini: shaken, not stirred.
As a James Bond lifer, nothing gave me more relief than to see this war horse reshod with Daniel Craig playing the suave 007. Like 1980s sideburns and white Elvis jumpsuits, the films had become dated, corny, aimless affairs, reaching a nadir when the hulking Roger Moore performed his stunts like an elderly vaudevillian on the Edwardian stage. All he lacked was a top hat and a cane.
We really have Austin Powers to thank for the reboot. By effectively destroying the super-villain plot, with his tired threat of world domination (unless paid “One MILLION dollars!”), Mike Myers freed up the Bond movies for granular stuff. In the two movies preceding Skyfall, that meant exploring the fighting possibilities of the extreme French urban sport, parkour; a surprisingly undisguised look at how Bolivia’s corrupt leaders really did sell the country’s water supplies off to a French conglomerate (Vivendi, for those who want to Google it); and the technicalities of restoring a Venetian palazzo that’s falling into a canal.
The first two of the new, Casino Royale and The Quantum of Solace, dialed back on the camp and worked more as thrillers than Disney rides. Both emphasized Bond/Craig as a person of primitive motivations, over-chiseled abs and piercing blue eyes, but he was allowed a less caddish and sociopathic nature. (As if we cared.) Casino Royale gave Bond a serious love interest in Vesper Lynd, who, alas, didn’t make it. This gave 007 a more than cypher-like backstory, whereas The Quantum of Solace had a politically charged subtext. Its villainous environmentalist was actually stealing the water supplies of entire countries. (Poor Vesper just drowned in that Venice canal.)
Visually, both movies seemed as attuned to stunning natural landscapes as to the decolletage of lissome young women and Craig’s dimpled washboard. Both featured spectacularly imploding or exploding houses. Both gave Bond a scaffolding on which to hang his few threadbare emotions–an abusive relationship with authority, in the person of M, played by Judi Dench since 1995’s Goldeneye.
In the end, the films, including this one, work thanks to Craig’s cool, almost affectless presence–which allows his lines to sound wry even when they’re barely serviceable–and lean, topical scripts, shot and edited in a rhythm of posh suspense punctuated by high velocity action, memorable villains and beautiful compromised women dying for a night of love with James. (Literally dying.) Along with cool gadgets and those groan-inducing one-liners, these are precisely the elements that made From Russia with Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger explode in our global consciousness.
The awareness of these paint-by-number elements is one of the things that redeems this World Heritage franchise. A jangly guitar, a cool car, a new Q (the lovely Ben Whislaw) and a disquisition on the anachronism of the secret agent: Is this not just what we ordered?
That’s the implicit contract in a Bond movie: that we will come away with the sense of the world as a fascinating, conspiracy-ridden place held together by the aging tendons and brittle savoir-faire of a secret agent whose name everyone knows. Skyfall deserves to be seen without prior synopsis, so let this serve instead as your excuse to kick back and enjoy the show. (Oh, and the Komodo dragons.)