In Skyfall, James Bond dies. Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the franchise—it’s not even the end of the movie, but the very beginning. Immediately before Adele’s appropriately moody, Bondian theme song, 007 (Daniel Craig, comfortable and winning in his third time out) is naturally chasing a bad guy, someone who has a top-secret list of MI6’s top-secret agents and their true identities. The pursuit has the men tearing up an open-air market (yawn) and eventually battling it out on top of a train. (Bond’s brief, unflappable entrance into the train proper as he straightens his cuffs is the definition of debonair.)
But back to the railcars’ rooftops. Another agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), is watching the action from a distance, ready to snipe. She’s not getting a clean shot. “Take the shot,” the agents’ boss, M (Judi Dench), instructs her. Eve hesitates. “Take the shot!” M repeats. Eve takes the shot. Then, seconds later, the report: “Agent down.” Cue elegiac credits.
Of course, that isn’t really the end of Bond—he’ll pop up again soon enough in an exotic locale, unsurprisingly having sex and doing manly things like knocking back booze while a giant scorpion rests on his hand. In the meantime, MI6’s headquarters have been bombed, seemingly to obliterate M. Is this the end of the agency?
Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes (who’s not exactly known for action films) and written by Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with Hugo scripter John Logan, wraps itself around a few themes. The big picture involves M having to prove to her government that she and her old-school methods of espionage are still relevant in an Internet-driven world. On a more personal level, the story is about a Bond broken, struggling to pass his physical and psychological tests when he returns to MI6 and occasionally stopping a chase or missing a shot to nurse an ache. We also get to visit the agent’s childhood home—a Scottish mansion named Skyfall—for the final blowout. It’s the closest the franchise has ever gotten to offering a James Bond origin story. When the accompanying M asks, “Where are we going?” Bond replies, “Back in time.” (And the good ol’ Aston Martin and Bond theme then pop up to prove it.)
The film itself is one of the most engrossing and enjoyable of the decades-old series, but there are a few shortfalls. The villain, a former agent with a vendetta against M who’s played by the fabulous (and, here, flamboyant) Javier Bardem, doesn’t appear until we’re deep into the plot—and though each of his scenes are mesmerizingly menacing, he’s just not here enough. The Bond girls, Eve and Severine (Berenice Marlohe), each have their seductive moments, but they too also seem to get short shrift.
And Mendes’ action, though sometimes stylish (a bout of silhouetted fisticuffs against an indigo backdrop makes a terrific visual, and a subway diving into a gap in the ground is just cool), ultimately doesn’t quite rise up to the gritty standards set by, say, 2006’s Casino Royale, particularly when you compare each film’s opening: Blows on even a speeding train don’t compare to the breathtaking introduction to Craig’s first outing as Bond, a sky-high, nerve-racking foot chase on scaffolding. Pedestrian shoot-outs and explosions are so, I don’t know, Die Hard. It’s bad enough that 007 drinks Heineken (!) now. If his poised British one-liners are replaced with yippee-ki-yaying, fans will say goodbye to Bond for real.