This year marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise. The famed superspy’s first cinematic adventure, Dr. No, hit theaters in 1962. To celebrate, producers have pulled out all the stops to make Bond’s latest big-screen adventure his biggest and boldest yet.
The key to creating a successful James Bond film is simple. You can make a few temporal adjustments, but there are certain elements that must not be tampered with. Skyfall is the 23rd (or 25th, if you count 1967s Casino Royale and 1983’s Never Say Never Again) film in the Bond series. Like those last two cool-as-a-cucumber, Daniel Craig-led Bond outings, there’s a good deal more stunt work and some intermittent nods to today’s post-Cold War climate. Skyfall, however, is smart enough to retain the essentials: exotic locales, sexy cars, hot girls, nice clothes, expensive liquor, megalomaniacal villains and the occasional lifesaving gadget. In fact, Skyfall is arguably the most “Bondian” film in ages, dropping dossiers full of inside jokes and sneaking plenty of fan service to longtime Ian Fleming aficionados.
The trademark pre-credit action sequence ends with James Bond killed in spectacular fashion. Not to worry, though; by the end of the stylish opening credits, he’s feeling a bit better. (It should be pointed out that this film’s “gun-barrel sequence” features a glorious theme song by Adele and arresting images from credit-director-since-GoldenEye Daniel Kleinman.) Seems Mr. Bond’s brush with death has left him shaken. When he stumbles back into MI6 several months later, spy-agency iron lady M (Judi Dench) finds her best agent at less than his physical and mental peak.
This is no time for self-pity, however, since Bond’s last assignment left a top-secret computer hard drive floating in the wind, packed with the identities and assignments of every undercover NATO agent around the world. Also, MI6 itself has been computer-hacked and fire-bombed. Worst of all, this is starting to look like an inside job. Naturally, our man Bond is called upon to hop around the globe—Shanghai, Macao, London, Scotland—in order to root out the mysterious new terrorist behind it all.
Turns out this hits closer to home than anyone thought. The wonderful Javier Bardem eventually joins the party as Silva, a former golden boy for British intelligence who wants revenge on M for selling him out back in the early ’90s. Bardem’s no slouch in the villain department (he got an Oscar for No Country For Old Men, after all) and he serves up a smooth, seemingly unflappable and very scary big bad here. See, this isn’t just about taking over the world. This time, it’s personal.
While the previous two Bond films built up a storyline about evil, international organization Quantum, Skyfall has no connection to them. It’s got its own, stand-alone story and is all the stronger for it. The script—written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace) and nicely overhauled by John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo)—is fully cognizant of Bond movies past and present. First-time series director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road) uses it to hit all the right beats, offer up plenty of satisfying moments of Bond trivia (oh hai, Aston Martin DB5) and deliver some of the most emotional moments of any film in the franchise.
No, “emotional” isn’t a word that usually applies to these kiss kiss, bang bang movies. But Skyfall digs deeper into the backgrounds of our familiar characters than ever before. With everything falling down around her ears, M is being forced into retirement by the British government. Bond, meanwhile—his confidence shaken to its core by a botched assignment—is worrying about his own mortality and starting to doubt his fearless leader. The stakes are much higher and more personal than the usual “let’s nuke all the gold in Fort Knox” kind of thing.
Throw in some great new faces (Ralph Fiennes as a more-than-meets-the-eye bureaucrat, Ben Whishaw as the new face of Q and Bérénice Lim Marlohe as the latest in a long line of insanely hot Bond girls) and you’ve got a film that doesn’t just uphold 50 years of moviemaking tradition—it surpasses some of the best in the series. Here’s to another 50 years!