Whatever Barbara Broccoli paid Sam Mendes, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan to revitalize the Bond franchise after MGM’s financial collapse nearly killed it, it wasn’t enough. This is the first Bond film with a marquee, Academy Award-winning director at the helm, and the difference is breathtaking.

Before I begin, the niceties of the internet age force me to spell out the bleeding fucking obvious that if you haven’t seen Skyfall yet, don’t be a fucking retard. Go see the movie and read this later.

I should start by explaining my relationship with 007. Entire books have been written about the Bond films, and their effect on modern cinema. Jaws might have been the first legitimate blockbuster, but Bond was the first franchise. It spawned sequels, knock-offs, duplicates, legal battles, parodies, launched and sunk entire careers… James Bond isn’t a film series, it’s an empire.

To truly understand the scope of Bond’s reach, you only have to look at Neil Connery, Sean’s talentless younger brother, who was hired to star — as Dr. Neil Connery (!?!) — in a Bond ripoff that also stars Daniela Bianchi (Tatiana Romanova), Adolfo Celi (Largo), Bernard Lee (M), Lois Maxwell (Miss Monneypenny), and was released by United Artists, who distributed the real Bond films. In essence, this was a company so desperate to capitalize on the Bond phenomenon, it was ripping off itself.

I first encountered James Bond at the age of six when I saw Diamonds Are Forever on television. It was the perfect age to be dazzled by one of the weakest entries in the series. It’s a sad commentary on the quality and tone of Diamonds that it was shown back-to-back with the Dean Martin Matt Helm film The Wrecking Crew, and I really didn’t understand the difference. Still, I was hooked. By the time VHS was a staple, I’d seen every Bond movie several times, and read Fleming’s books.

In regards to the latter, I have to say, I’m not a fan. I give Ian Fleming credit for inventing the Secret Agent as Superhero genre that spawned a thousand pretenders to the throne of empire, but taken as literature, the books are dry, dull, and thin on characterization. It doesn’t help that each seems hyper-fixated on whatever passion Fleming was indulging at the time; Casino Royale, for example, is not a book about James Bond and le Chiffre. It’s a book about baccarat.

That being said, I’m really a Bond purist. My favorite Bond film has always been From Russia With Love. It’s real, straightforward and simple. Bond doesn’t have an army at his disposal or the world to save. He has a clear mission, a sexy blonde defector and a slightly tricky briefcase. For me, that’s enough. Having seen Skyfall, I have to admit that From Russia With Love has finally been knocked off its perch.

You have to appreciate that I love all the Bond movies, even the horrible ones. I just bought the Bond 50th Anniversary blu-ray set, and I’ve been watching them all in order. I’m not looking forward to A View to a Kill, but I’ll suffer through it. You’ll also find most of the imitators on my shelf. While I don’t have the 1967 Casino Royale parody, I have the Matt Helm films, the Flint movies, and the entire Bourne series. Skyfall has as little to do with any of those knock-offs and predecessors as Martin Campbell’s 2006 Casino Royale has to do with the 1956 CBS teleplay that was also based on the book.

I’ve been a big fan of the Daniel Craig Bond retcon. I liked Casino Royale a lot, and I’m in that rare minority who think Quantum of Solace is an amazing film (that’s a whole other argument, but it really is a brilliant, $200 million dollar art film). I have never, however, hoped — or even imagined — that there would ever be a Bond like Skyfall.

What Sam Mendes and the writers have managed to do with Skyfall is nothing short of magic. I don’t mean that merely as an adjective, I mean it in the literal sleight-of-hand sense as well. Skyfall is a brilliantly executed magic trick, one so subtle most of the audience will never even recognize it. All at once it manages to be a soft reboot of the franchise, a deconstruction of Bond as an icon, and a reconstruction of the character as a flesh-and-blood human, so much more interesting that the superhero he’s replacing.

It’s also a classic Bond movie told in reverse.

What, you didn’t catch that?

With Skyfall, Mendes is rewinding the character, and our perceptions of him, one step at a time. In some ways its incredibly subtle, in others just heavy-handed enough that the subtext will seep through the thickest skulls without ever damaging the narrative. What Mendes and crew have done is give us a James Bond history lesson, tearing down everything we thought we knew about the character, rebuilding a new version right before our eyes, and yet affirming everything we love about him all at once. Seriously. Magic.

Think about it; the biggest action sequence in Skyfall — always reserved for the climax of any Bond film — comes at the top, before the opening credits. From that opening, everything in the plot narrows down to the final confrontation between M, Silva, and Bond. And for our final battle between our “hero” and “villain,” presented here more as two sides of the same coin than ever in spy movie history, how does Mendes “top” the huge train fight at the beginning?

By scaling back to the simplest, cleanest execution ever in Bond history. James Bond kills Silva with a knife in the back. No smart quip. No fanfare. The explosions are long over. And yet it surpasses our wildest expectations because it has emotional resonance, and feels completely real. Bond lives. Silva dies. M pays for her sins. And our hero, killed at the beginning, is finally reborn into a completely new scenario that feels as comfortable as old jeans. Then we get the familiar “Bond through a gunbarrel” opening that began so many Bond films before it, just to confirm that this is truly the beginning.

I’ve said for ages that sequels trying to “top” their predecessors is a mistake. Simply tell your story rather than worry about the stories that came before. Apparently Sam Mendes feels the same way. Instead of trying to top the previous Bonds, he upstaged them.

As for the magic trick? It happens in bits and pieces all through the film. We open by diving in with all the classic Bond elements: car chases, elaborate fights, a train (familiar), at the end of which Bond is “killed.” The filmmakers never expect us to believe it, and don’t even bother explaining how Bond lived. Nor do we care; he’s still superhuman, after all. Except… he’s come back mentally and physically wounded (deconstruction). This time, when Bond goes out in the field, we’re told he isn’t at the top of his game. Suddenly, he’s human again (reconstruction). A new Q gives Bond his only gadgets, a gun and a radio, delivered with the acknowledgement that these aren’t the old days of excessive toys (deconstruction). However, Bond still carries the Walther (familiar), and his tracker is a modern update of the homer from Goldfinger, (familiar), so we’re on well-trodden ground.

Bond tracks Patrice to Shanghai with the express mission of questioning him and killing him. Bond follows Patrice up the elevator in a method that would have been effortless for the old superhero, but proves nearly fatal for the flesh-and-blood Bond (reconstruction). Then, when Bond realizes Patrice is setting up an assassination, he doesn’t interfere (deconstruction). After all, that isn’t his mission. Once the hit is made, Bond uses that moment to move in, and in the ensuing fight, barely wins (familiar), but he fails to get any info from Patrice, losing his grip, and the target in the process (deconstruction). We realize the new, human Bond is fallible.

When he encounters Severine, we recognize that Bond the Ladykiller has returned (reconstruction) with the familiar introduction, “Bond. James Bond.” He is again willing to use beautiful women to get to his target and then cast her aside. When she’s killed — almost as an afterthought — the remorse for having failed her is palpable on Daniel Craig’s face… for a microsecond. Then he turns the situation to his advantage, moving on with the mission at hand, and Severine is never mentioned again.

In his miraculous star turn as Silva, Javier Bardem isn’t the first time we’ve seen a former-agent-turned-villain, he’s simply the only one who’s ever been effective. When he ties Bond to a chair (very familiar, especially if you’ve read the books) and brings the homoerotic underpinnings of Fleming’s books onto the screen for the first time ever (deconstruction), it’s like a breath of fresh, untainted, fantastically creepy air has just filled the theater. We Have Never Been Here Before, James. Except we have. As an audience, we all just came out of the closet.

The movie continues in that vein, tearing down, building up, and repainting in the image of something we know, but stopped really looking at a long time ago. Casino Royale did away with “shaken, not stirred.” It returns here quietly, without fanfare, but for all to see, and we love it. When Bond pulls the classic Aston Martin DB5 out of mothballs (accompanied by cheers from the audience) to return, quite literally, to his roots, Mendes has now woven old Bond into the new, creating a new tapestry from old broadcloth. When that car is destroyed later, it’s the more obvious metaphor for what’s been happening to James Bond himself. Destruction leads to creation, and when Bond rises from the ashes of his past, he is then baptised before shedding blood on the altar of his future.

Mercifully, it’s all presented with much more grace, and a lot less pretension, than I can summarize it here. Mendes’ magic trick concludes with the final turn — The Prestige — when Bond steps into the familiar M-branch head office, with the familiar coatrack, but a new M and a new Moneypenny.

From a sheerly technical viewpoint, I have to single out Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Skyfall isn’t just the most amazing-looking Bond film ever shot, it’s one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, period. In every way, this movie is a stunning achievement.

Daniel Craig has finally cemented himself as the James Bond, as far as I’m concerned. Sam Mendes has created the first Bond film that is truly a work of art. Smart. Simple. Real. Films like this give me hope.

For those who’ve asked, here’s my list of the Bond films as I would rank them (cue the arguments):

  1. Skyfall
  2. From Russia With Love
  3. Goldfinger
  4. Quantum of Solace*
  5. Casino Royale (2006)
  6. The Living Daylights**
  7. The Spy Who Loved Me
  8. The Man With the Golden Gun
  9. Thunderball
  10. Tomorrow Never Dies
  11. Octopussy
  12. The World is Not Enough
  13. Live and Let Die
  14. Dr. No
  15. Moonraker
  16. For Your Eyes Only
  17. You Only Live Twice
  18. Goldeneye
  19. Licence to Kill
  20. Die Another Day
  21. Diamonds Are Forever
  22. Never Say Never Again
  23. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service***
  24. A View to a Kill

*Go back and watch it again. It’s serious, not over-the-top, and really breathtaking. It also has some of the most original action sequences ever shot. They’re like dances. It’s truly a big-budget art film. Just watch the opera house sequence when the audio drops out, and we only see Bond after the fighting is done (because we know he wins). It’s stunning.
**Again, take another look. People didn’t like Timothy Dalton because he was hard and cold, and they were coming off two decades of goofy Grandpa Roger, but he’s perfect in this. He’s the prototype for the Daniel Craig Bond.
***Just stop. It isn’t “the best Bond” anything. It’s boring, tedious, meandering, badly-acted, shot, and written. It’s cut together like monkeys edited it, and the script is a joke. Except for Diana Rigg, this movie is a complete wash.

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