Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: No Time To Die won’t be hitting theaters, but you can still enjoy some vintage 007 action.
Casino Royale, the first film to feature Daniel Craig as a particularly steely 007, is still the best of the modern Bond movies—a back-to-basics reset that stylishly combines the grounded espionage of Dr. No with the melancholy character drama of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But there’s a strong case to be made for Skyfall, too. Not that Craig’s third turn in the tuxedo requires any great defense: It’s not just the highest-grossing vehicle for Ian Fleming’s timelessly debonair super spy but also one of the most glowingly reviewed. Still, in a decade that saw an endless parade of major franchise reboots, few blockbusters gave the formula they revived such a jolt of rediscovery. Skyfall winks a little at the archaic pleasures of Bond pictures—the sex, the gadgets, the lairs, the one-liners, the explosive set pieces—while still delivering them all, just with a fresh coat of impeccable craftsmanship. It’s classic and postmodern.
Orchestrating the action is Sam Mendes, who’s almost surely Bond’s most acclaimed handler. (Though both Spielberg and Tarantino once expressed a desire to adapt Fleming, the vast majority of the directors who have secured the gig are hired guns, unlikely to muck with a successful box office formula.) Mendes, of course, has always tackled his prestige projects with a showboating flair (see 1917, for most recent example), and Skyfall handily proves that his strengths lie in superficial spectacle—in emphasizing the beauty of buildings, bodies, and fast cars. His impeccable taste extends, as always, to choice of collaborators, including the great Roger Deakins, who frames one sumptuous image after another, particularly during a kaleidoscopically beautiful tussle in a Shanghai skyscraper. He gives familiar fare the veneer of high art.
The Bond series has long followed instead of leading, adhering to not just its own set of established rules but also trends in action filmmaking. (Here’s hoping No Time To Die, when it finally opens, imitates John Wick or Fury Road.) Skyfall, for its part, is clearly aiming for the operatic seriousness and propulsive grandeur of The Dark Knight, down to a scene—a bona fide blockbuster convention at this point—of the villain getting captured on purpose. Speaking of which, Javier Bardem’s embittered, disfigured ex-agent, Silva, is one of the scariest, most tragically motivated heavies this franchise has offered in years. Introduced in a long single take that mirrors the hero’s entrance in the opening scene, he’s a shattered reflection of his adversary: a quick-witted lothario whose loyalty to country has curdled into a vengeful rage, and whose hacking prowess positions him as the modern alternative to “outdated” field work. (Meanwhile, the innuendos he directs at a bound Bond flirt with gay panic, though Craig largely defuses it with a single line of suggestive nonchalance.)
Skyfall’s most singular passage is its climax, which replaces the usual overblown scramble to save the world with a showdown of smaller and more personal stakes, Bond defending his boss, M (Judi Dench), from an overdue reckoning in a crumbling Scottish manor. There’s a tragic undercurrent to Craig’s run in this role, which can be cumulatively read as the story of a man who slowly loses everything—maybe even his humanity—to become a perfect weapon of the state. Here, that transformation wraps up with Bond burning down his own past to protect the motherland, embodied by a “mother” who’s proven she sees men like him and the revenge-obsessed Silva as expendable. It’s about as gothic and Freudian and relatively minimalist as this series gets.
Also going up in flames, incidentally, is the Aston Martin DB5, the same car Sean Connery drove in the quintessential Bond film, Goldfinger. It’s not the only self-aware nod to franchise history in an installment that mocks exploding pens and tags as old-fashioned British notions of duty, decorum, and Cold War-era spycraft. But Skyfall, for all that, doesn’t really condescend to the franchise. The film’s best trick is that it can lightly poke fun at a half-century of tropes, all while making them feel new again through the fashionable sheen of its design and the Bond-worthy finesse of its staging. Asked by the bad guy if he has any hobbies, the agent coolly replies, “Resurrection.” He’s bragging about the movie, too, and the series it kept thrillingly alive.