On Nov. 9, 2012, the James Bond series successfully brought together the best aspects of its past, and the most promising characteristics of its future, with the 23rd installment in its franchise: Skyfall.

By this point, Daniel Craig had already taken over the role of 007, injecting new life into the classic character. His tougher, more taciturn presence accompanied a grittier take on Bond, leaving behind the gadgets, girls and the over-the-top villains that had defined the franchise's early years.

At a news conference promoting the movie, first-time series director Sam Mendes noted that "the character Fleming created over a number of novels was incredibly complex."  His premise for Skyfall was to explore that character in greater detail, while also reintroducing some levity to the franchise.

"It was taking the new, tougher Bond - the realer Bond, who has much more of an inner world - and bringing back some of the things that could reconnect me to my inner 13-year-old, that gave a thrill when I was a kid," the director explained to the Huffington Post.

Watch the Trailer for 'Skyfall'

The movie kicks off with a rare moment of failure for 007. On assignment in Istanbul, he discovers a dying agent named Ronson, who held a hard drive full of information regarding the identities of undercover MI6 agents across the globe. M talks with Bond over his headset, noticeably concerned more with the missing drive than the dying agent. Her ruthless pragmatism here is a sign of things to come.

Bond and a mysterious ally named Eve chase after the assumed killer. The chase escalates from a shoot-out in a crowded street market to motorcycles jumping off rooftops to, eventually, bareknuckle fighting on top of a moving train. As close as Bond and his target are, Eve, who has been tailing the two, is unable to get a clean shot. With time running out, M gives her the directive to take the shot. Eve misses, sending Bond into the water below.

Watch the Opening Fight Scene From 'Skyfall'

Three months later, Bond is assumed dead and M is set to face an inquiry for the stolen hard drive. The failed mission in Istanbul has undermined public confidence in MI6, and M must deal with the consequences, which include the threat of involuntary retirement from Ralph Fiennes' Gareth Mallory. Word around the MI6 office also suggests that the 00 program is on its way out, a redundancy from another time. When M is in trial, she is berated, "It's as if you still believe we are in the golden age of espionage, where human intelligence was the only resource available."

Confidence does not grow when the MI6 building suffers an explosion. M also begins to receive messages on her computer threatening to release the identities that were hidden on the hard drive. This event forces Bond out of his Turkish vacation and back to London, where his injuries and prolonged time off lead to a series of psychological and physical evaluations to ensure he is field ready.

Craig's performance during these examinations takes his interpretation of Bond to the next level, particularly as we get close-ups on him in a shooting range, with bloodshot eyes, stubble and an utter lack of confidence. He comes off as vulnerable, lacking the rugged durability of his previous showings. Bond is told that he passed the tests, but when a peer asks M how he did it, she reveals that he actually failed.

Watch James Bond Go Through Testing in 'Skyfall'

Q also gets a reintroduction in this movie, reimagined as a young man with a rich mind for technology and played by Ben Whishaw. He's helpful for exposition in this most tech-heavy of Bond movies, capable of handling all manners of technobabble.

As Bond begins the first leg of his mission in Shanghai - where he must track down a mercenary named Patrice - Q gives him two small and simple gadgets: a gun that responds to his touch and a radio transmitter. He winkingly tells Bond that MI6 doesn't do exploding pens anymore.

The Shanghai sequence may have singlehandedly brought cinematographer Roger Deakins his Academy Award nomination for the film. Deakins uses the look of the city to great effect, as Bond is often silhouetted in dazzling neon, with a range in color and depth rarely seen in the series. His stakeout of Patrice is set across rain-soaked streets that reflect back the overwhelming bright lights of the city and plays out in silent tension. Bond follows his target to the highest floor of a skyscraper by hanging off the bottom of an elevator and catches him in the act of shooting somebody in the opposing building.

Patrice nearly shoots Bond as well, but is pushed into a fistfight that plays out in front of a giant image of a floating jellyfish. Bond is nearly knocked out of a breaking window, but holds on by the end of Patrice's gun and turns the fight to his favor. Patrice is eventually dropped from the skyscraper before Bond can find out the identity of the man's boss, but a single clue is left behind: a Macau casino token.

Watch James Bond Battle Patrice in 'Skyfall'

Bond is given a similarly visually astonishing entrance into Macau, standing atop a boat as he arrives at the casino. Here he meets a woman he saw in Shanghai, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), effectively the Bond girl of the movie.

Bond and Severine's romance plays out in similar fashion to other femme fatales in the series. As she and Bond flirt and probe each other's motivations, he accurately deduces that she was trafficked in the Macau sex trade as a child. Although this backstory adds realism and complexity to the character, it also hits a dark note - the context of a big-budget action movie seems to shrink what she's gone through. Still, Severine leads Bond into her boss' headquarters in a deserted island city.

Raoul Silva is the movie's over-the-top bad guy, played with gleeful terror by Javier Bardem. The villain explains that he was an older agent of MI6, who, like Bond, was M's "pet." That relationship ended after she turned him over to her enemies. He now uses his prodigious skillset for mercenary gain and cyberterrorism, making him a perfect villain for a movie about how classic espionage has transformed in the digital world. Director Mendes explained to the Huffington Post that he "wanted to reintroduce the great, kind of flamboyant villain again," and with Bardem's unhinged embodiment of Silva, he succeeded.

Silva wastes little time in displaying his sadistic ways, tying Severine up and placing a glass of scotch on her head. After telling Bond the truth about his failed evaluations, the villain forces 007 to take the shot. Bond misses, only to have Silva kill the girl anyway. Hope seems lost until Bond reveals that he used the radio transmitter given to him by Q. Silva is now cornered by a brigade of MI6 agents looking to take him in.

Watch Silva Force Bond to Take the Shot in 'Skyfall'

While imprisoned, Silva gives up little. He explains more of his past, as the movie cuts between him and M in a Parliamentary Inquiry. Bond, Mallory and Q realize too late that Silva intended to be caught - once he breaks out of his cell, he and his cronies work to reach M's trial. Bond follows him in an exciting chase through the London Underground and barely stops him in time to save M.

Bond ends up kidnapping M and leaving London. Recognizing that his company car will be tracked, he goes to a safe house to find a new ride: his classic Aston Martin DB 6, another bit of iconography from the old days. Together, he and M make their way to Skyfall, the Scottish estate where James grew up as a young boy. He asks Q to leave a trail of "breadcrumbs" that will lead Silva to the estate, culminating in a battle of cyberterrorists in helicopters versus a trio with little more than a set of old shotguns to defend them.

Accompanying M and Bond is Kincade, Skyfall's gamekeeper and the only man who remembers the boy James Bond was before his time as an agent. While played with admirable gusto by Albert Finney, the character was once considered for the original 007 actor, Sean Connery. "It was never going to happen," Mendes later admitted, "because I thought it would distract."

The Skyfall estate's grand and empty halls suggest a diminished glory that makes it the natural endpoint for the movie. Even the action here is tactile and brutal in a way the series rarely gets, while still reaching operatic heights. As night begins to fall, Silva and his men arrive for what may well be one of the longest extended action scenes in the series.

Mendes designs it for maximum suspense and excitement, but by the end has reached a certain exhaustion - all that's left is Bond and Silva duking it out in the burnt remains of the estate. Bond defeats Silva but ultimately failed his mission in protecting M. In her dying words to Bond, she is tender but unsentimental, a fitting farewell for Judi Dench, who had played the character since 1995's Goldeneye.

Watch the Death of M from 'Skyfall'

Where some James Bond films end with the notion of retirement or some kind of escape from the life, Skyfall works in the opposite direction - early retirement into the greatest trial of Bond's life. The movie ends with him reporting for duty, ready for what comes next. The origin story started in Casino Royale has finally been completed. The suspense and cinematic showmanship Skyfall achieves is unparalleled in the franchise.

Even beyond the stunning photography, its action scenes are spectacular and well-paced, with consequences to every missed jab and a real sense of stakes. While reducing a complex plot of geopolitical cyberterrorism to one man's long-held grudge feels somewhat out of character for the Craig movies, Skyfall's story is thematically ambitious. It does more than pay lip service to the questions of what James Bond means to the modern world - at every turn his effectiveness and destructive capability is interrogated again. Despite that, the entertainment value of the movie is never sacrificed.

Skyfall positions Bond as both an aging man on the verge of retirement and as someone just now stepping into the classic Bond iconography. Even beyond its great, memorable villain, the acting by Craig and Dench is strong and substantive. Mendes found a way to make a James Bond movie for the '10s in every sense: playful but not campy, serious but not gritty. In doing this, the movie becomes one of the best the series has to offer.

 

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