Daniel Craig in Skyfall
There's a moment towards the end of the fabulous Casino Royale that hints at new possibilities for the James Bond franchise : James and Vesper, having recovered from odious torture at the hands of "Le Chiffre" (Mads Mikkelsen) embrace lovingly on a beach, and James reveals his plan to leave his life of espionage behind: "You do what I do for too long and there won't be any soul left to salvage," he laments to Vesper. The scene is escapist, romantic and has an undertone of tragedy, of course, for we know they won't be allowed to run away together. For one of the first times since Connery, Bond isn't a cliché.
Skyfall continues the trend of shaping Bond into a much rounder character than in previous movies, complicating his relationship with M and giving us a glimpse into his childhood home in Scotland, where the movie's climax takes place. The film received rave reviews and it's easy to see the attraction: a terrific villain played with aplomb, a deftly shot rooftop fight sequence set against the lights of Shanghai, and several updates of bond characters and conventions. Here the villain is after something much more personal than "world domination," Bond finds himself probed sexually by his captor, and Moneypenny is no longer merely a secretary. We also have a charming new Q played by Ben Whishaw. Adele even sings one of the best Bond theme songs. All of this is to be applauded.
Yet despite these updates, Skyfall presents a different type of conservatism. Never mind that the sexism is still here: indeed the Bond girl, a sex-slave, played by the beautiful Bérénice Marlohe, isn't exactly liberated by Bond, quite the opposite. No, the real conservatism happens when the violence explodes in London. It was a bold move to eliminate the ubiquitous threat from abroad and turn England into its own worst nightmare, yet as the chaos unfolds and M reads a Tennyson poem (which Judi Dench reads well, of course), the movie starts to feel like a defense of enhanced security measures. Never before has James Bond been so tied to the institution he works for. And when the villain, with a click of a button, sends a tube train crashing through a ceiling towards Bond, we feel that we might have entered Gotham and woken up in a Christopher Nolan movie. Skyfall, then, starts to become too dark, too much about MI:6 and M, and not enough about Bond.
What's missing here is the romance that marked the Connery films: the shot of Ursula Andress emerging out of the water has been replaced by an image of Woolf Blitzer on a television screen. Frankly, I don't go to a James Bond movie to see Woolf Blitzer's head in it; I go precisely to avoid that image. Some people have said that Craig is the best Bond ever, and while he's done an excellent job with the role, let's not forget that Connery looked equally at home playing golf as as he did killing a man. In Connery's hands, Bond was a black sheep, loyal to queen and country, and incomparably cool. So, while Skyfall is well done in many ways and certainly an interesting revision of the franchise, it lacks the charm that marked Connery's best films. Not even traveling "back in time" to take a ride with Bond in his Aston Martin could capture that charm.