Skyfall is a decidedly personal Bond film as Daniel Craig bounces back in his third film as the infamous British secret agent.

With 23 installations in the James Bond film series, there’s bound to be some bumps along the way. That was the case with Craig’s last outing, Quantum of Solace, a dull and clunky continuation of one of the best Bond films ever, Casino Royale. While Skyfall doesn’t surpass the latter, it gets pretty damn close. The key, it seems, for both films is making the stories personal for Bond, and in turn making the stakes higher and payoffs sweeter.

While Casino Royale‘s general story isn’t directly personal to Bond, the final death of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd makes it so. Skyfall, however, is directly personal to Bond and even more so for Judy Dench’s M. Opening in the middle of a mission in Turkey, Bond and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naoimie Harris) are attempting to recover a stolen hard drive containing the identities of all undercover NATO agents in terrorist organizations. In pursuit of the hard drive, M is unflinching in her persistence that they need to retrieve it at any cost. As Bond and the thief struggle on top of a moving train, M gives Eve the order to shoot, despite not having a clear shot, and Bond plunges into the water below. Of course, it’s no surprise that Bond survives but it affects his psyche, his place in MI6 and his trust in M greatly.

After being written off as dead, although in reality Bond is just getting hammered on a remote beach, MI6 is hacked and their headquarters blown up. M isn’t harmed in the attack, instead she’s reprimanded by the new Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who insinuates the situation is out of M’s control and it may be time for her retirement. But M is still the stubborn, old broad she’s always been and insists she’ll recover the hard drive and rectify the mistakes. After hearing of the attack, Bond also feel’s it’s time, and his duty, to return to London and assist MI6 in finding and destroying whomever is behind it.

Unfortunately, Bond has changed since his near death experience and it’s this aspect of the story that takes what could have been a really good story and makes it great. Whereas Bond has had personal investments in the task at hand before, he’s never really questioned his existence as an agent. The remaining scar of Eve’s shot is a permanent reminder that he’s just another tool for MI6 and could be considered dispensable. That’s not to say that M, and the organization, don’t care about him and their agents but he’s acutely aware that he’s not always their first priority and that being a secret agent doesn’t necessarily have a bright future. Still, it’s all he knows and despite his bone to pick with M, he’s willing to return and work with her to find the real villain.

The film eases into the story, at times feeling just a bit slow, as Bond travels to Shanghai in pursuit of the mercenary who stole the hard drive and to hopefully find the real mastermind of the plot. Before he leaves, he meets Q—a character absent in both previous Craig films—this time a young and contemporary nerd played by Ben Winshaw. Instead of being the gadget geek Q is widely recognized as, he gives Bond a simple hand gun and a radio signal.

“What?” he asks Bond, “were you expecting an exploding pen?” If Winshaw continues on as Q, as it appears he will, it’s a refreshingly new and contemporary take on the character that acts as a realistic and integral part of MI6. Instead of just offering up the cool, new gadget, he has scientific and technological skills that helps create the realism the Craig Bonds have been striving for.

That’s not to say that everything is back to normal. What’s curiously missing is a Bond girl, in the classic sense. There’s Eve, the other MI6 agent, with whom Bond trades puns and innuendos in many scenes, and there’s also Bérénice Lim Marlohe as Sévérine who ultimately leads bond to the film’s true villain, and one of the best in the series, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). But neither of these women are as integral to the story as Vesper Lynd or Natalia in Goldeneye were. Rest assured, however, there’s still plenty of witty barbs and Bond is not deprived of female pleasure.

The real meat of the story is when Bond finally comes face to face with Silva, played brilliantly by Bardem. An ex-MI6 agent gone rogue, he’s the perfect blend of creepy, flamboyant and humorous. He also plays into the personal turmoil Bond’s struggling with, as his reason for defecting was due to feeling that he was betrayed by M. He’s a formidable villain for Bond and through him, all of the existential leanings of the script are kept contained. Director Sam Mendes does a great job of keeping it simple yet exciting and while the film definitely has it’s share of action, it’s not overblown as it was in the latter films of the Pierce Brosnan films and he keeps the story central to the film.

It’s a more nuanced Bond film, recalling what made Casino Royale such a success, but still holding on to some of the camp of the classic era films. Sometimes these two impulses can clash rather than mesh, but it ends up being one of the stronger Bond films, especially within the last 20 years, and firmly places Daniel Craig as one of the best to don the agent’s title.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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