Coulda, woulda, shoulda
Sam Mendes
Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes
The Setup: 
James Bond fights a former agent.

So here it is, the new James Bond film, said by some to be the best Bond film, and directed by Sam Mendes, who gave us American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. Not much more to say, let's get into it.

We open with Bond moving through a house, gun drawn, and finding an agent shot and bleeding to death. He wants to stop and help the agent, but M, via earpiece, tells Bond to leave him, keep after the list that is their target. This is important because the theme of this movie is whether M is too callous with the lives of the agents under her care. It leads to a rooftop motorcycle chase, in which it is revealed that we are in Istanbul, which was sort of a nice touch, as opposed to the typical start with an establishing shot of Istanbul, then move into the chase. Bond ends up atop a train, brawling with a bad guy, and fellow agent Eve has a gun trained on him. M orders her to shoot, even though she might hit Bond, which she does, dropping him into the water below, presumed dead. And--credits!

The credits sequence is fine, dark and murky and underwater, and the song by Adele is also fine, if unmemorable. When we return, we find M writing an obituary for Bond, and her boss, Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes, telling her she's being forced into retirement. She's on her way back to MI6 when the place blows up--specifically, her office. We now rejoin Bond, chilling somewhere exotic (still Turkey?) where he still drinks Heineken. He has a drinking contest in a local bar, surrounded by cheering locals, which I think is required for all manly men slumming among native populations. He's in a bar again (get a life, buddy) when he sees news that MI6 was bombed. next thing, he's back home in M's residence, ready for duty. Frankly, I thought he might have stayed dead longer. There are a few barbed words about M not being careful with her agents, but nothing serious. In retrospect, the credits sequence represents Bond's time being dead and dark time in the underworld.

We now have a sequence in which he re-trains, and find that he's a bit rusty. He is derided as being too old. We see him exhausted by a treadmill, failing target practice, and failing a psych exam. M tells him he passed, and he is sent out into the field, although we later find that he actually failed, but she believes in him. Next up: Shanghai, where he trails the guy he was brawling with on the train, up to a high floor with animated video on the outside of the building, and lots of reflective glass. This is where you notice, and appreciate, that the movie is concerned with creating striking visuals, as we are treated to a bunch of pretty moving light imagery, cut up into all these reflections. We have silhouettes of the guys fighting as a huge jellyfish rises across the screen. The bad guy dies before revealing who hired him, but Bond does get a valuable poker chip and a coupon for a free 16oz soda with purchase of a super combo.

He takes the poker chip to this lovely illuminated waterfront casino, which also allows this movie to engage in some pretty, lush visuals that keep the eye massaged. Inside, he and Eve trade banter as Bond meets the lovely proprietress. Here's where things deepen a bit: he can see that she's scared shitless by the big bad guy, the one behind all this, which offers a nice build-up to the bad guy's ultimate entrance. After more fights, they are on their way to the villain's island hideout, an abandoned city straight out of the end of Inception. Meanwhile, it has been surmised that he must be an ex-MI6 agent, and they, and M specifically, are his target. He is blowing the covers of five agents per week (on YouTube, haha), who are swiftly killed.

Javier Bardem gets a nice entrance as bad guy Silva, ex-agent who used to be M's favorite. I forgot to tell you that at the beginning, there was much addressing M as "Ma'am," consciously making it sound like "Mom" or "Mum," and the whole movie will play with her as a mother figure. Silva thinks she's not the greatest mother, and he's a wee bit resentful. In here, there is a sequence in which he slowly opens Bond's shirt and caresses his thighs in a way meant to make the straight boys in the audience squirm. Is he gay? Is Silva the first gay Bond villain? I say there's not enough info to know for sure, but they do play on homo discomfort throughout the scene. Things don't end well for Bond's casino ladyfriend, but Bond captures Silva, and that's it, the end.

No, silly. Silva is put in Magneto's cell, where he confronts M and lingering resentments are aired. Apparently she left him for dead, in a situation not too unlike the other agents, and Bond himself, and he's bitter and unable to move on. Luckily, Dr. Phil is on hand and it all ends with hugs and catharsis. We also see that, as required, Silva is physically deformed. Soon, in a clever and involving sequence, he engineers an escape, and it is seen that getting captured was all a part of his ruse. Now he's on the loose and heading to assassinate M, after which he is planning to open a chain of small local artisanal bakeries and reconnect with the simpler things. Maybe settle down. Who knows.

M is forced to appear before a committee questioning her leadership. Silva is headed there to kill her. There's a shootout, both validating the threat M sees before the committee, and also allowing Fiennes a chance to show that he can throw down when the going gets tough. Bond escapes with M, saying he is going to use her as bait and draw Silva to them. Along the way, there have been references to Bond films past, and they continue as the two switch to a 60s Aston Martin, and decamp to Scotland, famed home of Sean Connery.

There we come to Bond's childhood home, Skyfall, which is your typical isolated Scottish stone home. Albert Finney shows as Bond's home caretaker, who remembers him as a wee lad and recounts how he hid in the secret passageway, which MAY become integral to the story, upon learning that his parents were dead. The idea is that we're both ending the story but also returning to Bond's roots, where he will enact a cathartic plan to save his mother figure, in a way he couldn't save his parents back when. Things then become a mini Straw Dogs as they use antique weapons to fortify the house against invasion, which is also a nice move, since the climaxes of these things are often on a huge scale, and here we're bringing them down to a small confrontation among a few people. Once Silva's army is out of the way, that is. The action decamps to a small stone church nearby--after lots of striking visuals of the flaming family residence in the distance--and Silva gets a knife in the back and M dies in Bond's arms, offering him some kind of closure, if only the themes were tight enough for us to feel any emotional weight. But they're not. In the end, we have a new Moneypenny, a new M, and Bond is notably back in the missions office we know from the old films, stating that he's ready to get back out there.

So it seems that, looking back, we are to regard all of the Daniel Craig Bond films as a trilogy bringing us to the place where his ambiguity is gone, and he is ready to fully take his place wholeheartedly on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Only they just haven't developed the themes enough, so you're left filling in the blanks, rather than feeling a solid sense of how we got here. This was my complaint about Casino Royale--that Bond is supposed to have a huge emotional anguish after the death of his great love--but it was so muddled that we know it, but don't feel it. Here, Bond is presumed dead, having a chance to escape the spy life there is no other escape from, but he comes right back without seeming to have given it any serious thought, making what should have been a monumental gesture into nothing. He is supposed to have his own reservations about M's treatment, but they're reserved to a few tetchy comments toward the beginning. Silva, as an ex-agent who once enjoyed Bond's favored position, should be playing on Bond's own reservations about the job, but we never sense for a second that Bond is tempted by his side, or even gives it any thought. So it seems that the whole movie is set up to take him through this mental journey through temptation to reaffirmation of his purpose, and we still touch the signposts, but don't spend much time marking out the journey between each one. Which is fine, it's still a satisfying movie, it's just... why lay the structure of these emotional themes if you're not going to follow through on them? It seems the writer and filmmakers would like to use the opportunity to really dig deep and explore Bond as a character, but for some reason they keep chickening out, or are prevented from really presenting any complexity or ambiguity. So you're left with a pretty good movie that wears on its sleeve how much better it could have easily been.

Is it the best Bond movie ever? Well, it could be, but it seems like an unfair comparison, since the Bond films have never been that concerned about being good movies. They've been about being fun thrill rides, so if this one throws on a little structure and character, of course it's going to seem better. Much has been said in other reviews about how the Bourne movies have updated the Bond formula, forcing Bond to react to their innovations, but this film kind of shows how crowded the entire field has become, what with the Mission: Impossible films also taking a turn toward quality and realism. It's kind of apparent here as Bond is presumed dead, which has happened in previous Bond films, then it's all about recovering a list of secret agents, premiered in the first Mission: Impossible, and flirting through earpieces while walking amongst a swank casino, Mission: Impossible again, then the super-psychotic invincible bad guy, as recently as Dark Knight Rises, who allows himself to be captured as part of his overall plan, Dark Knight Rises again, and is held in a glass prison, a la X-Men, leading to an attack on a remote house, from Straw Dogs. So it's all a bit recycled, although, it must be said, with gusto and panache. If only they'd followed through on the thematic stuff enough for it to take on the resonance they set it up for.

So, a quite good film with greatness within its grasp. Still, it has a shape, a structure, themes, and striking visuals to demarcate every one of its major sequences. It's a satisfying, fun night at the movies. Still, it could easily have been a moving and memorable one.

Should you watch it: