I saw Skyfall last night. Sam Mendes managed to do something lovely and tricky with this movie: he made a Bond film that is both homage and deconstruction. Over the course of two and a half hours, Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Javier Bardem, and Judi Dench examine what it means to be James Bond in the 21st century--where "James Bond" is a metonym for Great Britain itself. This goal appears as a running theme of old Britain and new meeting, occasionally clashing, as when MI6 is forced to relocate to a WWII bunker, M quotes Tennyson to MPs, and Bond and Q meet up in front of The Fighting Temeraire (yes, I squealed). Bond's own past becomes the contingency plan as he and M travel to Skyfall, his ancestral home in Scotland, to outsmart Silva (Javier Bardem as one of the most effective Bond villains in some time), pulling a Home Alone-style series of boobytraps that somehow fit seamlessly with the helicopters and motorcycle chase scenes elsewhere in the film. There's a glimmer of self-awareness, of acknowledgment between Bond and M of how she has taken advantage of him for Queen and country, and how he will continue to allow himself to be weaponized. Skyfall also references the history of Bond movies--an ejection seat in the Aston Martin, Q's quip about exploding pens, the return of Moneypenny and the positioning of M as the film's chief Bond Girl--while settling the story and characters firmly in their own time with a cyberterrorist plot and high-tech guns.
The question posed by Skyfall is whether Bond (and by extension MI6 as it is run by M, and further the United Kingdom as a political entity) is still the go-to in terms of national security. Is he fit, active, flexible, deadly? Is he still capable of competing? Or is he the warship hauled in for breakdown? As far as this query goes, the film is a success, reassuring everyone that the British stiff upper lip will prevail when backed up by big guns; in other realms, it's a bit more opaque. The devastating and underutilized Berenice Marlohe, whose character is a former sex worker indentured to Silva, is killed off with possibly even less fanfare than Caterina Murino in Casino Royale, and M dies as well, to be replaced by...Ralph Fiennes, not Helen McCrory for reasons I cannot fathom. Because there must always be a Moneypenny at the desk, Naomie Harris quits the fieldwork and starts shuffling papers--truly I am torn in this regard, because as Moneypenny, there's a good bet that Harris will show up in at least one more film, but her sparkle and wit and savvy could be used to such greater effect. Then there's Silva himself, a perhaps queer man with vast mommy issues as the film's villain; Bardem is good enough an actor to bring some of the hallowed Bond-villain camp, but it sometimes skates close to Evil Gay ground (though it isn't clear if Silva is actually gay or bisexual, or if he is just willing to use every tool at his disposal, and at any rate, Bond is unmoved by Silva's advances--which may be the entire point). As the inverse of Bond, Silva, his machinations, and his relationships are intriguing, to the point where it becomes difficult to discern if Mendes has given us a straightfaced Bond movie or is trying to tell us something about the way he views the genre (and it is a genre by now). Everything about Silva is taken to the limit: he uses women literally to the point of death, he plays with bottles of fine Scotch as props, he wields sex as a weapon. So what does that say about James Bond?