In movie terms, James Bond is celebrating his 50th birthday this year, and in many respects Skyfall feels like it could act as a fitting swansong for the character. Of course, that won't happen – the Bond business is a very lucrative one to be in – but the manner in which this film keeps one foot in the past while telling a contemporary story lends the picture an unusually elegiac tone. Skyfall is one of the few Bond films that tries to explore the character's own personal history, and it finds new depths in the relationship between OO7 and his boss M (Judi Dench), which has been the most consistently satisfying aspect of Daniel Craig's tenure. The film also brings Bond home to fight terrorism on British soil after decades spent traversing the globe, and it all leaves you wondering where Bond can go from here.
Despite the number of pleasing elements that feel fresh, Skyfall remains a very old-fashioned James Bond movie at heart, adhering to the formulaic structure that has sustained the series so remarkably for 50 years. As per tradition, it opens in medias res with Bond finishing his previous mission in Turkey, although the mission almost finishes him. In pursuit of a hard drive containing the names of undercover MI6 agents, Bond and Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) chase their target through streets, across rooftops and onto a moving train. The scene ends with Bond being shot and falling to his death, although we feel safe in assuming that he survived both the bullet and the fall as we haven't even had the ornate, Adele-accompanied credits sequence yet.
It's a very promising and accomplished opening salvo, in which director Sam Mendes and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins prove themselves to be more than capable with the kind of outrageous blockbuster action that pushes them both into new territory. In fact, Deakins is very much the star of Skyfall, relishing the opportunities the film offers for rich and varied lighting. Mendes, Deakins and the film itself reach a dazzling peak in Shanghai, where Bond must chase an assassin to the top of a skyscraper before fighting him next to a perilous fall. This sequence is framed by vivid neon lights projected across walls of glass, and when the two men come to blows they are framed as silhouettes, occasionally illuminated by muzzle flare. It's rare to see an action sequence in a contemporary blockbuster shot with such imagination and visual flair, and it's a peak that the rest of the movie struggles to live up to.
All of this occurs within the film's opening hour, and while the rest of Skyfall is generally entertaining, too much of it feels like opportunities missed or simply mishandled. The idea of a James Bond action sequence set on the London underground sounds far more thrilling than it ultimately turns out to be, and while Javier Bardem certainly makes an impact as the villainous Silva, the lack of a proper climactic confrontation between him and Bond (why waste that ice set-piece on some random henchman?) seems like a misstep. The film also disappoints in its handling of Bond's two female companions. Moneypenny's first appearance as a gutsy and likeable field agent is a surprise, but she instantly becomes a less interesting character when she inexplicably turns up in Craig's hotel room to shave him flirtatiously, before deciding to settle for a place behind a desk. Still, at least she fares better than Bérénice Marlohe's Sévérine; even by the retrograde standards of this series, few women have been tossed away by the plot as egregiously as she is.
Despite these and other flaws – the plot does feel clumsily cobbled together – Skyfall holds the attention effectively enough to stand as one of the better Bond films (from a collection that's often a lot worse than our collective nostalgia allows us to believe), and it certainly possesses one of the better Bonds. Craig still can't deliver a quip and looks far more comfortable as a killer than a lover, but he has brought an emotional texture and vulnerability to the role that makes his Bond feel slightly more real than those that have gone before. The series itself, however, feels more awkwardly poised than ever between fantasy and reality, and Bond himself cuts an increasingly incongruous figure in today's world. So many of the crimes committed in Skyfall take place through computers and digital networks, and while Q (Ben Whishaw) observes that sometimes "a trigger has to be pulled," the filmmakers seem acutely aware of Bond's dinosaur status. Nevertheless, Skyfall ends not with Bond hanging up his double-Os but returning to duty "with pleasure," and the closing credits promise his swift return. It appears there's life in the old dog yet, but you do wonder just how much.