Is there any phrase that we should trust less than “return to form”? In music, before they sensibly decided to call it a day, every recent R.E.M. album was labeled with that dreaded description. In film, it’s always associated with new movies released by the once great Woody Allen.
And yet behold! A new contender has emerged, with Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the James Bond franchise. The film is receiving almost universal praise, just four years after the critically derided Quantum of Solace — itself a sequel to Casino Royale, hailed in 2006 as a return to form following 2002’s Die Another Day.
What’s taking place to justify the “return to form” tag? Well, if you believe everything you’ve read, we’re in the realms of an origin story to rank with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. No surprise, since it’s helmed by a director of similar critical regard, American Beauty auteur Sam Mendes. The staggeringly good pre-credit sequence (courtesy cinematographer Roger Deakins, who still, shamefully, doesn’t have an Oscar to his name), set in Istanbul, shows the dire state of Britain’s intelligence organization. Fingers are pointed at Javier Bardem’s Silva, who seems set on taking down Bond and his boss, M (played once again by Judi Dench, who truly gets to sink her teeth into this often neglected role).
Both in Bond’s native Britain – where much of Skyfall satisfyingly takes place – and America, the critics have joined in near unanimous approval. “A supremely enjoyable and even sentimental spectacle, giving us an attractively human (though never humane) Bond. Despite the title, he is a hero who just keeps on defying gravity,” concludes the Guardian. The beginning of Entertainment Weekly’s review is on similar lines: “Of all the marvelous feats that make Skyfall such a thrilling addition to the James Bond movie canon, the greatest may be that the 23rd entry conveys the melancholy of loss, mortality, and future-shock anxiety, while at the same time leaving us plenty of space to enjoy one of the most complexly unhinged villains in Bond history.” The AP simply opts for out-and-out love, noting that Skyfall is, “simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who’s the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig.” Who knows where they go from here, but if Mendes comes back to direct Bond 24 – and it’s believed that he hasn’t yet ruled it out – perhaps he and Craig can consign the phrase “return to form” to 00Heaven.