There's no good answer to the "What's the best James Bond movie?" question, since the best James Bond movie will always be the first one you saw when you were a kid. (I ride for Live and Let Die until death.) And there's no good answer as to which James Bond is the best James Bond, since everyone just seems to rank the Bonds based on how Sean Connery-esque they are. (Sean Connery himself tends to win that battle.) But I'll submit this: There is a clear good answer for the toughest James Bond. Over his three movies in the role, Daniel Craig has convinced me that he could take on all five of the other Bonds and come swaggering out, covered in other-Bond blood, without so much as a limp. Craig is the Bond who carries himself most like an action hero, and 2012's Skyfall, the last and highest-grossing Bond movie, is also the one that succeeds the most as a pure action movie.
Other than maybe the parkour crane chase from Craig's debut, 2006's Casino Royale, I don't think any Bond movie has an action scene better than the beautiful, ridiculous motorcycle/train throwdown that opens Skyfall. That whole thing—Craig riding a motorcycle across shantytown rooftops, running up a backhoe arm to jump from one car to the next, and taking a final plunge from a bridge—is just stupidly perfect. It's the sort of sequence where, until it's over, you don't realize that you've punched your friend in the arm five times while it's been on. That thing where Craig jumps onto a train's passenger car just as the back of the car is ripped away, and his response is to subtly adjust his cuffs? That's as definitive a Bond moment as anything involving punny double-entendre exchanges. Wrestling dorks will be happy to note that Craig throws a dragon screw leg whip on the roof of a moving train, which may rank as one of mankind's greatest accomplishments when all is said and done. The rest of the movie can't live up to that scene, but I don't know how many action movies could.
The whole idea behind Skyfall seems to be, "Hey, what if we got a bunch of people who knew what they were doing to make this thing?" In the past, most of the franchise's directors were studio-functionary types, not auteurs with vision. Skyfall director Sam Mendes made, like, American Beauty, so it's not like he's Staney Kubrick reincarnated or something, but still: He's a contemplative director who knows how to work with actors, which makes him a vast step up from Marc Foster, the numbnuts who made 2008's genuinely bad Quantum of Solace. Mendes recruited Javier Bardem to purr menacingly as the villain and Ralph Fiennes to work as a witty-banter sounding board. Roger Deakins, the great cinematographer, makes the whole movie glow; he earned his entire paycheck with the shot, near the end, where Craig, silhouetted by a burning mansion, delivers a flying kick to an anonymous henchman. And whatever you may think of Adele, she was practically genetically engineered to sing a James Bond theme. She's a vastly better choice than Chris Cornell or whoever.
That same impulse—to hire all the best people available and give them some room to work— seems to extend to the stuntmen. The stunts in Skyfall are spectacular, and they're especially impressive when you consider that most blockbuster-makers of the day would've just used computers to simulate most of what they pull off. There's plenty of CGI in Skyfall—there's a bad Komodo dragon and a worse scorpion—but it wouldn't be a Bond movie without at least a few dubious effects. And when a body falls from a train or a subway car plows through a big, empty room, you can tell that there are actual objects falling through space. That makes a difference.
Historically, Bond movies have often treated their action scenes as inconvenient necessities, things that just get in the way of watching a British man be suave. Likewise, Skyfall wants to say things about the wages of war and the moral calculations that you have to take if it's your job to send people to their deaths: There's a moment near the end where Bardem tells Craig, "All this jumping and fighting, it's exhausting." But there's nothing perfunctory about the way the movie approaches its action set pieces. When Bardem pulls a Joker/Loki and escapes from captivity, or when Craig trails an assassin by hanging from the bottom of an elevator, the movie crackles to life. And Craig, with his pitbull face and his makeup scars, projects a grizzled intensity that we never got from any other Bond. He spends a big chunk of Skyfall trying to remember how to be an effective secret agent; it's not a problem his predecessors ever had.
Skyfall, of course, has some big problems. Like any Bond movie, it has too many long, talky scenes about some vast criminal conspiracy currently underway. It doesn't have any memorable bad-guy henchmen, and those guys are usually a prerequisite. Even amid all the smart filmmaking, it has bits of movie fakery that just drive me nuts, like the computers that go bloopity-bleep when letters are scrolling across the screen. Albert Finney shows up at the end in a role written for Sean Connery, a notion nobody rethought when they decided it would be too distracting to just give it to Sean Connery. The ending is off-brand Straw Dogs—it's the least impressive set-piece of the whole movie.
All that said, though, this is more of a primal ass-kicker than any other film in the series. Big, sweeping, unpretentious studio action movies hardly get made anymore unless they have the words fast or furious in their titles. Skyfall sometimes seems like a preexisting action script retrofitted into the Bond universe, and that's a good thing. I have a lot of confidence in the franchise's future as an action powerhouse now. The trailer for SPECTRE, the next installment, showed up online earlier this week, and it makes the new movie look like a brooding espionage-driven affair about Bond's past. It can't fool me: SPECTRE also cast the pro wrestler Batista as an evil henchman. You don't cast Batista as an evil henchman unless you're planning on making an action movie, and hopefully another great one.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
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