For all of the talk of director Sam Mendes’ first James Bond movie — Skyfall — being a “substantial” Bond movie, its real strengths are aesthetic, not literary. This, the twenty-third movie about the hero of Ian Fleming’s spy novels, is typically predictable, full of been-there-done-that plot twists, and standard issue action-hero revelations.

But genre pictures are all about the “how.” And Skyfall’s “how” is top-notch in several ways.

First, it would be hard to argue that this isn’t the best-looking Bond movie ever made. Roger Deakins’ cinematography just might earn him an Oscar (finally), as he finds inspiration in mirrors, panes of glass, bright neon lights. The movie is full of striking silhouettes, some of them stark and simple as woodcuts, others multi-layered and illusory. Deakins gives the film a series of styles, basking in the golden glow of a sun-baked bazaar, shivering in the shadows of London’s chilly architecture, dancing in the lights of a sumptuous Shanghai late-night skyscape, drifting like a ghost through an island ruins, and stalking grimly across a mystical Scottish countryside. Then, in the finale, he celebrates flames and shadows in a blaze of glory.

All of this is reason enough to earn Skyfall a high recommendation.

Second, the action.

Skyfall eschews the advantages of digital animation that have turned most adventure movies into glorified cartoons, and insists on the value of doing things the old-fashioned way — with real sets, real weapons, real action figures, real stunts. The action is consistently imaginative and perfectly paced. Having recently reveled in a restored edition of Raiders of the Lost Ark on IMAX screens, and remembered how truly awe-inspiring an action movie can be, I must say that Skyfall is an impressive contribution to the genre. Next to Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy — 2012’s other much-hyped spy-franchise installment — looks like a total waste of screen time.

It begins in dusty, gritty Instanbul where we follow Bond on a fantastic chase. He revs a motorcycle through a crowded marketplace; propels it across brittle, clattering rooftop tiles; launches himself onto a moving train; and wrestles his target as the train charges through tunnels that seem designed to scrape human beings from their exteriors. Then, Bond is knocked out of action, and he sinks into water so deep that it allows us time for a sensational, psychedelic Opening Credits Sequence.

This prologue is as exhilarating as it is ridiculous, and even though it’s not quite as memorable as the marathon chase scene in Casino Royale, it puts to rest any worries we may have about Mendes’s capacity to direct action. Nothing else in the movie is quite so spectacular as its opening, but the fight in a Shanghai skyscraper may be the most beautiful action scene in the franchise’s history, and the movie’s big finale is a pyromaniac’s dream.

Third, the cast.

The movie purposefully revels in the furrows and textures of Daniel “Crags,” the exquisite lines in the face of Judi Dench, and the sheer enormity of Javier Bardem’s head. Emphasizing that these actors, and this franchise, are aging (this is Bond’s 50th anniversary), the movie then sets about answering its own implied question, showing that they’re not only up to the challenge, but they can accomplish things the younger, scrappier action-hero franchises can’t. They operate with authority, carrying out their grueling missions without need for much digital enhancement.

Nevertheless, to rave, as many are raving, that Skyfall is a substantial step forward for the James Bond franchise in terms of storytelling and characterization is to say that, well, this episode actually has some storytelling and characterization.

Most Bond movies have about as much narrative substance as a quick run through a video game; the movies are a series of action sequences supported by the barest of narrative scaffolding. Open the kit and assemble with the following pieces: the Car Chase, the Shootout, the Fistfight, the Scene in a Bar, the Boat Scene, a Sensual Sex Scene, the “Hero Captured and Maybe Tortured” scene, the “Check Out These Whiz-Bang Gadgets” scene, and possibly a Scene Up High in a Tall Building. Put it all together, and we’ve got a movie.

Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale changed all of that, finding a larger story in James Bond than we’d had any right to expect. And by comparison, Sam Mendes’s Skyfall suffers. Its much celebrated “substance” is disappointingly familiar. In order to bring this series up to the standard of the Bourne franchise and the increasingly literary comic book movies like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, writers Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Gladiator’s John Logan give us glimpses of Bond’s childhood, allow M to recite some Tennyson, and address questions about whether or not MI6 and the Bond franchise as a whole are just too outdated for the modern world, in which bad guys are not nations but individuals, operating in the shadows.

Also disappointing: the “Bond girls.” After Casino Royale allowed Eva Green to play a love interest who was more than just a disposable compliment to Bond’s masculinity, Skyfall suggests that the world isn’t ready for sexual equality in a Bond movie. Women are reassigned to their previous role as either jaw-clenching authority figures like M, or turn-ons who flatter the hero with their lascivious grins, double entendres, and instantaneous swooning. And that’s a shame, because Naomie Harris’s personality is a pleasure, and Bérénice Marlohe is as ravishing as any beauty on the big screen this year.

Hopefully, the next couple of Bond movies will show us a world in which female spies can stand on equal footing with 007. Until then, Bond’s world remains a man’s wonderland, with just enough room for a mother figure.

Most disappointing of all: the narrative itself. Sure, the movie builds new levels of characterization, but that construction is done with parts so familiar that, good as everything looks, it still feels too cut-and-pasted.

People are bound to comment on the sense of déjà vu, as Skyfall seems to have been written by moviegoers who just saw Nolan’s Batman series. It begins, like The Dark Knight Rises, setting up a situation that will plunge the hero into a deep pit of despair, and then, well, you half expect someone to say to Bond, “Why do we fall?” Bardem’s Silva is a variation on The Joker, with a bit of Hannibal Lecter thrown in, dressed up like a judge for America’s Next Top Model. Like The Joker and Bane, he always seems to have as many nameless minions as he needs. There’s the all-too-familiar scene in which a villain allows himself to be caught, inhabits a glass cage in the center of the hero’s headquarters, and smiles as his plan is carried out anyway through impossible foresight and computer savvy. (I’m flashing back to The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and X-2: X-Men United.) Bond gets his own “Alfred the Butler,” played in a surprise appearance by a living legend. (The character made me suspect that the filmmakers had hoped to bring Sean Connery back, but alas, no.) There’s even a joke about going incognito in a flashy car, just like in The Dark Knight.

Still, Skyfall comes armed with something that The Dark Knight Rises lacked: playfulness. It has a winning sense of humor about itself all the way through. I’ll take this movie any day over Nolan’s latest tsunami of ponderousness and self-importance.

It’s pointing out the obvious to say that Bond movies are as hedonistic as any superhero stories. Their primary purpose is to glorify a man who seems to have it all. The impressive authority of the law and the freedom to live and work outside of it. The appearance of fidelity to a cause (queen and country), but the freedom to bed women as voraciously and thoughtlessly as kids eat candy. The ability to single-handedly overcome crowds of highly trained killing machines, to shoot with accuracy in a world where others rarely even nick their targets. To survive impossible falls, and to leap tall buildings on a flashy motorcycle.

For all of its style and sophistication, Bond remains an adolescent’s fantasy figure. Unless the storytellers start questioning the hero’s recklessness and promiscuity more seriously, 007 will remain a character that only the naïve and childish admire. Watching him, I enjoy the stunts, the jokes, the gadgets, the actors, and — in Skyfall’s case — the cinematography. I emerge smiling, dizzy from the rollercoaster ride. But the dizziness quickly fades, leaving me feeling kind of hollow. When it comes to Bond, the whirl is not enough.

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