"Skyfall" opens U.K. this week ahead of its U.S. release to commemorate a half century of James Bond movies, stretching back to 1962's "Dr. No." While the series has grown slicker with age, it retains a certain familiarity from the outset. The genre -- if not the series -- can do better than fancy wrapping paper, as other recent examples clearly demonstrate. But we'll get there in a moment.
"Skyfall" begins, as all James Bond movies must, in the middle of a story less relevant than the action sequence that results from it. The very first shot centers on Daniel Craig, in his third 007 outing, fitting comfortably into the iconically suave character as if it were a sturdy bodysuit freshly cleansed for another bout in the field. Before he's even in sharp focus, a snippet of that familiar trumpet score announces his arrival. Bursting into a narrow hallway, he glides across the frame before arriving in the midst of an undefined mission in Istanbul. His gun drawn, 007 finds a fellow agent down and the baddie responsible on the lam. The baddie is always on the lam.
Bond gives chase -- or rather, several chases, hopping aboard a motorcycle and pursuing the criminal across a rooftop and down through a marketplace as the crowd magically splits on command to let the speeding duo pass. At a certain point they wind up on top of a speeding train atop a narrow bridge, because why not? Bond then briefly engages his opponent from afar using a unwieldy crane before hopping aboard the roof of the high-speed vehicle and engaging the goon mano-a-mano. The punches continue as they narrowly avoid the onrush of one tunnel after another until a shot rings out. A single body falls to the river below and… Adele's gloomy "Skyfall" theme song begins. Roll credits!
It wouldn't be a Bond movie without a high-stakes prologue, but the "Skyfall" showdown has another precedent in film history: Preston Sturges' indispensable 1941 Hollywood satire "Sullivan's Travels" opens with a movie-within-a-movie featuring two men coming to blows while holding tight to a moving train. The music screeches wildly as they continue to tussle until the two bodies hurtle down to the depths below. The lights come up in a screening room and the production's titular writer-director announces to his studio overlords that the movie "has social significance!" The moguls aren't buying it. "Who wants to see that kind of stuff?" Indeed: Two decades ahead of "Dr. No," Sturges' movie sarcastically predicted a key ingredient of the action genre's appeal: Sometimes, a train fight is just a train fight.
With "Skyfall" echoing this prognosis, the franchise has come full circle. No longer attempting to reconstruct the character as in 2006's "Casino Royale," "Skyfall" avoids reinvention in favor of surface pleasures at every turn. Making his first foray into the action arena, director Sam Mendes has carefully latched onto the familiar formula with a film that competently represents many of the familiar Bond ingredients that have the franchise with such monumental staying power, as well as the reasons why even at its best, the series remains tethered to familiar ground.
Studios craft product to suit the needs of an imaginary audience (in "Sullivan's Travels," one of the moguls tacks "with a little sex in it" onto the end of virtually every pitch), so it comes as no great surprise that "Skyfall" mostly plays by the rules. If, however, you seek a wholly original, unexpected dosage of action ingenuity, look no further than "Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning," available on VOD platforms this week ahead of its November release. The bizarrely inventive fourth entry in an unorthodox franchise with a greater capacity for taking risks, "Day of Reckoning" explores the action genre with a grab bag of possibilities: Writer-director John Hyams litters his second entry in the rejuvenated "Universal Soldier" series with daring long takes, dizzying speed and unruly tonal shifts, all of which inject the excessive violence with an otherworldly Rube Goldberg-like quality that invites comparison to animation. In my estimation, a movie weighted with ludicrous twists delivers far more excitement than another by-the-numbers Bond triumph.
Shifting the outlandish sci-fi premise to the perspective of a Unisol (which in this installment refers to a clone developed exclusively for the battlefield), "Day of Reckoning" revolves around the experiences of a clone-gone-rogue named John (Scott Adkins), pitted against the advances of two menacing Unisol leaders (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren). The sole remaining ingredients of the comparatively simple-minded 1992 original, Van Damme and Lundgren lurk in the shadows of this entry like menacing phantoms of the brutal masculine archetypes they always represent.