Fifty years and twenty-two (official) films after the release of Dr. No, the James Bond franchise is still running strong. The series has defined the modern spy genre, and though many competitors have arisen over the years, none seem to generate anticipation as much as the latest exploits of 007, even if they sometimes seem as worn and comfortable as a pair of old slippers. Skyfall, the third film starring Daniel Craig, will give Bond purists much to love and to quibble over, but it’s a top-notch action film, well worth the anticipation.
Bond’s latest mission involves the recovery of a stolen hard drive containing a list of secret agents embedded within enemy organizations around the world. He’s accidentally shot while battling the thief, disappears, and is presumed dead. The mission’s failure spells the end of MI6-leader M’s (Judi Dench) tenure, but when her office is bombed, Bond returns from self-imposed exile to track down the culprit. It isn’t long before he discovers that secrets from M’s past are returning to haunt her, as the case becomes more personal than any he’s ever faced.
Skyfall has a bit of a split personality. It maintains the reboot premise established in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace that these are the early adventures of Bond. At the same time, it often questions his age and potential obsolescence. The back-and-forth of these themes in the script by returning writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (with John Logan) is sometimes distractingly arbitrary, but seems calculated to acknowledge the anniversary of the series and its loyal fan base.
And acknowledge it, they do. All of the classic elements are here – gadgets, girls, car chases, tuxedos, booze, sex, and death – though sometimes in unexpected ways. The familiar gun-barrel opening is still missing, but the first shot leaves no doubt who you’re watching. Gadget master Q (Ben Whishaw) is re-introduced, though now as a computer hacker barely out of puberty. The equipment he gives Bond is underwhelming, but the return of a classic car in a later scene draws cheers from the audience.
The action is artfully shot by director Sam Mendes, especially a fight scene inside a Shanghai skyscraper. But things do become a bit too much like a boss fight toward the end. Seriously, how many henchmen do these bad guys have, and why do they always arrive in waves rather than all at once?
In addition to the familiar, the story also takes risks with the 007 mythos. Unbelievably, this is the first movie in 50 years to show Bond taking a serious bullet wound, and while we’re never actually convinced it’s a true handicap, it’s interesting to see at least an attempt at portraying vulnerability. We also get a look into Bond’s back story, something that’s rarely been referred to or shown before. Whole books have been written about Bond’s success as an enigmatic cipher – creative choices like these would not have been made lightly by the series’ cautious producers. But they do make for a compelling story that seems close to something Ian Fleming might have written.
Craig is once again excellent, continuing to personify Fleming’s “blunt instrument” with a darker edge. Sean Connery remains the quintessential Bond, but Craig is the one for our times. The villain here – Silva, another hacker and former secret agent – is interestingly played by Javier Bardem with a fey air and offbeat menace. A couple of dumb choices in dialogue and setting bring to mind completely wrong comparisons to Hannibal Lecter, and the script abandons Silva’s intelligence altogether at the end, but he’s otherwise a fairly strong protagonist. The movie also benefits from an extended role for Dench, who has been criminally wasted in most of these movies since she joined the series in 1995. Good turns are added by Ralph Fiennes as MI6 overseer Mallory, Albert Finney as a tough old Scotsman from 007′s childhood, and Bond Girls Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe, who do their best as tools of the plot.
So, twenty-three and counting. Those of us who love the Bond films will always debate the finer points of each new one, but if Skyfall is any indication of where things are headed, then bring on the next 50 years.
Tags: movie review