‘Skyfall’ rockets the Bond franchise back to the top of the action genre
Daniel Craig helped polish the James Bond franchise and restore much of its previous glory with 2006’s excellent “Casino Royale.” But things took a confusing turn with the follow-up, “Quantum of Solace,” leaving many to wonder where the spy series was headed.
“Skyfall” answers those concerns with Bondian ease and confidence. The film serves as a trip back to the beginning of the 50-year-old cinematic legend and the promise of a golden future with Craig in the role of 007.
Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) helms the thrilling latest installment, which pulls the curtain back on the Bond mystique, providing details of an origin story for the cryptic spy who thus far has presented audiences with little personal background. It’s a bit of cinematic crumb-dropping seen in recent big-screen adaptations of comic book heroes like Spider-Man and Batman.
Though the film doesn’t wade into the socio-political realm to the extent that the last two Dark Knight films did, there are definitely some real world parallels at play as Mendes and a team of screenwriters explore the ideas of patriotic duty and the dangers that cloak the ambiguous world of terrorism.
The svelte Bond (Craig) moves toward the camera in an opening scene, as the first note of the classic theme song sends chills up the audience’s spines. The super-spy emerges from the shadows, in a shot that serves as a metaphor for the shadowy world in which Bond and his enemies live.
In an automotive equivalent of the parkour sequence that begins “Casino Royale,” Bond chases a criminal in a car before exhibiting some acrobatic motorcycle skills that find the two men riding atop the grand bazaar in Istanbul. The pulsating action switches to a destructive and breathtaking high-speed train fight that ends with Bond plummeting into a river, an act that gives way to a gorgeous, metaphor-laden bit of impressionistic foreshadowing in a mesmerizing title sequence (despite the chintzy song from Adele).
Bond’s MI6 peers assume their top spy has died, and directed by M (Judi Dench) — a woman as stern and imposing as the ceramic bulldog she keeps on her desk — they proceed to continue their work without him. But Bond hasn’t died; he’s just taking some inebriated respite from his dangerous career.
After struggling with the psychological and physical damage brought on by his job, Bond returns to work and a callous M. The scene in M’s office establishes the tone of the at once adversarial and collaborative relationship between the two, a theme the movie uses to illustrate the impersonal nature of a job where one’s life is less important than the things being protected.
In this case, Bond sets out to defend the world and M’s career. The MI6 leader has somehow lost a disc with the names of NATO spies embedded in terrorist operations. Bond must retrieve it to prevent the killing of the spies and the destruction of M’s reputation. The MacGuffin (a plot device meant to propel the action of the story) seems a little unbelievable, but Bond movies are usually about the ride, not the reason. Supporting Bond on his new mission is a fresh-faced Q (Ben Whishaw), a young genius who gently condescends to Bond about the perils of old age and a streamlined technological world that is making men like Bond and his beloved gadgets relics of the past. The funny rapport between the two makes knowing winks at the legacy and style of Bond while painting the spy as a man beginning to show his age.
Another hurdle from inside Bond’s team comes from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a bureaucrat with a puffed chest and more than a little hesitation about M’s and Bond’s fitness for duty. But the unflappable and chiseled Bond leaves no question as to his abilities as he begins the chase for the mysterious “bad guy.” Trips to Shanghai and Macau are exquisite set pieces but mostly lend an opportunity to introduce Bond to the enchanting Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), a vixen who will lead the hero right into the grasps of the arch Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva is a former MI6 agent who, spurned by what he saw as an inhumane betrayal, has decided to wage his own wars.
Encamped on a decrepit island, Silva can blow up buildings, wipe out databases and terrorize the world through a block of computer code and the click of a mouse. Mendes introduces the impossibly creepy Silva with a patient long take, as the debonair villain calmly and purposefully makes his way toward the camera. With wavy bleached blond hair, a tailored wardrobe, effeminate voice and utter indifference for human life, Bardem’s Silva blends a mesmerizing concoction of foppishness and fury. As more of his character’s reasoning and backstory are revealed, he comes to resemble, if not a sympathetic figure, at least a broken one. He’s a funhouse mirror image of the Dark Knight’s Baine. Bardem keeps the character from straying into campy territory and could well pull in an Oscar nomination for his terrorizing turn.
The encounter sets off a game of cat and mouse painted with exciting chase scenes (including the best subway scene in recent memory) and quiet moments of nerve-jangling intrigue.
At almost 150 minutes, the movie could benefit from some restraint, though not at the expense of a wonderful and sly performance from the great Albert Finney near the film’s conclusion. But “Skyfall” isn’t just about gorgeous women and thrilling chase sequences — of which there are plenty of both. The 23rd installment of the series is the most fully fleshed-out portrait of a beloved legend and the most formative relationships in his life. It is also a meditation on the dangers of a changing war on terror and the casualties of this Brave New World, as one character describes it. The result is an engaging, thoughtful and handsome odyssey with the perfect amount of humor and self-referential dialogue.
Bond is back, and “Skyfall” will leave audiences breathlessly waiting for No. 24.
Rating: PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes. Theaters: Alamo Ritz, AMC Barton Creek Square, Regal Westgate, Galaxy Highland, Regal Gateway, Cinemark Austin Southpark, Galaxy Moviehouse and Eatery, Cinemark Tinseltown, Cinemark Hill Country Galleria, Flix Brewhouse, Cinemark Stone Hill Town Center