REVIEW: In "Skyfall," Daniel Craig battles a cyber-terrorist and gives the James Bond franchise a jolt of life at age 50.
"Skyfall" is a mixed bag. Some of it is terrific. And some of it is spectacular.
The story kicks off with a ruthlessly exciting curtain raiser. A quick blast of Monty Norman's musical theme and we're off on a nail-biting car/motorcycle/train chase that ends with Bond accidentally shot by a fellow agent, his body lost in a raging Turkish river and left for dead. He re-emerges in London following a bomb attack that cripples MI-6. But with gray in his stubble and a quiver in his gun hand, he's damaged goods. When an antagonist tauntingly asks his hobbies, Bond snarls "resurrection." You wonder if he's trying to convince himself.
There's no question that "Skyfall" restores the Bond saga to life. This is the film the series has been building toward since its melancholy, more realistic reboot in "Casino Royale." With a nod to the series' 50th anniversary, there are references to earlier films. Thankfully those timeline-twisting asides are more sardonic than campy. "Skyfall" also pauses to consider whether a hands-on spy is obsolete in the cyber age, when a clever lad with a laptop can create more havoc than a double-0 agent with a license to kill.
With director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") at the helm, the action scenes are breathtakingly executed, and the obligatory casino visits and seductions shimmer with glamour. Mendes has a dazzling talent for imagery. Working with virtuoso cinematographer Roger Deakins, he gives us numerous scenes of figures in darkened silhouette. Bond's death battle with an assassin, framed against the swirling plasma-screen light-works of Shanghai's night sky, gorgeously evokes the shadow world of espionage.
Mendes is also a top-rank director of actors. He gave Daniel Craig his first sizable serious role as an unstable gangland heir in "Road to Perdition." Here Craig repays the favor with an iconic performance. With due respect to Sean Connery, the 007 mantle has been passed.
In his third outing as Britain's indispensable superspy, Craig makes the character his own. His James Bond is as cunning, courageous, carnal and existentially cool as any we've seen. He's also fallible. He mourns fallen colleagues, bleeds when shot, suffers the punishing physical and spiritual pangs of life as a middle-aged government hit man.
The script delivers breakneck action without sacrificing sharp intelligence. Alongside the thrills, there are scenes of healing to give the audience the chance to reflect that violence, however necessary, carries a cost. All the characters behave plausibly, given the exaggerated world they inhabit, with personal motivations guiding their actions rather than abstract villainy and one-dimensional heroism.
The measure of a Bond adventure is often the stature of the villain. Here the nemesis is Silva (disturbingly blond Javier Bardem), a flamboyant sociopath who probably tears the wings off butterflies when he's not bombing the headquarters of MI-6. The cyber-terrorist is a renegade agent with deep, bitter scores to settle, not a Dr. Evil abstraction. Bardem's freon-cold smile is intimidating enough, but a scene where he comes to resemble a monster from one of Goya's nightmare paintings is genuinely unsettling. By turns brilliant, insinuating, playful and warped, but always lethal, he is the top Bond foe to date.
The beauties -- Naomie Harris as a rookie British field agent and Bérénice Marlohe as the villain's kept woman -- get rather short shrift. It's M's Judi Dench who receives most of Bond's attention, and the movie's. A third act that probes Bond's origins finally gives us the back story that explains his unswerving loyalty to his bureau's chief, and his ability to absorb and mete out awful punishment.
The film holds out many surprises in its finale, and some breathtaking emotional beats. Delivering all the kinetic satisfaction of a taut action thriller with a mature sophistication rare in popcorn blockbusters, "Skyfall" packs a punch like a Walther PPK 9mm.
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