November 9, 2012

In its 50th year, there is much at stake for the Bond franchise. So many great movies, producing such a cultural icon, they want to create a movie worthy of release in the anniversary year. Something mediocre or forgettable just wouldn’t do (ahem, Moonraker, I’m talking to you…). They have their past and their future to think of. They don’t want to be asking “Will Bond live to die another day?”

By showing due respect to its pedigree, adding some exciting new elements, featuring a great script, acting, and production design, Skyfall rises to the top as one of this year’s best films, Bond or otherwise.

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) helms the story wherein a madman (of course) winds up with the hard drive that reveals all of England’s imbedded operatives, which obviously puts MI6 in a spot. The baddie has it in for M (Judi Dench, at her steely best in this role) and Bond must track him down, at potentially great personal cost.

Played to perfection by Oscar-winning scenery chewer Javier Bardem, as Silva he is both amusing and terrifying, in a way I can’t remember ever seeing another villain in the franchise. Unlike most from the past, he has a clear motivation. He has his reasons for being fragile and volatile, and we the audience are let in on them. Bond and Silva are like two tenacious old bulldogs, one protecting his turf, the other foaming with rabies.

Much of the plot, along with the meaning of the title Skyfall, belongs in the spoiler mill. Suffice to say bad things happen, people die, and we make discoveries about long-beloved characters in the world of Bond that greatly deepen the experience of the film. We are not robbed, however, of the usual great one liners, sexy interplay, and exciting chase scenes we’ve come to expect.

In and around the action are great supporting players that add to the fun or the intensity, depending on the scene. Ralph Fiennes is the bureaucrat with more to him than meets the eye as Gareth Mallory, the man M has to answer to at MI6. Ben Whishaw plays Q as a dapper young computer genius. Naomie Harris as Eve is one of the few English agents partnered with Bond. She shares Bond girl duties (such as they are) with Berenice Marlohe as femme fatale Severine, Silva’s gorgeous yet shellshocked girlfriend.

Marlohe squeezes more empathy from the audience in her limited screen time than any Bond girl in memory as well. Albert Finney as Kincade is a great surprise late in the film, happily playing against other fine actors onscreen, particularly Judi Dench.

People who can name at least 15 Bond films and have read an Ian Fleming novel or two will likely get the most out of this 23rd in the film series. It is a movie that embraces both history and innovation, both on the surface and in-depth. The filmmakers achieve a great balance by keeping intact both the witty, stylish, tuxedoed smirker who gambles hundreds of thousands of dollars in minutes (as in Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan) as well as the original troubled, somewhat self-destructive loner of Ian Fleming’s novels that Daniel Craig has come to personify so perfectly.

In the novels Bond is complicated and prickly, calling more upon his tenacity than his careless charm to succeed in his missions. Craig’s incarnation of Bond has been so well-received because he has embodied those qualities onscreen, deepening and broadening his character to the further appreciation of fans worldwide.

Skyfall has a stripped-down raw feel it shares with classic ’60s movies like Bullitt and Le Samurai. That’s not to say that there isn’t an extravagance onscreen. It wouldn’t be a Bond film without exotic locales, and bejeweled femme fatales in long gowns. But in Skyfall it is in the landscapes, the lighting and camera work where the most glamour resides, rendering it unquestioningly the most visually beautiful of all the Bond films. Kudos to both cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner.

The script, by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, is a study in contrast and pacing. Such dark territory can become plodding, but they do a great job of intermingling charming moments of tribute (like the required “Bond. James Bond.”) and sexy scenes, with the intensely emotional, the action driven, the sad and the terrifying. We are so entertained we don’t notice the two-plus hours going by.

It is hard to believe after all these years, James Bond is still going strong. Even more amazing, Daniel Craig is rated the second-best after the spectacular original, Sean Connery. With Skyfall, Connery had better watch his back. More and more fans are naming Craig as their favorite, and after the character-deepening back story offered in Skyfall, no fan heart will be safe.

Even exhausted and half dead, Craig’s Bond sprays testosterone all over the audience. Rooting for him is a Darwinian imperative. Add tragedy (that’s all I’ll say in the interest of a spoiler-proof review) and we get a character of ferocity and vulnerability both men and women can’t help but connect with onscreen, however laconic he may seem. Daniel Craig is an extremely talented actor who commits as fully to Bond as he would any Shakespearean character, and it shows. Bond is not only safe with him, but grows, becoming more with each film. That he wears that set of muscles of his so well adds rather pleasantly to the experience.

Some year-and-a-half ago, I had occasion to be in the restaurant at Pinewood Studios in England (home of the Bond soundstage). I was interviewing the lovely art director Terry Ackland-Snow. Halfway through the interview, the director, producers and production design team from Skyfall all came in and sat at the table next to us. We had to stop recording. After I quelled my ardent inner Bondgeek, all I could think at the time was “They’d better make this one great.”

Skyfall isn’t just great. It is worthy of every candle on Bond’s 50th anniversary cake.