Thursday, November 8, 2012

Review: "Skyfall"

 Of all the taunts we’ve heard a dastardly villain sneer at James Bond over the last 50 years, I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this: “Your knees must be killing you.”

The cocky newly-certified Agent 007 played so vibrantly by Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” is gone, replaced by an aging, edgier spy who’s been written off as dead – following a typically thrilling opening action sequence, culminating in a fistfight on top of a speeding train.

When Bond does turn up again, he’s haggard, bloodshot, twitchy and graying. He’s been seriously wounded, turning to booze and pills to dull the pain. The icy bravado is still there, but the hands are shaky.
The consensus, among friend and foe alike, is universal: Bond has lost a step.

And it’s not just 007. In “Skyfall,” which arrives a half-century after the first James Bond film, the entire espionage racket as practiced by MI6 is being condemned as antiquated and clunky.

Spy chief M (Judi Dench) is being urged into retirement. Politicians such as Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) are cracking down. Field agents like Bond are increasingly seen as antediluvian throwbacks, blunt instruments to be employed only when the technological wizardry of whippersnappers like Q (Ben Whishaw) won’t suffice.

Things are brought into stark relief when a mysterious antagonist manages to hack MI6’s database of secret agents and blow up a big chunk of their building, too. Suddenly, it’s the spymasters who appear one step behind.

As much as “Casino Royale” felt like a game-changer six years ago, “Skyfall” moves the ball further down the field. It is both grander and grimmer. The storyline is stripped down and spare, excised of extraneous supporting characters, distracting subplots and an emphasis on gadgetry.

When Bond receives his new field kit from Q, it consists of a gun and a radio transmitter. “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” he quips.

Even Bond’s legendary libido is shunted to a back burner, with the usual menagerie of “Bond girls” restricted to a fellow operative (Naomie Harris) who talks the talk but teeters along the walk, and the top villain’s henchwoman (Bérénice Marlohe), whose tale evokes more pity than sexual energy.

Speaking of the bad guy, he’s a distinct twist on the familiar, too. Played by Javier Bardem, Silva possesses some very reasonable reasons for wanting vengeance on M and MI6. Bedecked in flowing blond hair and an eerily languid manner, Silva is chilling despite seeming passive and off-kilter. He’s both synthetic and sympathetic.

In their first faceoff, which comes with Bond at a distinctive disadvantage, Craig feels like he’s been pumped to overflowing with testosterone, while Bardem has been drained of all his precious bodily fluids. The contrast is a startle.

Director Sam Mendes, known for cerebral irony like “American Beauty” and “Away We Go,” brings a divergent methodology to the Bond franchise. He seems to have approached the material with the idea of making a hefty dramatic spy story that just happens to feature James Bond, rather than trying to replicate what other guns-for-hire have done over 007’s long cinematic lifespan.

The action scenes are crisp but not overwhelming, adding spice to the narrative throughline without trying to supplant it. Chase scenes build tension rather than merely acting as connective tissue between exchanges of dialogue. We even get to learn something of Bond’s tragic familial history.

The screenwriting trio consists of Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, two veterans of other Bond missions, and chameleon John Logan, who’s done everything from sci-fi to sports to animation and historical drama … and done it all very, very well.

The final product is something old and something new, but with a burning blood-red heart. “Skyfall” is a steely marriage between old school and brave new world. It’s one of Bond’s best outings.

3.5 stars out of four

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