James Bond better than ever in Skyfall
Four stars (out of four)
Skyfall, the splendid new James Bond movie, contains so many references to aging and decrepitude it’s as if the 50-year-old franchise were drawing to a close.
Yet the 23rd official Bond seems as fresh as the first, incorporating tradition with innovation in gratifying ways.
“Old dog, new tricks,” a comely character says, prompting a smile of agreement.
Skyfall somehow feels like an origin film, even as Adele’s title tune recalls past glories and martinis arrive properly shaken. Perhaps the better word is recalibration, for Daniel Craig’s 007 era that began so smartly with Casino Royale and then foundered with the incomprehensible Quantum of Solace.
Craig has renewed purpose in his third stint as Bond, even as his wounded and besieged Agent 007 begins to feel the calendar’s cruel accounting.
He’s aided in this balancing act by director Sam Mendes, a series newcomer who brings a stage dramatist’s rich sense of character development to the guns, girls and gadgets world of Bond, James Bond.
The writing is another big plus, credited to old Bond hands Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with an assist from Hugo scenarist John Logan. The story digs into Bond’s complex psyche deeper than any previous film has dared go.
Change is coming for Her Majesty’s most resilient spy. There are shakeups at British espionage agency MI6, with its London HQ coming under terrorist fire and Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) being drawn into the fray.
Indeed, the entire British Empire is under attack from Raul Silva, a rogue ex-MI6 agent and digital demon who is bent on revenge and mayhem. Played with just the right amount of leering menace by Javier Bardem, he taunts Bond’s loyalties as antiquated thinking.
“Just look at you,” he says, making an entrance that Mendes brilliantly frames and paces. “Chasing spies. England. The Empire. MI6. So old-fashioned!”
Skyfall also finds humour in youthful arrogance, with Craig more finely in tune with Bond’s sarcastic side. An amusing sequence sets 007 in an art museum gazing upon The Fighting Temeraire, William Turner’s classic painting of a ruined Trafalgar warship.
He exchanges quips about aging with a boyish new Q (Ben Whishaw), who views Bond as a relic from the pre-computer age, useful only when “a trigger has to be pulled” in the analog world.
“Or not pulled,” Bond rejoins, finishing the thought with a delicious zinger.
For once, a 007 movie has a threat that is at once more understandable and more complex than the usual world-domination schemes of colourful madmen.
Bardem’s Silva has obtained a computer drive containing a list of NATO officials who are secretly embedded with worldwide terrorist organizations.
His plan is to expose five of them at a time on YouTube, putting many lives at risk and destroying the work of global security agencies.
Bond must stop him, but is he up to the job? An early chase scene in Istanbul, which thrillingly recalls the parkour start of Casino Royale, leaves huge question marks as to 007’s whereabouts, commitment and physical stamina.
Officious senior civil servant Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) doubts whether Bond is the right man for fast-moving times. When M protests, Mallory dismisses her as “sentimental” and suggests she should consider retirement, voluntarily or otherwise.
“Sentimental” is not the first word that comes to mind when appraising Dench’s steely performance. Her relationship with Bond is that of both scold and supporter, nuances she is finally given enough screen time to explore.
Skyfall lands well for all the ladies of the cast. Naomie Harris is sexy and resourceful as new MI6 operative Eve, and Bérénice Marlohe intrigues and allures as casino playmate Sévérine.
No mere “Bond girls,” these are women, but expect sales of straight razors, fine old whisky and racy lingerie to skyrocket all the same.
And a shout-out is needed for Albert Finney, whose irascible Kincade takes Bond back to a childhood retreat and also the need to confront demons past and immediate.
Skyfall so successfully blends the old and the new of Bond mythology, looking so boldly toward Bond 24, it’s possible to think we may be celebrating a 007 centennial in another 50 years.
It could make you fall for James Bond all over again, or to discover him at the moment of his vital rebirth.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.