'Skyfall' gives Bond franchise new wings
This seals it. With “Skyfall,” Daniel Craig owns James Bond. Nostalgia junkies can whine and moan all they want about “the best,” but when you balance out the charisma, brawn, brains, brutality, suave sophistication, sexuality and snark that has come to define one of the screen’s most enduring cinematic characters, Craig nails it.
Of course, some would say that he already had in his debut with “Casino Royale,” which recharged the franchise like never before. But the dark, solemn “Quantum of Solace,” stripped Bond to only his basest of elements and raised a concern that perhaps “Casino” was but a fluke (it was still a superior film, in this critic’s eyes, but many found it to be too brooding and humorless for the franchise).
There should be little debate with “Skyfall,” the 23rd outing of 007, which firmly plants the superspy into the 21st century. Years have passed for Bond, and Craig wears them well here. He sports some new creases, and his face hangs just the slightest bit heavier with time. We first see him mid-mission with a fellow agent from the esteemed MI6 (played by Naomie Harris) that ends in a spectacular failure. Bond ends up shot atop a speeding train, falling (presumably to his death) into a roaring river below. Meanwhile, the precious list that fueled the assignment winds up in the possession of a charismatically complicated terrorist (played by Javier Bardem), who is dead set on antagonizing the agency and, in particular, M (played by Judi Dench).
No matter what brought you into the Bond franchise - wit, women, cars, crashes, gadgets, guns, bombast or bad guys, “Skyfall” delivers them on every level. But the true revelation of this film is its ability to do so without subscribing to the “bigger is better” formula that befalls so many sequels. Like the shape of a cannon, the film starts big, but narrows as it moves forward. This is a more personal Bond tale. No “Thunderball” jetpack, no “Moonraker” laser madness, or tsunami surfing like “Die Another Day” (a Bond nadir if there ever was one). By the end of “Skyfall,” things hone in to a very personal level whose intimacy gives the film a resonant urgency.
Sorry, Ian Fleming fans, but I will add that “Skyfall” fleshes out Bond more than the books ever did (which only numbered 14 before he died, and then the characters were taken over by various other authors). Director Sam Mendes (best known for the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” but perhaps more thematically closer here to his stylized “Road to Perdition”) takes charge for the first time here, and his focus on the more humanistic elements of our hero works heavily in the film’s favor. Mendes takes just the right amount of time to trot out each of the elements that make Bond so enduring.
While this is obviously Craig’s parade, there are certainly other floats worthy of mention. This is Dame Judi Dench’s sixth turn as the no-nonsense commander in chief M, but this is perhaps the first time she’s edged closer to costarring status. She is given the chance to demonstrate a vulnerability in her character that has yet to be explored. She, herself, is a target, and for once we see how indebted she is to Bond to keep her safe.
New additions include Ralph Fiennes as an MI6 superior anxious to usher M out, and Ben Wishaw as Q, a pivotal Bond pal who makes his first appearance since Craig took over. Q is no longer the beleaguered R&D head long played by Desmond Llewelyn, then replaced by John Cleese in the last few films before Craig’s arrival. Q is now imagined as a young tech geek who actually views the entire program as a waste of resources that can easily be settled with the use of computers. This, of course, does not stop him from creating a couple cool gadgets for Bond’s cache. It would not be a superlative Bond film without a standout villain. Bardem could have easily been a flamboyantly campy egomaniac like “Die Another Day’s” Hugo Graves, but anyone who witnessed Bardem in “No Country for Old Men” knows that he can convey a lot by doing very little. As Raoul Silva, he combines the calm of Hannibal Lecter with the flair for flash of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.” As we now celebrate the 50th year of big-screen Bonds, “Skyfall” infuses the franchise with enough energy, style and substance to keep it going for many decades into the future.