Old Dog, New Tricks
by Glenn Lovell
As anyone familiar with the Ian Fleming source novels will tell you, James Bond, even at the beginning of his run as the world’s most famous secret agent, was a mess, a middle-aged burnout from too much drinking and smoking (unfiltered Players, please), to say nothing of the beatings he took at the hands of his opposite numbers in Soviet intelligence, aka SMERSH.
Of the things “Skyfall” gets right ‒ and there are many, including a wonderfully demented archenemy played by Javier Bardem and a “Thunderball”-ish theme song performed by Adele ‒ this sense of 007 (Daniel Craig) nearing the end of his days on Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the most impressive. Hell, the 23rd installment in the durable franchise is downright morose in spots, trading the jocular spirit of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan Bonds for heavy intimations of mortality.
Indeed, in places “Skyfall” feels more like Gothic melodrama than standard-issue Fleming, especially during the long-in-coming third act, which deposits us on a Scottish moor as Bond’s new rival, a renegade agent named Silva, trods the bogs in overcoat like the brooding Heathcliff.
If this isn’t enough to suggest we’re in the presence of a much moodier ‒ dare we say vintage? ‒ Bond, there are enough catty references to 007 as over-the-hill and “played out” to make the case. The fit, 44-year-old Craig plays along by not shaving until well into the first hour. The deep-set eyes and gray grizzle are strong reminders that our favorite spy is haunted by his own obsolescence.
Then, too, the positively ghoulish credit sequence comes with graveyards and death heads and the cheeky lyric “This is the end/Hold your breath and count to 10.”
It’s all a ruse, of course ‒ a reminder that the old-school ways still trump 21st Century wizardry (despite this film’s heavy dependence on CG). To quote Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond’s very capable partner in bed and field, upon seeing her boss brushed up for a night at the casino, “Old dog, new tricks.”
As expected, “Skyfall,” which takes its name from the Bond family manor, charges from the gate with an extended chase through the bazaars of Istanbul. It’s full of preposterous stunts, like a motorcycle chase across tiled rooftops, and only serves to make our hero seems more cartoonish than invincible.
At the end of this sequence — a slight improvement on “Casino Royal’s” hyper-kinetic prelude — Commander Bond appears to buy it thanks to a bad call by M (Judi Dench). Feeling undervalued by his surrogate mum, the agent, bloodied and broken, goes into a royal snit and ‒ shades of “You Only Live Twice” ‒ plays dead.
With this formulaic business out of the way, the new Bond settles down to explain what all the fireworks were about. Seems British intelligences ‒ most particularly M ‒ is the victim of cyber-terrorism. Someone has made off with an MI6 hard drive containing the identities of NATO agents ‒ and is threatening to “out them.” Calling for M’s head ‒ and by extension Bond’s ‒ is M’s new boss, the stuffy, bureaucratic Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). Following a battery of tests, Bond is judged still “fit for duty” by M and tracks the missing disk to Shanghai and then Silva’s island lair.
If “Skyfall” has a totally different feel from the other Bonds, we have director Sam Mendes to thank for this. The director of “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” has shown a propensity for bleak satire. It serves him, and the franchise, well here. He does a bang-up job of interweaving arty visuals (a silhouette duel backed by neon jellyfish), dour backstory (involving Bond’s Dickensian youth and old family retainer, played by Albert Finney), clever in-jokes (involving James’s beloved Aston Martin and Komodo lizard stand-ins for Blofeld’s ever-handy sharks), and, for the series faithful, a few heartfelt comings and goings.
It’s Bardem, sporting blond dye job and petulant demeanor, who takes this Bond to a new level. His Silva ‒ also betrayed by M and, therefore, our hero’s evil twin ‒ is the best new Bond villain since Auric Goldfinger. More, he’s the best (read most sick-puppy twisted) franchise baddie since Health Ledger’s Joker. Like Joker, Silver is essentially orchestrating his own demise and, because in the end he doesn’t really give a toss, this makes him doubly dangerous.
SKYFALL ✮✮✮1/2 With Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney. Directed by Sam Mendes; scripted by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan. 143 min. PG-13 (for sexual situations, shooting violence, stunts causing not quite grievous bodily harm).