Wanting, at some point in one’s life, to be James Bond seems to be a fairly universal Guy Thing – for girls, not so much. Consequently, the whole Bond-movies phenomenon more or less passed me by. In fact, the Playboy fantasy worldview that became moving pictures thanks to the Bond franchise felt pretty scary to girls reaching puberty in the 1960s. (At age 12 or so, I did fantasize about being Emma Peel from The Avengers, but she was only available on TV and didn’t turn into a 50-year franchise.) Consequently, though I’ve seen chunks from a number of the films, and though it’s impossible to dodge the Bondian memes that abound in this culture, I think that Skyfall is the first Bond movie that I’ve actually paid to watch in a theatre from beginning to end.
This odd status makes me, in a way, the perfect test audience for “Bond 23,” seeing it as it were in a vacuum, relatively untainted by insidious comparisons with favorite Bonds of the past. I have no favorites – just vague impressions of several actors’ personas. I’m willing to accept the popular premise that Sean Connery is the iconic 007, but also “get” that a certain portion of the audience preferred Roger Moore’s larger injection of humor into the part…and so on. I’m also well aware that the Bond franchise overall set the standard for the tech-heavy shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up, car-chase thrillers that dominate the movie industry still – a standard that makes virtually all its imitators pale in comparison. So, for the purposes of this review, I’ll pocket most of my usual complaints about the genre itself.
The down side, of course, of being a Bond semi-virgin is that I don’t get nearly all the jokes and references. I blush to admit that it was only from reading stuff on the Internet that I realized that the spirally thing that I’ve always seen as a camera-lens iris in the opening credits sequence is in fact supposed to be a view down the barrel of a gun pointed at 007.
Still, I went into the movie feeling refreshingly free of the burden of five decades of predecessors that doubtless haunts every Bond geek whenever a new installment is released. And you Bond geeks can wring your hands all you like about Daniel Craig being no Sean Connery. I’m happy to report that I had an unadulterated good time watching Skyfall. It stands up quite well on its own, thank you very much, and in this reviewer’s opinion far outclasses any of the comic-book-based action thrillers that I’ve seen this past year.
Part of the appeal for me, I suppose, is the relative deemphasis on gadgetry, in comparison both to those comic-book movies and to Bond installments of the past. Skyfall even makes a joke about it: When the new Q – played very winningly as an overconfident, handsome young computer geek by Ben Whishaw – hands the agent his latest ration of new high-tech toys, consisting only of a tiny radio transmitter and a handgun that no one else can fire, the look on Craig’s face is like a kid finding coal in his Christmas stocking.
The iconic silver Aston Martin DB5 does make a long-awaited reappearance; but here again, its built-in arsenal serves as much as fodder for jokes as for practical use against the baddies, and it doesn’t even figure in the movie’s mandatory high-speed chase sequences. The directors of the Bond movies – in this case Sam Mendes, showing a heretofore-unknown facility with the genre – seem as honor-bound as the folks behind Santa’s annual arrival in Woodstock to come up each time with some new far-fetched vehicular outing for their master spy. In this case, we get a rousing motorcycle chase across endless rooftops of a Turkish bazaar and a very silly sequence in which Bond just naturally knows how to operate an excavator perched atop a moving train. Of course; he’s James Bond.
Modern technology does play a central role in the narrative, however. The post-Cold-War evolution of what MI6 is up against in Bond’s universe has caught up with the fact that in the real world, cyberterrorism is the new international bête noire. Skyfall’s villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is a super-hacker with whom old-school field operatives like 007 simply cannot compete in a technology-dominated playing field, and Q is not the only one of Bond’s colleagues who loses no opportunity to remind him of that fact. Ultimately, of course, even though the young smartass Q wrote the code that Silva is using, it falls to Bond’s well-honed battle instincts to change the nature of the playing field. No surprise after his role in No Country for Old Men, Bardem proves a fine addition to the roster of over-the-top Bond villains, with an affect of perpetual exasperation that comes across much funnier than the standard-issue cold, calculating megalomania.
If Skyfall is about anything more than hyperkinetic macho fun, it’s about the fear of aging and obsolescence. While the script belabors this theme rather more ham-handedly than strictly necessary, it still serves as a deeply resonant pitch to the Baby Boomer segment of the moviegoing audience who grew up on these movies in the first place. Seeing him much the worse for wear and off his game – not to mention capable of human attachment and sorrow – adds welcome dimension to the Devil-may-care Bond character. Daniel Craig excels at capturing these nuances, and is much more believable than the early concept of the super-agent who can whup six thugs at once without wrinkling his expensive Italian suit. M (Judi Dench) even has to wrinkle her nose and tell him to take a shower at one point.
Ah, and then there’s M. I’ll assume that the news of Dench’s retirement from action flicks due to failing vision is widespread enough that it’s no great spoiler to praise her swan song here. Really this story is as much about the long-serving fictional head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service as it is about her favorite agent himself, and of the tough love between them. The bureaucratic nagging directed at Bond that his era is over goes double for M, and the deliberately low-tech final act takes place not in the villain’s secret lair (we saw that already in Act II) but in Bond’s childhood home in Scotland, establishing M even more indelibly as a strict mother figure at the same time that it positions her as Skyfall’s true Bond Girl who needs a rescue. It almost goes without saying that Dench is heartrendingly wonderful in this last go-round as Bond’s boss.
They say that a door opens for every one that closes, and Skyfall introduces some fine new actors to the franchise whom we may hope to see again in “Bond 24.” They include Albert Finney as Kincade, an old family retainer who could become the Alfred to Bond’s Batman, and Naomie Harris as Eve, a competitive field operative destined for a familiar desk job. Ralph Fiennes’ character Gareth Mallory evolves from an interfering government bureaucrat to someone who has earned 007’s respect. Keeping foreshadowing light and discreet does not seem to be the Bond movies’ strong suit, so why should I?
Skyfall sustains and perhaps even surpasses the series’ commitment to high production values, spectacular locations and a sophisticated look. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is dazzling, particularly in its use of backlighting. And Thomas Newman’s soundtrack weaves in just enough of the themes that even we non-Bond-geeks all know to keep us grounded in a fantasy world that has survived five decades of onscreen exposure. As Eve observes, James Bond may be an old dog, but he still keeps learning new tricks.
Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Helen McCrory, 143 minutes, PG-13.