I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year with the release of Skyfall, you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. Many of us have literally grown up watching six actors battle a gaggle of “Bond villains”, bed a bevy of “Bond girls”...and generally facilitate the audience’s expectation to see lots of cool shit blow up real good by the end of the film. We could argue all day about who was the best Bond (Sean Connery) Bond villain (Gert Frobe), or best Bond girl (Diana Rigg!), but that’s purely subjective. Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.
It might surprise you to learn that not only is the franchise still very much alive and well, but that I would rank Skyfall amongst the very best in the series. Helmed with great intelligence and verve byAmerican Beauty director Sam Mendes, this tough, spare and relatively gadget-free Bond caper harkens back to the gritty, straightforward approach of From Russia with Love (the best of the early films). That being said, Mendes hasn’t forgotten his obligation to fulfill the franchise’s tradition of delivering a slam-bang, pull out all the stops opening sequence, which I daresay outdoes all previous. Interestingly, the film’s narrative owes more to Howard Hawks than it does to Ian Fleming; I gleaned a healthy infusion of Rio Bravo in Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan’s screenplay.
In this outing, Bond (Daniel Craig) has gone into self-imposed exile and crawled inside of a bottle (not unlike Dean Martin’s drunken and dispirited lawman in Hawks’ film) after uncharacteristically blowing a mission and suffering a near-death experience. However, when a diabolical cyber-terrorist (Javier Bardem) with a very personal grudge against M (Dame Judi Dench) begins wreaking havoc directly on the MI6 HQ, the presumed-dead and barely fit for duty 007 reluctantly comes out of hiding to offer his help. Still, M doesn’t exactly greet the prodigal son with open arms; he must first prove that he can get his mojo back (the subtext of rebirth serves as a device for rebooting the mythology of a couple significant franchise characters, including a passing of the torch).
Craig has finally settled comfortably into the character; his Bond feels a little more “lived in” than in the previous two installments, where I felt he was a little stiff and unsure about where he should be at times. Most notably, I was glad to see one element return to 007’s personality: a mordant sense of humor. Bardem is a great Bond villain; his characterization mixes the cool intelligence and creepy charm of Hannibal Lecter with the nihilism and disconcerting cruelty of The Joker (topped off with a blonde fright wig). Ralph Fiennes is in fine form as a government overseer, and it’s always a treat to have the great Albert Finney on board. Naiome Harris is excellent as a fellow MI6 agent. This is one of the most beautifully photographed Bond films in recent memory, thanks to DP Roger Deakins (one particularly memorable fight scene, staged in a darkened high rise suite and silhouetted against the backdrop of Shanghai’s neon nightscape, approaches high art). I think the Bond geeks will be pleased; and anyone up for pure popcorn escapism will not be disappointed. Any way you look at it, this is a terrific entertainment.