Of all the James Bond movies, “Skyfall” is the prettiest.
Not because Daniel Craig takes his shirt off five times or because of the handful of semi-naked Bond girls. Every shot is elegantly crafted. A tuxedoed Bond takes a boat ride on a canal strewn with floating candles. Reflected light from monolithic HD billboards camouflages 007 as he stalks an assassin in a glass skyscraper. A fight under the ice of a frozen pond is lit from above by a house on fire.
Light and shadow — it’s the oft-repeated theme of “Skyfall,” and director Sam Mendes touches on several similar yins and yangs: youth and obsolescence, technology and humanity, life and death.
Continuing the theme, the film offers more good than bad. Frequently, much more.
“Skyfall” begins with Bond emerging in silhouette in the hallway of a Turkish apartment building. His fellow agents have been slaughtered. A hard drive with the identities of MI6 operatives around the world is missing.
After a frenetic and breathtaking chase through Istanbul, Bond seemingly falls to his death. Soon, the grieving M (Judi Dench) is told by government bureaucrat Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) her time as spy boss is up, and she should retire with dignity.
“To hell with dignity,” she says. “I’ll leave when the job’s done.”
Her job, however, is under attack. Not just from British officials who think her methods are antiquated, but also from the villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who orchestrates an attack on the spy agency’s headquarters and threatens to expose MI6’s agents.
Cue the return of 007, who had been spending his “death” much like he spent his life: boozing it up in seaside villages surrounded by scorpions and exotic women. After a few wide-grip pull-ups and a brisk run on a treadmill, 007 is back in business.
From here “Skyfall” seems to be heading into boilerplate Bond. The agent tracks a bad guy, who leads him to a bad girl, who leads him to an even bigger bad guy. Surely plots of world domination and sharks with friggin’ lasers lurk just around the corner?
Nope. The huge technical conspiracy is just part of Silva’s grudge against MI6, and the big battle of wits between Bond and Silva culminates with a gunfight. It’s an explosive, expensive gunfight, but a gunfight nonetheless.
This is the letdown of an otherwise very good film. The Bond of the Daniel Craig era is raw, gritty. This hard edge worked so well in “Casino Royale” — no man who saw Craig’s first turn as 007 ever looked at a wicker chair or a knotted rope the same way again.
The sequel — the eminently forgettable “Quantum of Solace” — was as obtuse as its title. Now the pendulum swings back to a simpler, more physical Bond. The simplicity, however, takes some fun out of the formula.
The new, young Q (Ben Whishaw) sums this up nicely. As Bond is about to embark on a new mission, Q presents him with new spy gear: a pistol and a tiny radio.
“Not exactly Christmas,” Bond says, underwhelmed.
“Did you expect an exploding pen?” Q says. “We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore.”
Yeah, but the exploding pens are cool. It’s one thing to ground Bond in a universe without razor-rimmed bowler hats and provocatively named pilots. It’s quite another to make him look less resourceful than the Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts who followed.
The keepers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond legacy have assembled an impressive squad of Oscar nominees for this, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Screenwriter John Logan (“Hugo,” “The Aviator,” “Gladiator”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men”) join Mendes, himself a best director winner for “American Beauty.”
Deakins’ work is spectacular, and Mendes transitions well from the tenderness of “Away We Go” and the dramatic satire of “American Beauty” to the action-filled “Skyfall.” It’s the script that’s a bit of a letdown.
Several scenes are creepily reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” There’s a jailbreak, an orphaned hero and a scarred villain with a death wish. Perhaps these are just coincidences, or perhaps they are payback for Batman using the same sky-hook rescue Bond used in 1965’s “Thunderball.”
Making the villain’s agenda merely personal jettisons the intrigue. Bardem screws on the weird, though, portraying Silva as a bit of a fop with mommy issues. Despite his desire to connect with Bond, Silva is his opposite in nearly every way: He’s dressed like a BeeGee and he’s eerily happy.
When the two first meet, Bond is tied to a chair (again). Silva saunters up, sits down, unbuttons the agent’s shirt and carreses his chest. It may unnerve the audience to see the villain flirt with this cultural icon of male sexuality, but Bond, of course, is unruffled. It’s a grand villainous entrance. And with this performance following his Oscar-winning turn in “No Country for Old Men,” Bardem has become a go-to bad guy.
Despite a lack of complexity, “Skyfall” is a respectable chapter in the Bond saga. Perhaps the film just tickles the parts of the brain where nosstalgia is stored, but it’s good to see the old boy back in action.If you like this, try • The book “You Only Live Twice,”
by Ian Fleming. The Sean Connery Bond film based on this 1964 novel used little of its plot, but this is the first place that Bond’s childhood and backstory are explored.• “Archer.”
If you hear giggling at some unintentionlly funny moments in “Skyfall,” chances are the the giggler is a fan of FX’s animated awesome send-up of spy movies.• Adele, “21.”
The British songstress nails the “Skyfall” theme, and if you’re one of the few who hasn’t listened to the rest of her work, you should.WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
•Charlie McCollum, San Jose Mercury News:
“This is a brilliant reboot of the canon, mixing a sense of melancholy, the shock of changing times and the darkness of loss with thrillingly staged chase and fight scenes and clever references to all that has come before.”
•Christy Lemire, The Associated Press:
“Simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who’s the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig.”
•Kyle Smith, New York Post:
“In the utterly routine effort ‘Skyfall,’ we’re actually expected to cheer each chord we’ve heard so many times (here’s a martini shaker! Look, it’s a Walther PPK! And there’s an Aston Martin!). We’ve been turned into wretched Pavlovian dogs, salivating at the bell instead of the snack.”