With “Skyfall,” the James Bond franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary, and it’s looking better than ever. As an old enough crock to remember “Dr. No” and—I blush to admit—every one of its successors, I’m pleased to report that the series is alive, well, and even more entertaining. The current Commander Bond, Daniel Craig, not only fills out the tailor-made suits as well as in his previous two outings, but he also enjoys the support of one of the best Bond casts yet assembled and a screenplay that actually makes him out to be human.
Fittingly, the movie makes much of Bond’s aging, along with that of his MI6 superior, “M.” Dame Judi Dench takes her seventh crack at this role: at 78, she’s given the most scenes and action ever and is more than up to the task. M’s new boss, one Gareth Mallory, played by Ralph Fiennes, comes off as a bit of a prig, if not exactly Lord Voldemort. He and other ministers are not convinced of the need for actual field agents like 007, especially when they have new computer whizzes like the latest ”Q” (Ben Whishaw), who scoffs at the old gimmicks like “exploding pens” that have been such standbys for Bond all along.
In the ultimate dismissal, a younger agent named “Eve” (!), played by Naomi Harris, even shoots and apparently kills her older colleague under distinct orders from M to “take the bloody shot.” OK, so it’s not deliberate, but still—the indignity of it all! The stakes are high and, again, the prize is cybernetic. Happily for us all, Cmdr. B. is just hurt badly, emerges scathed, bitter, and bent on revenge.
Specifically, the Brits are after a computer hard drive containing the names of all the NATO secret agents who have infiltrated terrorist groups the world over. After a few chases, shootings, fist fights, and the odd love scene, they discover that the perp is one Silva, a former British agent who is now—to say the very least—disenchanted about his years in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (The movie is rife with allusions, visual and musical, to the Bond canon, one of its several pleasures for fans of the series.)
As Silva, Javier Bardem achieves something like the menace that he oozed as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” despite a yellow hair job that looks like he got it in a cheap salon. Maybe he’s jaundiced (sorry) because of his hatred for M, whom he claims to have deeply wronged him, even hacking into her computer to warn her, “Think on your sins.” The screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade reveals the backstory of Silva, M, and Bond slowly, almost credibly, layering on some Freudian overtones.
The climactic Big Shootout is done handsomely, with the requisite pyrotechnics and a Big Surprise Death that promises to ripple out into the next few Bond flicks. If anything, it might have gone on too long and misfired a bit: too much of a good thing is still too much. Yet the movie is a visual and auditory treat, cooked up by director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and music composer/director Thomas Newman. Some credit, too, to makeup artists who have aged the handsome Craig, who looks like hell through much of the early going. (There are plenty of mirrors throughout, employed for various cinematic purposes.)
“Skyfall” is rated “PG-13” for violence, language, smoking (!), and some sexuality. The “Bond girls” are less the annoying bimbos than their predecessors tended to be, though one of them feels almost completely extraneous, not counting the obligatory shower scene. That said, the cast has sufficient depth that the makers can afford to throw in the estimable Albert Finney in a cameo role at film’s end. The result of all the above will be a resounding box office success and breathe new life into an aging product.