Movie review: "Skyfall"

James Bond turns 50 with the release of “Skyfall,” a remarkable feat of cultural endurance, particularly given that the world of espionage he inhabits has changed so dramatically during the half-century of his cinematic existence.  The Bond films have been remarking on that fact since the Pierce Brosnan era, and all three of Daniel Craig’s turns as the iconic super-spy have included ruminations about the difficulty of an old-school Cold War agent finding his place in the new high-tech post-9/11 era.  One of the more interesting themes in “Skyfall” begins with the assertion that computerized espionage and government transparency means there aren’t any more shadows for men like James Bond to operate in; it ends with Judi Dench’s ruthless spymaster “M” decisively rebutting that argument, in testimony before a government oversight hearing, offering the counter-argument that the shadows of espionage are in fact deeper than ever.

M is actually the focal character of “Skyfall.”  Dench has played her phenomenally well through seven films; she dominates this one, and gets far more screen time than Bond’s bosses have ever been given before.  In a way, she turns out to be the ultimate “Bond girl,” forging a relationship more maternal than sexual, but closer to 007 than all except the women from “Casino Royale” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” have ever been.  M and Bond get to spend a lot of time together in the last reel of “Skyfall,” and they’re a fun couple.

Besides marking the conclusion of James Bond’s first half-century on the screen, “Skyfall” also wraps up a fairly distinct trilogy that began with “Casino Royale” and continued through the much-maligned, underwritten “Quantum of Solace.”  This trilogy was all about deconstructing and rebuilding Bond, and it concludes with all of the pieces finally back in place.  In the process, Daniel Craig has left more of a mark on the character than anyone since Sean Connery.  (Who was reportedly approached to play the role Albert Finney gets in “Skyfall,” but it was wise to keep him out of it – that would have been very distracting.)

The Craig trilogy has given Bond a few things he didn’t really have before: an inner life, and a sense of history.  That history has grown a bit convoluted over the last half-dozen films, since M is played by Judi Dench in both the Brosnan and Craig pictures.  There was a bit of fan speculation following the release of “Casino Royale” (in which Bond is a fairly new agent who has just earned his double-0 license-to-kill certification) that perhaps the name “James Bond” was some sort of code name given to different people; maybe this was the same continuity as the Brosnan films, but that guy retired, and this new pumped-up, hard-edged fair-haired fellow was the latest agent to take the name.  “Skyfall” definitively puts that theory to rest, as a good deal of the final act is set upon the Bond family estate.  For the first time in fifty years of movies, we meet someone who knew James Bond as a child; we see the tombstones of his parents.

The new movie invests much effort in making the principal characters feel like real people with fully fleshed-out lives.  Another first is that the remainder of the British government, largely invisible throughout the series, finally asserts itself and starts asking hard questions about what M and her merry band of licensed killers have been up to.  It is perhaps fortunate that the long-running series was rebooted with “Casino Royale” (… or was it?  Check out the little surprise Bond has tucked away in a London garage!) because otherwise it would be hard to believe Bond hasn’t been brought before a subcommittee before, to explain the approximately $7 trillion worth of property damage he’s inflicted around the world.

There are some nice stunts in “Skyfall,” including a hypnotically beautiful scene in a Singapore skyscraper surrounded by electronic billboards, and an opening chase scene that drives home just how determined James Bond can be to complete a mission… even if he has to lay waste to half of Istanbul to do it.  The hand-to-hand combat scenes are an interesting contrast to the high-powered martial arts of the “Bourne” series.  Daniel Craig’s Bond fights without elegance or sophistication; he simply destroys anyone who gets in his way, and there’s nothing pretty or sophisticated about it.  Tangling with him is like fighting a gorilla in a $5000 suit.

Unfortunately, the plot of “Skyfall” is rather pedestrian, it drags on a bit longer than it really needs to, and it’s actually cribbed from the generally superior Pierce Brosnan outing “Goldeneye.”  A renegade double-0 agent is angry at MI-6 for betraying him, and has launched an elaborate plot for revenge.  In this case, the villainous ex-agent is primarily interested in personal revenge against M for betraying him, and you can see where he’s coming from (as well as the reason she made the decision that enraged him.)  As played by the great Javier Bardem, the villain is flamboyant, psychotic, surprisingly late to the party – he doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie – and nowhere near menacing enough to justify the great build-up the script gives him.  He’s described as something akin to the Angel of Death – one character’s hands literally shake at the mere thought of him – but he turns out to be more like a super-computer-hacker with a sick sense of humor, and he minces a bit too much to be scary, although his first scene is marvelously well-acted and creepy.  He never really seems like much of a match for James Bond, as Sean Bean’s twisted 006 was in “Goldeneye.”

And the new movie could have used a few scenes of Famke Janssen crushing dudes with her thighs.  It feels like there needs to be a physically threatening “sub-boss” villain here – the role Janssen handled in “Goldeneye” or Richard Kiel became iconic for playing in “The Spy Who Loved Me.”  Alas, Bardem has to make do with an army of disposable thugs, who seem remarkably comfortable with the way he treats them as being disposable.

A bit too much of the crazy fun has been bleached out of the Bond formula to make the Craig films feel somewhat more realistic – there’s even a scene in “Skyfall” where the new Q haughtily informs 007 that his department doesn’t really do cool spy gadgets anymore.   The finale is a deliberate deconstruction of the wild, wonderful ninjas-assaulting-a-volcano finales from classic Bond films; it’s low-tech and unglamorous, which doesn’t mean it’s not exciting, but the writers of “Skyfall” are pretty obviously telling you to get over your hunger for orbital lasers and scuba-diving armies.

During interviews to promote the new film, Craig has said he thinks the groundwork has been laid to make a nice volcano headquarters work for the next film’s villains, without losing the gritty “Batman Begins” flavor he’s been shooting for.  That’s something to look forward to.  The table has been set for Craig’s version of James Bond to really come into his own after the enjoyable, occasionally provocative, nicely performed, but ultimately not quite top-shelf “Skyfall.”  It’s better than it’s predecessor, but not quite as good as “Casino Royale.”  It is, however, good enough to make the promise that “James Bond Will Return” in the end credits sound like a date movie fans will want to make.  And not since the glory days of Shirley Bassey has anyone belted out a Bond theme song quite like Adele.  She should have the Bond opening credits to herself for as long as she wants them.