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In case the marketing spiel has somehow escaped you, James Bond is 50 years old this year. Well, maybe a bit older – he wasn’t exactly a newborn in “Dr. No” – or a bit younger, if you choose to take only 44-year-old Daniel Craig’s salt-and-pepper-stubbled visage into account. Either way, he’s not young anymore, and boy, does “Skyfall” ever want you to know that.
“Brave new world,” 007 mutters grumpily, after his first encounter with a whizzy new Q (Ben Whishaw) who scarcely needs to shave yet. “Old dog, new tricks,” twinkles Naomie Harris’s sexy MI6 underling, her tone vaguely patronizing, as if teaching an elderly uncle how to send an email.
As such platitudes suggest, clever quippery is not one of the many strengths of Bond’s 23rd feature outing. They aren’t even accurate: the perma-dapper spy isn’t learning any new tricks, but rediscovering ones fallen into disuse, like scuffed Oxfords polished to a high shine. The same goes for “Skyfall,” which endearingly stresses fashionably analog traditionalism at every turn: Bond’s gadgets are restricted to a gun and a radio, the beloved, Connery-era Aston Martin makes a reappearance, while for the bulk of the action, far-flung locales are curbed in favour of the Land of Hope and Glory. (In Britain’s banner year of Jubilee and Olympic celebration, that can’t be an accident.) Another old-school touch, Adele’s Bassey-aping title ballad, is pretty splendid, but they may as well have gone with a big-band cover of “Everything Old Is New Again.”
Given a loving, even romantic, coat of varnish by Sam Mendes – arguably the most prestigious director ever to board this thanklessly producer-led franchise – “Skyfall” reads not so much as a reboot than a recantation. Critics and audiences loved the 21st-century terseness of “Casino Royale,” which introduced Daniel Craig as the most businesslike incarnation yet of the playboy agent, but they resisted when 2008 follow-up “Quantum of Solace” (a tellingly dour title) took that lean, mean modernism to further extremes.
The far longer, less disciplined “Skyfall” allows its hero and audience alike a little more playtime – campy villain, flirty banter and man-eating komodo dragons are all present and correct – while thanks to the lamplighter genius of Roger Deakins, it’s the most plushly gorgeous Bond adventure yet committed to celluloid. One tends to remember set pieces from Bond films more than actual images, but this should prove a happy exception: from the tangled neon flashes of Shanghai-set nighttime stalkings to the gauzy mist and flame-bursts of its Highlands finale, Deakins clearly feels obligated to honor the atmospheric promise of the film’s oblique title.
That title, incidentally, has a stately, domestic root, matching a narrative preoccupied with bringing it all back home. Surprisingly enough, this is the first Bond story both to fold stately boss figure M (a reliably snappy Judi Dench) into the center of the action and to dredge up 007’s touchily guarded backstory, innovations that reveal sore points and soft spots he’d rather we didn’t see. More than that you may already know, but I’m not going to reveal. Suffice it to say that the motivations all round are more personal than usual.
M, threatened with forced retirement by desk man Mallory (Ralph Fiennes, judiciously underplaying) after a major security breach at MI6, nearly gets Bond killed before the ornate, Gothic-tinged opening titles unspool. In a rollicking introductory chase atop a moving train in Turkey, a mismanaged operation to retrieve a hard drive -- one that could fatally reveal the identities of numerous undercover NATO agents -- ends with 007 accidentally shot down by one of his own field agents (Harris), the coveted information escaping into dangerous terrorist hands.
From the outset, then, M and 007 – whose relationship to each other has never seemed more familial – are put in a position of unusual vulnerability, each required to prove their competence against growing inside skepticism. And that’s before MI6’s London headquarters are blown up by an enemy – Javier Bardem’s physically desaturated, unnervingly origin-less Silva – whose own endgame is rather more pointedly vindictive than the old standard of world domination. He’s after M herself, not what she’s protecting.
The intimacy of the setup may be novel, but if the very pettiness of Silva’s agenda risks lowering the stakes of the enterprise, that’s reckoning without the cool electricity of Bardem. Introduced in a remarkable slow march into close-up over a single shot – the most extravagant formal coup of Mendes’s typically systematic direction – the generally hulking actor is one of the series’ few villains to conjure a genuine sense of threat, conversely by concentrating on Silva’s dry, droll daintiness. Winking camp has been par for the course for actors in this position since the days of Blofeld, but Bardem is the first actor to interpret a Bond villain as actively queer; his sly flirting games around 007 are riotous, but serve as a confident power maneuver rather than mere japery.
Equal parts Mugatu and Hannibal Lecter – the latter likeness frequently given an assist from Dennis Gassner’s production design – Bardem’s performance is a joy in itself, but also brings out the rare playful impulses in Craig’s steely construction of Bond. Three films in, I’m still wanting a little more give from Craig in the role: a veritable soldier in a Tom Ford suit, he’s a formidable physical performer, but tends to deliver one-liners like mail.
You sense Craig may have been happier with the hard-line, no-frills direction “Quantum of Solace” was taking. If the gleaming surfaces and unexpected tender areas of this grandly entertaining new adventure are anything to go by, not many of his colleagues agree with him -- though Mendes, generally stronger on polish than on pep, might have been harder on the script’s purpler speechifying. (He also leaves dangling at least one expensive and wholly extraneous set piece in the London Underground.) On balance, however, “Skyfall” represents a happy compromise between golden-anniversary nostalgia and post-Bourne streamlining. The action here may be rooted in a post-9/11 environment of terrorism and darting paranoia, but with its retro fittings and overriding spirit of British conservation, this venerable series is finally copping to its status as heritage cinema – and is no worse off for it.
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