Craig's 007 takes a fall for M and resurrects franchise
"Everybody needs a hobby," James Bond says to his captor, a chilling blond cyber-terrorist named Silva.
"What's yours?" Silva asks.
★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Other: A Sony Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations, language and smoking. 143 minutes
Bond's curt reply, "Resurrection," not only serves as a snarky comment on his recent near-death experience, it summarizes what "Skyfall" does for the 50-year-old 007 franchise that ran into a brick wall of bland clichés with 2008's awkward "Quantum of Solace."
"Skyfall" does what no other 007 film has done before; humanize the secret agent by giving him a discernible past, a home turf, a family heritage and ambivalent feelings about his job and life.
If we could magically delete "Quantum" from the Bond repertoire, 2006's "Casino Royale" and "Skyfall" would be the greatest 007 one-two punch since "Goldfinger" followed "From Russia With Love" back in the 1960s.
"Skyfall" brings back Brit actor Daniel Craig in his third film as MI6's most un-secret secret agent. Here, it's fair to say that Craig has finally equaled, if not eclipsed, Sean Connery's iconic interpretation of M's "blunt instrument."
Where Connery employed charisma and cool under fire, Craig brings a combustible juxtaposition of doubt and drive to bear on the character. At his most vulnerable moments, Craig's Bond projects reluctant loneliness, a quality never associated with the character before.
Oscar-winning director Sam "American Beauty" Mendes, working from a refined script from Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, knows exactly what the 21st century incarnation of James Bond should be, and delivers the goods in spectacular, action-packed order.
This time, it really is personal as somebody appears to be toying with MI6's head, M (reprised by Judi Dench).
Somehow, an outside agent has obtained a hard drive list of MI6 operatives. The mystery villain threatens to release names and blow covers, then adds a cryptic message to M: "Think upon your sins."
Worse, a humorless MI6 bureaucrat named Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) gives M an ultimatum: retire, or be forced out for incompetence.
Bond, meanwhile, is presumed dead after being hit by one of his own snipers (the alluring Naomie Harris) and falling a zillion miles off a moving train into a deep and raging river.
Eventually, the villain reveals himself: an overtly effete computer genius named Silva, with Javier Bardem supplying one of the best, most lethal 007 supervillains since Auric Goldfinger. (Silva approaches Hannibal Lecter in intelligence and ruthlessness, and represents a dramatic upgrade on the caricatured villainous gay assassins in 1971's disappointment "Diamonds Are Forever.")
Just when M needs Bond most, 007 feels compelled to end his self-imposed exile and return from death into the fray, out of an old-fashioned obligation called loyalty.
In a fresh and welcome twist, Bond gets an inspired, brand-spanking new Q (Ben Whishaw), a computer whiz who looks 12 and shares a feisty, begrudgingly respectful relationship with "old" 007.
"Skyfall" comes with a high-caliber collection of stunts, chases, fights and gunbattles, all rendered in the service of a story well-told rather than being the film's raison d'être. (Although, I'm still puzzled why a London subway train crashes during rush hour, apparently without a single passenger on it.)
If anything, the weakest parts of "Skyfall" occur when it looks backward to reference old Bond touchstones rather than looking ahead to a new spy for a new millennium.
Frequently, characters mumble "old ways are the best" bromides as they toss aside clever gimmicks as passe and embrace the return to Connery-era basics.
The worst of this occurs when "Skyfall" trundles out Connery's Aston Martin DB-5 for a superfluous tweak of nostalgia for the boomer fans. There is just so much looking back that a forward-moving 007 film can handle.
These amount to small flaws on an impressive, epic spy canvas, complemented by Thomas Newman's electro-noise score with a faint flavor of John Barry's classic symphonic 007 sound.
Bond fans already know that Craig has signed on for the next two 007 adventures, which may take the actor up to his 50th birthday.
No problem. Back in the 1960s, a magazine writer noted that Connery was so connected to the role that he could grow bald and fat, and the public would still buy tickets to see him as Bond. (This became a tad too prescient a statement.)
After "Skyfall," the same could be said of Craig. Except he's the kind of actor who would never let himself go.
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