The James Bond movie franchise is 50 years old, but judging from the latest entry, “Skyfall,” it’s aged remarkably well. Daniel Craig, in his third outing as 007, has taken over the role in a way that makes it his as distinctively as it was Sean Connery's all those years ago.
This distinction comes with a price. While I recognize that Craig’s nuggety, almost thuggish approach to Bond was perhaps a necessary corrective to the dapper sleekness of Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore, I also regret that much of the playfulness has gone out of the series. Craig’s Bond is a lot closer to Jason Bourne than he is to any of the previous Bonds (although the first two Connery movies, “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” were often decidedly “dark”).
Still, even though Craig’s Bond isn’t exactly the wish-fulfillment fantasy that Connery’s was, he’s a more powerful, and powerfully conflicted, screen presence. (By Bond movie standards, he’s practically chaste this time out.) “Skyfall” fills in 007’s back story in psychologically resonant ways. I came out of the movie feeling I’d seen not just an action spy extravaganza but, you know, a "real movie."
The film opens with an elaborate chase through Istanbul that leaves Bond presumably dead. We, of course, know otherwise, but it takes a TV report of a bomb demolishing London’s M16 headquarters to bring him back from a dissolute life of exotic beachside anonymity. M (Judi Dench) has already posted his obituary. Without so much as a double take, she reintegrates him into the spy network that has increasingly come under high-level fire for being antiquated in an era of shadowy, stateless terrorists and cyber warfare. (Q is now a geeky cyber whiz, played by Ben Whishaw, who disdains Bond’s smash-and-grab approach.)
“Skyfall” is essentially a rousing defense of old-school sypmastering as personified by Bond, whose skills have been degraded by his near-death exploits. He must redeem M, under whose watch a hard drive containing the names of NATO agents who have infiltrated global terrorist organizations has fallen into the wrong hands.
Those hands belong to Silva (Javier Bardem), a cyber wacko whose golden hair and toothy smile are malevolence incarnate. Silva has his own history with M. Both he and Bond share a psychological connection to her that is decidedly Freudian.
Director Sam Mendes is best known for the highly overrated “American Beauty,” a far inferior movie to “Skyfall.” With the help of screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, he’s discovered his stride here, a blend of thrills and sabotage and deep-dish emotionalism. The powerful performances by Craig and Dench surely owe a great deal to his indulgences.
I trust it won’t take another four years for the next installment in the series. With all the talk in “Skyfall” about outmoded spy methods and achy agents, I wouldn’t wait too long to once again cash in on Craig. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking.)