November 20, 2012


I groaned inwardly at the beginning of the latest Bond picture, Skyfall: Yet another mindless chase scene where rich people in business suits and fancy cars destroy an entire district of middle and lower class people trying to sell fruits and vegetables. Happily, the rest of the movie eschews that drawn-out bit of chaotic action bosh in favor of a more elegant kind of spy thriller. Surely the James Bond movies have become less-Bond-more-Bourne in the last six years (a disappointing evolution, or devolution, actually). Casino Royale was an exciting debut for Daniel Craig as 007, but the movie was overlong and sloppy at times when it should have been taut. Quantum of Solace was mercifully shorter, and entertaining, but slight, unimpressive and far too Bourne-ish to feel like a real Bond installment. 

Skyfall unites these two warring aspects of the Bond franchise: it's sort of a return, sort of a departure. Some may have found such ambiguity frustrating. (It's understandable.) But I enjoyed myself through to the ridiculous finale, which, as a friend pointed out, was lifted from the Home Alone playbook. It gets a little bit more personal, although one of the things that has made the Bond movies entertaining is their lack of a sense of tangible reality. They were never particularly rooted in time, except when it came to the technology and the villains, who always reflect real-life political anxieties. Here, the threat is terrorism but more specifically cyber-terrorism, and the villain is Javier Bardem, who's good in a cheap sort of way: he's just a tamer version of the psychopath he played in No Country For Old Men, and a more predictable version of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Bardem needs to play a dad in a Disney movie next if he's going to surprise us ever again. But that won't be a very good surprise.

Judi Dench, as M, gets more story time in Skyfall. M's showing her age, and her ability to lead such an important--or at least, established--wing of British intelligence comes into question after some bad judgment calls. It's always fun to see Judi Dench stand firm and icy like the Queen Mother, which she's sort of becoming. At least, the Queen Mother of British movies. (Sorry Maggie, Helen.) Ralph Fiennes steps in as another Bond boss, Mallory, who's going to oversee M's "voluntary" retirement in a few months. Not to be bested, M throws the British PM the finger with regal precision, determined to see her latest job to the end, whatever that may be.

The director, Sam Mendes, does a good job capturing the visual opulence of the various locations, from Shanghai to rural Scotland. Shanghai comes to life in Skyfall, a neon palace full of dancing lights and eye-popping skyscrapers. It's also the scene of a particularly entertaining--because it's relatively subtle and quiet--confrontation between Bond and a hitman, whom he follows up to the top of one of the skyscrapers by grabbing onto the bottom of the elevator. The finale, which takes place at Bond's childhood home in Scotland--and features an enjoyable performance by Albert Finney as the grizzled caretaker of the place--isn't all that smart, but it's enjoyable anyway.

I also really enjoyed the performance of Naomie Harris, an agent who engages in some amusing banter with James. She's game for anything, and invests her scenes with a sense of fun. Daniel Craig is his usual stoic self, but slightly more vulnerable and bruised up. He remains one of the franchise's best incarnations by not giving too much or too little.

With Berenice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw as a Harry Potterish Q, Helen McCrory, Rory Kinnear, and Ola Rapace. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan. 143 min. ½

No comments: