‘Skyfall’: It’s a blast

November 5, 2012

You’re as old as you feel – unless you’re James Bond. Then you’re both ageless and timeless.

But as “Skyfall,” the newest adventure of 007, shows, even the world’s most dangerous secret agent needs to keep up with the times. And so director Sam Mendes and a trio of writers bring Daniel Craig’s James Bond squarely into a 21st century in which desk jockeys and bottom-liners call the shots.

So it is at MI6, the British intelligence agency for whom Bond works. There’s a new chairman of intelligence and security, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and he’s unhappy at an operation that goes south, exposing all of NATO’s undercover agents to exposure when a list of their identities is stolen. He tells M (Judi Dench) that her time is past and that she’s due for retirement. She convinces him to let her stay on, at least until she reaches retirement age in a couple of months.

Mallory also makes noises about Bond himself as an antique the agency can no longer afford. Though Bond disagrees, Mallory assures him that, in fact, human intelligence gathering (in other words, actual spies) is a thing of the past. Electronic surveillance and intelligence is the future, so Bond should start picking out his retirement home as well.

Bond, however, has a score to settle. Having failed to protect the list, he goes hunting for the man who engineered its heist. He turns out to be an electronics and Internet genius named Silva (Javier Bardem), a former operative in a farflung MI6 bureau who has a grudge against M and means to embarrass and then kill her.

So Bond takes away Silva’s advantage by moving M out of London and into an old family manse on the moors, where there is barely electricity, let alone Internet. Silva will have to hunt them down and take them on old-school – with guns and thugs.

It’s a siege that’s worthy of “Straw Dogs” – either version. And yet, as crisp and exciting as the action is, Mendes is after something darker, deeper and more human than people shooting guns at each other. And that’s what makes “Skyfall” the best film yet in Craig’s run as Bond, which has revitalized, nay, reanimated what had become a formulaic, big-budget, tentpole series.

The emphasis here is on the human factor: the give-and-take between people, rather than the kiss-kiss bang-bang of a studio picture. Mendes got his start in theater and still understands that chemistry isn’t created by the use of automatic weapons. The most exciting parts of “Skyfall” have to do with what happens when the conflict boils down to two people talking, not armies shooting at each other or blowing things up.

Not that there’s not gunplay and explosions – or startlingly elaborate action set-pieces – in this film. But this is a movie that’s as much about what happens between the action as the action itself.

Bond has a variety of people to bristle at or connect with, starting with Bardem, who gives what may be the most subtly flamboyant performance of any villain (Bond or otherwise) in recent memory. With his self-amused innuendo and flirty affect, he may be even a more frightening figure than Anton Chigurh, the role that won him an Oscar in “No Country for Old Men.”

Craig has always given Bond a rougher edge than any of his predecssors; to use a license to kill effectively you need to have a bit of the brute. While Craig can be suave, he can also be savage – and that’s a potent combination in this character.

Dench gets more to do in this film and, old pro that she is, she delivers, in one of her most active and engaging performances. And Fiennes captures the brusque chill of the pencil-pusher who has reached a bureaucratic level where his power may outstrip his experience. It’s a scary performance because it’s a character so easily found in the corporate ranks of real life.

“Skyfall” is exciting and emotionally charged, not a description usually applied to a James Bond movie. In fact, you can remove the modifier “James Bond” from the description and say that Mendes hasn’t just made a terrific Bond film – he’s made a movie that would stand on its own even if the hero’s name was Bob Smith.

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