‘I’ ON CULTURE
The new James Bond film Skyfall is a blockbuster of a hit in many ways. It harks back to the greatness of the series in its early years, 50 years ago. The early movies, before the franchise settled into its almost Kabuki-like sameness, were tough. There were few laugh lines; it was Bond vs. really nasty bad guys. Skyfall is much larger in scope but essentially boils down to a battle between M (Judi Dench) and Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent with a nasty but very real grudge against the MI6 leader. Bond is her champion in the battle; this allows a deeper examination of the character of the iconic agent since it provides for differing motives of the main players.
Director Sam Mendes turns the film into a far more personal version of our favorite secret agent. This Bond (Daniel Craig) is mortal, far more introspective and very connected to his very strong boss. M is a far more dominant character in this film, seeing more screen time than she has probably had in all of Dench’s previous appearances. She is fighting for her job, for Britain and, eventually, for her own life.
Silva, a cyber-terrorist, has his people steal a key list of Western agents who have embedded themselves in terror organizations. After a wild chase through the Turkish Grand Bazaar and a battle in and on top of a train, young agent Eve (Naomie Harris) takes a desperation shot that blows Bond off the train, seemingly killing him. Soon after, there is a bombing inside MI6 headquarters and he reappears, ready to defend his boss. Through a wild series typical of Bond adventures, he meets up with Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), a stunningly gorgeous agent (what else in a Bond movie?) of the bad guy, with whom he shares a steamy shower.
Later, tied to a chair, he meets Silva, who, instead of torturing or threatening him, strokes him gently, unbuttoning his shirt. In one of the few real laugh lines, when he suggests Bond try thinking in new ways, Bonds looks at him and says, “Who says this would be a first time?” The audience howled at that. Silva tells Bond that M had betrayed him to the Chinese years earlier, the reason for his attack. Bond captures him and, in a scene reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs, actually confirms she had betrayed Silva “for the good of the organization.” Silva escapes, and Bond brings M to his boyhood home, Skyfall, an amazingly decrepit and lonely house way out on the Scottish moors, for a final battle. Rather than give away too much, I will only hint that it does not end the way you would expect.
Craig plays the role well. He is one of the strongest Bonds, close behind the best, Sean Connery. He is older, wearier; we see silver in the stubble on his face. He is haunted by a lot of his past and unable to really go on to new endeavors. Craig plays the part well; it might be the best acting performance by a Bond. Dench is, as expected, very strong. Instead of being a sort of maternal figure who, distantly, gives orders and wryly critiques Bond’s actions, she becomes the target and fights back very well.
Bardem is an over-the-top villain, something that has always annoyed me in many of these films. The best villains are the simplest. Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love had no special powers but was deadly. As time goes on, we have more elaborate villains, all leading mobs of people who are essentially nameless and faceless, just there to die. Bardem, however, made his enmity personal. He was not trying to take over the world, just trying for revenge against a mother-figure who had betrayed him. His agony was clear and powerful.
The women, of course, were beautiful. This is a Bond film, after all. A special salute should also be given to Ben Whishaw as a very young Q. He played a pivotal role and did it with great good humor.
Albert Finney did a fine turn as the old gamekeeper at Skyfall, an ally of Bond. The foreign cities shown — Istanbul, Shanghai — were appropriately exotic. The title song by Adele was in the fine tradition of the theme songs.
The theater was packed when we saw it. It is exciting and fun — one of the best films in this long series. See it.