4.5 / 5
While movie studio executives wring their hands and wrack their collective brains about "rebooting" long-lived franchises, here is Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie in a series that has worn out its welcome more than once -- and it has as much freshness, vibrancy and excitement as if it were the very first.
All you need to know about James Bond you learn in the first shot. Dispensing with the traditional animation of looking down a gun barrel, Skyfall begins with a fuzzy silhouette and two notes of music: the two notes of music, two notes that exude the brash confidence that winks at the audience and says, "You're here for a James Bond movie -- just relax and enjoy it."
The filmmakers know what they're doing. So does Daniel Craig, an actor who has been both immensely self-assured as Bond (Casino Royale) and also a little unsteady (Quantum of Solace) but who has finally assumed the role with such an easy confidence it's almost as if Connery, Moore and Brosnan never existed.
But, of course, they did, and Skyfall has some fun with that. There is a history here, even if it has recently been rewritten, and ingrained into Skyfall is an understanding that Bond comes with some baggage. Nowhere is that more acutely felt than in the world-weary lines etched into the face of M (Judi Dench), who is responsible for who James Bond is -- and, it's hinted, at least, maybe how he became that way.
In the prologue of Skyfall, M makes the first (or last, perhaps?) of many decisions that lead her to face a political inquiry about the role of MI6 and, indeed, of espionage in general. It lands Bond himself in deep water, literally and figuratively, as well -- until it becomes clear that what's at stake is the very existence of the secret-intelligence division and Bond's entire livelihood. That's something he'll defend to his last breath.
So, the stakes in Skyfall are awfully high, and not in the "I'm-going-to-take-over-the-world-bwa-ha-ha!" way of Blofeld or Goldfinger, but in the more stark and painful reality of living in a world where nothing seems truly safe. Skyfall grounds its James Bond in settings that sometimes look uncomfortably close to real life, and when Bond receives his briefing from an impossibly young Q (played to perfection by Ben Winshaw), there's a weapon hand-off that is equally alarming and jokey in its simplicity.
Weapons won't be much of a match for the villain in Skyfall, who certainly knows his way around a gun but is also keenly aware that a mouse click will create even more chaos. He's Raoul Silva, embodied by Javier Bardem in a performance so good that the camera knows better than to move an inch when he first appears on screen. He's riveting.
Silva and Bond have a connection, though just who and what it would be a shame to even hint at. But their fates are intertwined, so much so that in order to face him, Bond and M have to return to Bond's own childhood home. Yes, James Bond had a past, and it's a great testament to the massive appeal of Skyfall that this "mythology" seems neither contrived nor wearying; it may be a little shocking, actually, to discover that after 50 years of watching him on screen, James Bond has secrets we've never even considered.
In Skyfall, Bond journeys to Shanghai, Macau and Turkey, but his heart, it's clear, belongs in England itself. The action is surprisingly tense and impeccably directed by Sam Mendes, a director you might not think would have an eye for action -- but who has created action scenes that are almost shockingly well constructed. Among its other accomplishments, Skyfall is a marvel of cinematography and editing.
Everything works superbly, even a sometimes hard-to-decipher climax that takes place in inky twilight leading into harsh night. Visually, the climax underscores what so many of the characters make a point of saying: These are people who live in the shadows, and you never can quite be sure of who anyone is.
Except James Bond, of course. Good old James Bond, whose very heart must look like the Union Jack. In the 50 years since he first appeared, the world has become more unsafe and unsavory, but as Skyfall expertly reminds us, it's always going to feel just a tiny bit safer knowing that no matter what else might happen ... James Bond will return.
Viewed Nov. 11, 2012 -- Cinerama Dome