(by Dustin Putman
Recouping from the sulky, scattered, sketchily edited previous James Bond adventure, 2008's "Quantum of Solace," "Skyfall" does not quite match the thrilling and heartfelt revisionist's heights of 2006's "Casino Royale," but it thankfully less resembles the former than the latter. This time directed by Sam Mendes (2009's "Away We Go"), a veritable master filmmaker working outside his comfort zone, Daniel Craig's (2011's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") third go at playing 007 finds the actor trying to marry his version of the character's brute grittiness with the suave, self-deprecating vision that Sean Connery and Roger Moore brought to the British spy. Craig is an intense performer - maybe too intense, since he stumbles every time the script, credited to John Logan (2011's "Hugo") and seasoned returnees Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, shoehorns in a one-liner or double-entendre. It's an awkward fit in a film that will nonetheless be celebrated for its A-class villain, exotic location shooting from cinematographer Roger Deakins (2011's "In Time"), and tender relationship between James and the most unlikely Bond girl of them all. Article continues below
When a top-secret MI6 file is stolen and poor-shot secret agent Eve (Naomie Harris) accidentally hits colleague James Bond (Daniel Craig) instead of the thief, he is presumed dead after falling from a bridge and disappearing into the river currents. Boss M (Judi Dench) has no sooner written up an obituary and begun to move on when MI6 headquarters is literally rocked by a deadly act of terrorism. Catching wind of the events while laying low on a tropical paradise, Bond comes out of temporary retirement, vowing to M that he will find and stop the person who apparently has positioned her as his next target. That person, as it happens, is far more crazy and dangerous than Bond expects. After playing a few rounds against malicious, bleach-haired former-agent-gone-rogue Silva (Javier Bardem), even Bond will be lucky to escape with his life.
The 23rd official big-screen outing for the British Secret Service ladies' man created by author Ian Fleming, "Skyfall" opens big with a chase that takes an in-pursuit Bond through the bustling streets of Turkey, across the narrow roofs of the Grand Bazaar, and atop a train barreling down the railroad tracks. It's a crowd-pleasing start, and it's followed by what could very well be the best opening titles sequence this franchise has ever seen, Adele's moody original song accompanied by abstract gothic imagery of a thought-dead Bond's journey down the figurative rabbit hole. From this point on - at the fifteen-minute mark -there are no scenes, action or otherwise, that approach the go-getter creativity and showmanship of the prologue. Oh, there are still a number of other highlights - Bond's first face-to-face encounter with adversary Silva, a victim of a cyanide capsule that has left him rotting from the inside out, is abuzz with queasy tension and homoerotic suggestion, while the use of The Animals' "Boom Boom" to signal oncoming doom is a wickedly fun touch - but in terms of scope and expectation, it's kind of downhill from there. Many of the past Bond films have fallen into the same trap, leading to the question of why it is so difficult to bookend a great beginning with an at least roughly equatable climactic set-piece. As far as can be told, there is no satisfying answer.
Daniel Craig is a harder, more steely James Bond than the other actors who have traversed the role of 007, a trait that worked well for him in "Casino Royale" since it was offset by a playful side hidden just beneath the surface. Said playfulness comes out here on occasion, but it doesn't really suit him or the plot, which is far too high in the stakes department for him to be making bon mots in the middle of life-and-death situations. Let's be clear: Craig's Bond is not an out-and-out joker, but when the intentionally comedic lines arrive, they suit Craig about as well as a stirred, not shaken, martini. Better is his relationship with Judi Dench's (2011's "My Week with Marilyn") M, after six previous films coming into her own as a woman rather than a gimmick. Dench hands out tough love yet remains motherly, getting to know Bond better than she ever has before as their escape route ultimately leads them to the childhood manor where he once lived. In eloquently commenting upon the post-Cold War era in which Bond now exists, Dench's central monologue delivered at M's Ministry of Defense hearing manages to close one chapter while turning a fresh page.
As the creepy, crazy-eyed Silva, Javier Bardem (2010's "Biutiful") goes full-tilt unforgettable, his every action and mannerism painting a chilling portrait of sociopathic behavior. What Silva could have afforded to do is say less; the script sends him on so many rambling tangents the viewer eventually wishes he were a more silent loon. Finally, Naomie Harris (2006's "Miami Vice") is beautiful but all business as agent Eve, and sultry newcomer Bérénice Lim Marlohe captures one's attention before abruptly getting sidelined as Severine. Marlohe's role is perfunctory at best, an excuse to show Bond in the sack when, honestly, Craig's adaptation of the character just hasn't shown much carnal interest since true love Vesper Lynd betrayed him, then died, in "Casino Royale."
"Skyfall" is an absorbing action-drama when it isn't meandering in the second act, and, in addition to Judi Dench's and Javier Bardem's potent contributions, there is a subway hunt, a dip into James' past, and a mesmerizing score by Thomas Newman (2011's "The Adjustment Bureau") to divert attention. If the finale is a little on the anticlimactic side, the closing moments of the picture make it worthwhile, director Sam Mendes surprisingly bringing the series around full circle while once again enticingly redefining it. "Skyfall" is still too self-serious for its own good and attempts at giving it a lighter edge fall flat, but there is the suggestion at the end that this new, remodeled Bond is still only getting started. Next time, hopefully Daniel Craig will be able to recapture the ruggedly irresistible charm he had in "Casino Royale." Without it, he could be in serious danger of falling into the rut of one note.