We begin with scenes that could have come from a James Bond movie 50 years ago: A dying agent bleeds in a seedy hotel room, motorcycles race across rooftops in an unnamed city, a fight runs the length of a moving train that ducks in and out of tunnels, and the voice of M barks into 007’s earpiece: “Get that list! We can’t afford to lose it!”
We end with the old iconic image of Bond, seen through a camera lens before the final credits. He enters the frame, he turns and shoots, crimson seeps over the lens, and we sigh in amused gratitude.
Yet in between comes the resurrection of a new Bond – literally so, as he returns to London a grizzled alcoholic after a shooting presumed to be fatal, and metaphorically so in a movie that hasn’t been surpassed in the Bond canon since Sean Connery’s glory days – and maybe not then.
Director Sam Mendes and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan reinvent Bond for the 21st century as a man struggling in a world of surveillance cameras and computer chips. Bond meets the new Q at the National Gallery and receives a pistol that will respond only to his handprint and a tiny radio. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” Q asks the disappointed Bond. “We don’t go in much for that these days.”
The filmmakers expertly balance historical homages and modern action. Take Silva, who’s played by bleached-blond Javier Bardem.
He has the purring voice, falsely cheerful manner and ambiguous sexuality of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. (Silva apparently likes men and women.) At the same time, he’s a computer genius who enriched himself by hacking into bank accounts – no world-dominating madman he – and is wreaking havoc on MI6 headquarters to revenge himself on M (Judi Dench) for a supposed betrayal long ago.
So goes the mix of old and new in all respects. Bond (Daniel Craig, in top acting and shirtless form) gets help in the field, but it comes from a black British woman (Naomie Harris), with the American CIA nowhere to be found.
Q (Ben Whishaw) is in his 20s and something of a computer genius, with almost no interest in guns or bombs. M’s overseer, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), isn’t a self-protecting bureaucrat or stupid obstructionist; he wants to help and does. (That’s an in-joke: Fiennes was considered a possible Bond until Pierce Brosnan got the call.)
“Skyfall” constantly tweaks expectations: Bond walks into a Macau casino yet never joins any of the games. Occasionally, the writers fall asleep at the switch: Silva manages a seemingly impossible escape off-camera, and the necessary explanation goes unprovided.
But if the movie slips a bit thematically, it’s always up to snuff aurally and visually. Thomas Newman writes apt new music and falls back on the famous 007 guitar theme just when we want it. Nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ favorite cinematographer (“True Grit”), does wonderful work with limited light, and the nighttime climax of “Skyfall” has tragic grandeur.
Best of all, we finally learn something about Bond’s origins: The movie takes its title from his ancestral home in Scotland. (A nod to Connery, perhaps?) Tell me which origin story this suggests to you:
Bond’s wealthy parents died when he was a boy. He inherited their manor house, complete with a subterranean passage by which to escape when under attack. He decided to fight crime – “Orphans make the best recruits,” says the canny M – and is assisted by an elderly, vigorous family retainer (Albert Finney), who supplies him with weaponry. Bond also owns a specially equipped vehicle, an Aston-Martin that can send evildoers through the roof and fires from twin machine guns. (Welcome back, old friend!)
Yes, 007 seems to have co-opted Batman’s history: Silva, whose mouth was disfigured during a near-death experience, even suggests the Joker. Yet there’s an innocence to Bond that Bruce Wayne lost long ago, plus a realization that he can’t succeed alone.
Bond can handle killers with knuckles or a pistol, but someone else has to track their flight paths first. That, above all things, makes him a hero for our century: He can only be fully effective as the fist at the end of the arm of a global network of espionage.