Until just six short years ago, Bond films were familiar and comfortable like an old chair, as each iteration tried to out-Goldfinger the previous one. There would be a couple of Bond Girls with ridiculous names; a briefing with Q to provide gadgets which would be used somewhere along the way; exotic locales; and megalomaniacal villains with over-the-top henchmen trying to kill Bond before he could foil their plans, usually in a grand battle within the villain’s own hideout. Then Casino Royale came along and broke with that past once and for all, presenting us a human, not particularly heroic Bond and making the old series relevant again.

Skyfall breaks with that status quo as surely as Royale did, and not always for the better, but it does so much well it’s easy to forgive the film and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) the odd looks back.

A big factor of the reboot’s success, of course, was Daniel Craig‘s performance, bringing complexity and darkness to Bond, and that is still well on display in Skyfall, as the screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan takes Bond into areas of self-doubt where earlier films have previously been loath to tread.

While our new Bond started this version of the series as a wet-behind-the-ears 00-Agent, he has now come full circle as an experienced officer who may be getting a bit too old for the hijinks asked of him. It’s a question he can’t dodge anymore, after he is shot and left for dead in the opening action sequence.

And he’s thinking about remaining out of the game until MI-6 itself comes under attack by former agent Raoul Silva, portrayed by Javier Bardem in a performance that’s finally the match for Craig’s. Silva is a sort of anti-Bond, who eschews running and jumping around for coldly and methodically carrying out extremely long-term plans, moving all of the different pieces he needs into place until he is ready to strike. And what he is planning has nothing to do with world domination or terrorism or some other mundane goal. What it has to do with is revenge.

Revenge against MI-6 chief M (Judi Dench), specifically, who is finally given something to do after so many year’s service to the series, in the process creating a triumvirate with Craig and Bardem which gives the film real dramatic weight.

A weight which Mendes, not an intuitive choice for directing a Bond film (but then, neither was Mark Forster), builds by spending as much time on Skyfall‘s quiet dramatic scenes — of which there are many — as on its set pieces.

Which, considering how good the set pieces are, is really saying something. Bringing several of his longtime co-horts with him — especially production designer Dennis Gassner and photographer Roger Deakins — Mendes has produced the best-looking of the recent Bond films and one of the best-looking of the entire series.

Mendes’ fondness for creating a tableau and letting it sit while his actors move about in it turns out to be a fantastic fit for the series, as he focuses more on tension than adrenaline, even in his action sequences. From a fight in silhouette against a giant Shanghai billboard backdrop to a Silva’s bombed-out island fortress, it’s a beauty often ignoring Bond convention.

For all the glamorous locations typical of a Bond film, Mendes and company eventually take the story into truly exotic areas: Bond’s actual life. From a chase on the London underground to a retreat to Bond’s family homestead — the titular Skyfall — on the Scottish moors to try and face Silva on equal terms, the filmmakers look to the past without sticking their heads in the sand.

Most of the time.

There are some irresistible call-backs to previous films in the series, which cut into those gains. Is there a place in the modern Bond world, one where exploding pens are specifically derided, for a silver DB5 with machine guns in the headlights? Do we need to bring back the old M office, with its leather door, Miss Moneypenny at her desk, and Q available to give out gadgets? Sure, it easily incites a Pavlovian response to familiar stimulus, but that’s usually what you do to audiences you don’t respect in the slightest.

Still, for all of the odd retreats into the familiar, Skyfall strikes out a new path as much as it can, particularly in the last act, as Bond, M, and the family caretaker (Albert Finney) set traps around the manor house Bond grew up in and wait for Silva to come to them, and they all three talk about how they got where they are.

Whatever slight retreats into the past Skyfall may have, it still looks to the new more often than not, at least as far as Bond movies are concerned. And if the looks backward include getting to see Bond, M, and Miss Moneypenny shoot it out with a gang of villains together, that’s a price a lot of fans are probably happy to pay.

Cast: Daniel Craig as James Bond; Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva; Judi Dench as M; Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory; Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny; Bérénice Lim Marlohe as Sévérine; Albert Finney as Kincade; Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner; Helen McCrory as Clair Dowar; Ola Rapace as Patrice; Ben Whishaw as Q.

[Skyfall opens everywhere 11/9/12.]
(Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer --; Columbia/Sony Pictures --; Eon Productions; Danjaq LLC; Skyfall --; Skyfall (Facebook) --; James Bond (Twitter) --; 007 Official Website --
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Review by . Review posted Friday, November 9th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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