A resurrection in “Skyfall” – James Bond, better than ever

NOTE: This review is posted to note that tonight – (Wednesday, September 23) at 8 p.m. CDT on SYFY  (Channel 49 in the Cox Cable system for Oklahoma City) –  “Skyfall” will be re-broadcast. Your humble servant considers it the best entry in the Daniel Craig interpretation of the Ian Fleming character, James Bond. For those with time to spare (it may the longest installment in the Bond series) it is worth the effort. 

A stirring motorcycle and train chase sequence (think “The Bourne Legacy” on steroids) opens “Skyfall” with vigor and pulse-pounding excitement, prelude to the apparent death of James Bond, agent 007. That moment fades into the most unusual opening credits sequence in the half-century of motion pictures based on Fleming’s fictional master spy.

Daniel Craig, in his third turn as Bond, owns the character as never before. He is by turns strong, vulnerable, loving, cruel, bitter, hopeful, engaging and detached. A bundle of contradictions, Bond’s brief estrangement from service to his country is particularly well portrayed.
Bond comes out of hiding after his time in a kind of tomb, and in a pivotal moment of the story describes his hobby as “resurrection.”

The direction of Sam Mendes from a story written with Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan is distinct from Bond tales of the past, yet congruent with traditions of excellence established in the early days of what is now deemed “The Bond franchise.” Mendes deploys photographer Roger Deakins to good effect in locales around the globe, perhaps most effectively in evoking the Scottish highlands.

The “Bond women” of this installment are intelligent, witty, beautiful and – as has been the case in several of the last dozen cinematic renderings of this evolving world – in every way Bond’s equal.

Naomi Harris brings not only good looks but a disarming manner to her portrayal of Eve. She is the one character, other than Bond himself, who weaves in and out of the story throughout the film. Berenice Lim Marlohe is gorgeous and sympathetic in portrayal of the tragic Severine.

And then, there’s Judi Dench, who in the course of seven films has made the character of Bond’s boss her own, inhabiting the skin of a long-widowed career intelligence officer with flinty authority and a world-weariness leavened by motherly affection for Bond, her most effective, if often wayward, agent.

Without killing the weave of this tale for those who have not yet seen what is now the world’s the top-grossing film, M and Bond are ravaged by events, yet revealed as “one of us” in the tempest of modern human life. They have long relished defending a culture and a nation they love which seem increasingly prepared to abandon them. They inhabit in a civilized world whose leaders fancy themselves able to survive without blunt instruments, the particular skill-sets of those who labor, as M puts it, “in the shadows.”

These warriors fight a war without front lines, without clear-cut enemies, and without binding limitations.

In “Skyfall,” both Bond and M battle sadness and despair. In ways entirely believable, they are characters with whom all but the most cynical among us can connect. To say that the compelling performances of Craig and Dench are rare in motion pictures states the obvious — sometimes the best way to make a point. These portrayals are firmly rooted in Bond traditions, yet worthy of Oscar consideration.

Javier Bardem is Raoul Silva, among the best villains of the series – and, some contend, the best ever. He is permanently embittered over the end of his tenure on her majesty’s secret service and deeply conflicted over his feelings toward M. Silva is relentless, remorseless and depraved in seeking revenge – or is that conquest, consummation, control over the Empire he once served and now despises? His casual killing of a sympathetic character is powerful and poignant.

Among the astonishingly strong set of supporting performers, Ralph Fiennes enters the story portraying Mallory, military veteran and now member of Parliament who is reluctantly carrying out an assignment from the Prime Minister of England to pressure M toward retirement, but ultimately assisting her (and Bond) in the wrenching fight to retain MI6’s role as a bulwark in that “shadow war.”
Fiennes’ entry is impressive. There is every reason to anticipate superb work from him in future installments.

A fine cameo comes for Ben Whishaw, who portrays the MI-6 quartermaster – bringing back the beloved “Q” of the past. Another fine performance comes from Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner, the MI-6 chief of staff for the past several films. Finally, an effective brief appearance is that of Ola Rapace as Patrice, a French assassin whom Bond battles after his return to service.

In a cast of such magnificence, still to be noted is the work of Albert Finney as Kincade, who tends what is left of Skyfall Lodge, Commander Bond’s ancestral home. The relationship depicted between the Scotsman and the secret agent is natural and witty, among the most important vignettes in the entire Bond series.

After three films, the “new” Bond (Craig) is thoroughly embedded in the character, the re-imagined back-story is well fleshed out, Bond’s inner demons have been managed (if not forever banished), and the writing and content are adapted brilliantly to present and future. Perhaps most remarkable of all, the main characters within a story line the early films established are all again in place (Bond, M, Moneypenny, Q and believable supporting performers).

This may only be of importance to Bond buffs or movie wonks, yet it is notable that as this film ends, an impressive “re-boot” is set. What a satisfying achievement for the 50-year old franchise and the 23rd film in the series.

The story line has been revised without dishonoring the roots of Bond, James Bond, in popular imagination and the mind of Ian Fleming.
That is at least one form of secular resurrection.