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Skyfall
The name is Martin. Aston Martin.
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Skyfall
Directed by Sam Mendes
Rated PG-13

In Skyfall, James Bond learns that fun never goes out of style.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Skyfall

When the 007 series was rebooted with Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale, the sense was the filmmakers, led by veteran Bond director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye), were trying too hard to refashion the stalwart secret agent. It all began with the oddly out of place black-and-white opening segment. Then there were the shockingly sexless opening credits, an asthmatic villain, and composer David Arnold trying too hard to mimic John Barry’s scores of yore. And Bond drove a Ford, for Pete’s sake.

Thankfully, the real fresh spin arrived in Quantum of Solace, with Bond first-timer Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) at the helm. The movie was a winner by the sheer brute force of the artistic flourishes that abounded throughout the presentation.

Now Bond is back with Sam Mendes (American Beauty), another Bond newbie, directing and the result is what could arguably be called the best, or most certainly one of the best, Bond movies in the franchise’s storied 50-year history. Without a doubt it is the best Bond movie of the past 25 years.

Take the Shot

What makes this Bond great is how it finally completes the modernization of James Bond. The 50-year-old series, with Skyfall counting as the 23rd official Bond release, is stunning in its lack of consistency. After the classic Connery episodes, the bulk of the Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan years yielded rather disposable entertainment. In between, the brief venture of Timothy Dalton brought a new vigor to Bond’s sense of adventure and romance in the underappreciated The Living Daylights, only to go abruptly sour in the stunningly dour and violent (by 1980s Bond standards) Licence to Kill.

Now Bond has broken free of the constraints of 50 years of formula. While there are still beautiful women to bed, the persistent accompaniment of the traditional “Bond girl” is a thing of the past. The casting of the latest Bond femme fatale used to be news in and of itself, with the varying talents of Ursula Andress, Grace Jones, and Tanya Roberts among those enshrined in Bond history. Instead, there’s a smarter sense, at least by degrees, that the women are every bit as likely to be strong accomplices or sympathetic victims. In either case, Bond isn’t at the center of their universe, he’s simply one of the outer rings.

With this new beginning, Bond finds a new Eve (Naomie Harris, looking ravishing after her more ragged appearance as the mystic Tia Dalma in the Pirates of the Caribbean series). Eve’s a hip upstart looking for her proper place in MI6. She’ll provide Bond with some of life’s comforts, such as a shave and a massage, but she knows when to hold back.

Eve’s last name won’t be revealed here. All that will be said is that all the pieces are now in place for the next Bond (and yes, the end credits note once again that “James Bond Will Return”) to be a humdinger. Bond has suffered loss and sought solace, now it’s time for him to live and let die.

Theme Music

Aside from Monty Norman’s iconic musical theme, the Bond movies aren’t known for addressing narrative themes in any form or fashion. But this one does. Here, at last, Bond tackles issues of mortality and relevance. Is old school fortitude and persistence still of value in a world of spy satellites and Twitter? Bond answers the question in fine form, presented in the language he understands best.

Skyfall also acknowledges the passage of time and its impact on Bond’s ability to do his job. Age. Physical wounds. Psychological scars. They all add up.

That serious theme is also slickly used as an entry point for some fresh humor. There’s fun to be had in Bond’s argument that youth is no guarantee of innovation and sometimes the old ways are the best. It even serves as a bit of a running joke after Bond’s new, young Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw, Stoned) provides him with two tools: a gun and a radio. Flashy gadgetry in this iPad age, it would seem, is now too passé for the secret service.

Previously, the movies were strictly episodic; the occasional cross-reference to other movies in the series serving as winks over a martini, although there is the rare aside of significance, such as a reference in Licence to Kill to Bond’s marriage in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As far as those types of inside references go, Skyfall also offers up a doozy: a vintage Aston Martin that M (Dame Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) criticizes for its distinct lack of comfort. It’s a dicey comment to make, considering Bond, who no doubt considers M as an old hag, has his finger on the secret seat eject button. Great stuff, that.

Stocks and Bonds

As for the nitty-gritty of this Bond adventure’s narrative, things begin at a breathless pace, with Bond racing through the Grand Bazaar and across the rooftops of old Istanbul - on motorcycle. Only a few months ago, Liam Neeson, or at least his film daughter, trekked across those same rooftops to a much less effective result in Taken 2. Here, the locale serves as a backdrop for the kind of non-stop action opener that calls to mind the Mayan temple sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. As with that Indiana Jones classic, the scenes in Istanbul are merely a warm-up for the main feature. And, as an extra bonus, there’s a bit of sexiness to the slick opening titles, accompanied by Adele’s fittingly sober title song.

For a good portion of the movie, the main baddie, Silva (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men), is an off-screen enigma. His menacing acts of terror are felt near and far, similar to the destructive tendencies of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Silva has an agenda to pursue and it’s a mighty personal one, with M at the center of it all.

Strictly speaking, Silva might not be a member of the Bond Villains Hall of Fame, but he does serve as the catalyst to much more engaging situations than Bond typically encounters. That aspect is a significant one when, after the dust settles, it becomes time to tally up Silva’s significance in the Bond canon.

Silva’s vengefulness sets the stage for a dark story that veers into the seldom-traversed territory of Bond’s childhood; it reveals an emptiness in youth similar to Bruce Wayne’s tragic early years. Bruce Wayne and James Bond. Two troubled souls hell-bent on pursuing justice. While Bruce lives by a strict “no guns” policy, Bond has no qualms after sending people back to their Maker.

• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.

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Quotable Skyfall

“Age is no guarantee of efficiency.” - Q

“And youth is no guarantee of innovation.” - James Bond

“Oh go on, then. Eject me. See if I care.” - M

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