The best of old and new are a potent mix in “Skyfall,” the 23rd movie following the sexually charged adventures of British superspy James Bond.
The shaken martini, the Walther pistol, the classic car, the high-tech gadgets from a newly cast Q (Ben Whishaw) and the return of Moneypenny make this classic Bond.
Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), new to the franchise, has concocted a storytelling formula with plenty of action, a visual wow factor, a revived sense of humor and a human touch that should equally satisfy longtime fans of the franchise and those brand new to 007.
This one's at least as good as “Casino Royale,” Daniel Craig's first turn as Bond in 2006, and better than 2008's “Quantum of Solace.”
Mendes opens with a thrill-packed chase in Turkey. Bond and a fellow agent (Naomie Harris, smashing as she parries Bond's stoicism with a sexual come-on) pursue a killer who has stolen a computer hard drive with the names of all NATO secret agents fighting terrorists around the globe. The theft puts the job of Bond's boss, M (Judi Dench), on the line as agents start to wind up dead.
The opening sequence escalates from pursuit on foot to cars, motorcycles and then atop a moving train. Its heart-stopping climax leaves no time to catch a breath before a segue into dazzling dream-sequence opening credits, over which Adele sings the latest Bond theme song.
Mendes packs the movie with arresting images and striking camera setups. Particularly memorable: a harrowing elevator ride at a Shanghai skyscraper, a night spot in Macau framed by black water and fireworks, a brief, steamy shower sex scene in which Bond tangles with femme fatale Severine (exotic French beauty Bérénice Marlohe) and a spectacular nighttime firefight at Bond's childhood home, Skyfall.
It's an isolated manor house on a Scottish moor, where Bond and M lure the picture's villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), for an incendiary fight on home territory. They're aided and abetted by the place's caretaker (Albert Finney), who may have taught Bond his dry wit.
Bardem, as creepy as he was in “No Country for Old Men,” is a rogue ex-MI6 agent with a score to settle against M and a homoerotic yen for Bond. It's a splendid bit of character acting.
The movie gets its emotional weight from the complicated relationship between M, as full of fierce verbal darts as ever, and Bond, who becomes her protector.
I left out a London action sequence, best discovered as you watch, that may make you think of “The Fugitive” for a moment or two.
007 pictures were once known for B-list directors and virtually unknown key players, campy and far-fetched.
“Skyfall” shows that what an A-list cast and director add is worth the big bucks. The franchise has grown up enough to take itself more seriously, and there's a payoff in that.
Is this Oscar material? Probably not. But it's premium stuff for fans of action heroes, and particularly for 007's fan base.
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