Friday, November 16, 2012

'Fall'ing for James Bond all over again

"James Bond turns 50 with "Skyfall," Daniel Craig's third appearance as the British super spy. It is a smashing 007 adventure with thrills, laughs, pathos and plenty of knowing nods to Bond's past.

Starting with 2006's "Casino Royale," the Bond franchise was sent back to square one. In "Casino Royale" we saw the newly minted 007 on his first mission. He was rough around the edges and more physical than any previous Bond. There was nary a gadget to be found. This Bond needed only his fists, gun, intellect and charm.

The follow up, "Quantum of Solace," was the first direct sequel in the series with Bond actually dealing with the loss of a loved one. He became a man of few words. This was a Bond that was heartbroken and out for revenge. While the film was an interesting exploration of a more vulnerable Bond, it also turned off many fans of the character who missed the spy who killed the baddies with a wink.

This installment focuses on the past of M (Judi Dench), Bond's boss, and protecting the names of undercover MI6 agents. A larger-than-life villain named Silva (Javier Bardem), who has a personal grudge against M, has stolen a drive with these names. It is, naturally, up to Bond to stop this man.

The problem is Bond, left for dead in the wowser opening chase scene, is missing a step or two. He is not is his sharpest mentally, physically or emotionally, but damned if the man doesn't love his country. He is determined to get the job done. Craig, the most fully dimensional Bond, is still tremendous in the role finding a perfect balance of physical menace, vulnerability and suave charm. It has been fascinating watching Craig grow into the Bond universe instead of simply being dropped into it.

Directed by Sam Mendes, this is the first film to be directed by an Academy Award-winning director and in terms of its visuals and its emotional grounding it shows. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created some breathtaking visuals particularly in Shanghai and in the hills of Scotland.

The film also has dramatic heft, something new to the Bond franchise since "Casino Royale." Mendes and his screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan delve into dark areas of M and Bond's past. There's plenty of action and wit, but these more serious elements are welcome additions.

Unlike, "Quantum of Solace," Bond definitely has sense of humor back. He has playful banter with M, the new tech guru Q (Ben Whishaw) and Eve (Naomie Harris), a fellow agent and one of the film's prerequisite Bond girls.

One of the joys of "Casino Royale" was that Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was a Bond girl who was compelling in her own right. She came across as Bond's equal and her scenes with Craig had a genuine spark. "Skyfall" slightly lets down in the Bond girl department.

Harris is solid and does have a chemistry with Craig, but, as in the past, it is an underwritten female role. There is a twist with Harris' character that should please fans.

Bérénice Marlohe, as the bad Bond girl, is even less there. She is given one compelling scene, but then is quickly disposed of. I suppose that is true to Bond formula, but one that is feeling increasingly dated.

On the other hand, Dench's M is a strong, well-written female role. Dench, who makes her seventh appearance as M, finally gets some substantial scenes to act. She has a fantastic speech about the relevancy of spies in the modern, technological world.

The supporting cast also includes juicy roles for Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, but it is best to let audiences discover where they fit into the story on their own.

And then there's Bardem's villain, a gloriously over-the-top characterization in the tradition of Gert Frobe's Goldfinger and Donald Pleasance's Blofeld. As was true of Bardem's frightening work in "No Country for Old Men," he has a sinister presence, but here he adds acting choices and line readings that create a character that is flamboyant, amusing and unsettling.

While it isn't perfect — there's a slow patch in the middle and some odd choices like a computer-generated man-eating komodo dragon — "Skyfall" gleefully returns many, but not all the familiar motifs of the Bond franchise. By the end of the film, all the most beloved elements of the series are in place for "Bond 24" and it is hard to imagine anyone not being eager for the next installment.

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