He's just barely 50 — "Dr. No" made spycraft sexy in 1962 — but is there truly any doubt that secret agent extraordinaire James Bond will live forever? The extended intro to "Skyfall," the 23rd canonical Bond film, playfully abuses this notion and, later on, the question of Bond's obsolescence in the modern age is at least raised, if not precisely grappled with.
Not for the first time, however, and that's part of what holds "Skyfall" back. Double-oh-seven was dismissively labeled a "dinosaur" by his boss as far back as "Goldeneye" — the first of the films to feature Pierce Brosnan as Bond — and almost everything in first-time Bond director Sam Mendes's admirably sleek, edgy package feels at least a little bit borrowed. (Here it's Q who cheekily writes off 007 as being a "grand old warship.")
It's all been very smoothly assembled, but even top-quality reconditioned parts are still just reconditioned parts, and a solid formula, even if followed to the letter, is still formulaic.
"Skyfall" does come roaring out of the blocks, delivering one of the better pre-credits adventures in recent Bond lore. While attempting to recover a hard drive that contains critical security info (names and locations of embedded British spies), our hero goes on a recklessly roving chase that involves crowded marketplaces, streets, rooftops and railways, plus at least four different modes of transportation (five, if you count Bond's elegant Oxfords).
The mission is already imploding when we arrive on the scene, but it fails in such spectacular fashion that Bond is forced into an unplanned leave of absence, several other agents wind up in flag-draped coffins, and crusty M, the director of British intelligence, is hauled before a frowny-faced parliamentary committee.
From there, we plunge into a labyrinthine "chickens come home to roost" scenario that involves a systematic campaign to destroy and embarrass the British intelligence community. Who do you think can thwart those evil designs?
His name is — ah, you know that one already. There are a few new wrinkles, however, as Bond — James Bond (couldn't resist) — sorts through his familiar bag of tricks. Ben Whishaw makes an engaging entrance as the youngest Q in franchise history, a mussy-haired slacker and crackerjack hacker who has a bit more to do than dispense shiny gadgets and creaky puns in equal measure.
Q's badinage with Bond actually drives one of the sharpest scenes in the movie, as the slightly reluctant co-workers warily take each other's measure. "A gun and a radio. Not exactly Christmas, is it?" "Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don't really go in for that any more."
Daniel Craig also gets a chance to do a little stretching, as the nature of Bond's brief furlough means he's required to recertify before returning to active duty. It's a more problematic process than you might suppose, and adds a dollop of depth to the ultimately superficial consideration of Bond's relevance.
Craig's lean, wolfish intensity and rugged charm are as reliable as ever, but he also adds shadings of vulnerability and defiance to the character. There's a strong moment straight off the bat when Bond briefly halts his pursuit of an escaping fugitive and attempts to stabilize a wounded fellow operative.
Despite being kept in the shadows for more than an hour, Oscar-winner Javier Bardem is a chillingly creepy villain, easily Bond's most memorable adversary since the Sean Connery era. Bardem's character, Silva, has more believably scaled ambitions than is the world-dominating norm, though the writing team still overplays its hand on his borderline magical ability to be several dozen steps ahead of his foes at every turn.
The requisite female characters are a notable weakness of the movie. As tradition demands, there's a beautiful woman to stroke Bond's thigh on both sides of the line between good and evil. Naomie Harris is solid as a fellow agent who gives Bond a sexy shave, but there's generally so little for her to do that you'll wonder why she's being kept around. And the eventual payoff, while amusing, is thuddingly sexist.
We also get Berenice Marlohe as the exotically named Severine, a steely survivor and femme-not-so-fatale, whose purpose in the film — beyond the obvious, I mean — and connection to Silva are both fuzzily defined at best. Her "relationship" with Bond is so perfunctory as to barely warrant a handshake, much less the requisite steamy assignation aboard an opulent yacht. (It's sort of steamy, anyway — talk about perfunctory.)
The only truly striking chemistry is between Craig and Bardem — especially during Silva's sturdy monologue comparing himself and Bond to rats — and Craig and Judi Dench. Dench's M, tart, curt and more vulnerable than we've ever seen her, is the real Bond girl here, a comrade and equal who's in peril, but also fights back.
Mendes stages the abundant action, including a wowser of a subway crash, largely in crisp, clear takes. He also keeps the dramatic tension high and probably has earned a repeat gig if he wants it. The best material in "Skyfall" is strong enough that I'd like to see him get a crack at a story cooked up by somebody other than the longtime screenwriting duo of Robert Purvis and Neal Wade. (John Logan is also credited.)
"Skyfall" is the duo's fifth straight Bond film (sixth if you count the Bond-spoofing "Johnny English"), and if they aren't already using a Mad Libs-style template, then it's probably only a matter of time. The end of the film clearly signals a fresh start for the franchise. Let's hope that includes letting someone else man the word processor.