REVIEW: Skyfall Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench. Directed by Sam Mendes. M.
Despite a few nagging moments of contrivance or obscurity, Skyfall - the 23rd James Bond movie - is a well-orchestrated, 007 spy action-thriller that's both familiar and fresh, traditional and transitional.
It's filled with trademark traits such as the now expected spectacular action opener, exotic locations, Bond women, a mad and powerful villain, the characters M and Q, the visually enticing title credit sequence with theme song (this time from Adele), quips and a story which is generally a framework for modulated bursts of explosive action.
Skyfall also has Bond (Daniel Craig) in a tux at a casino, enjoying a perfectly made shaken-not-stirred martini, his iconic Aston Martin DB5 car and a bit of his childhood background.
Add a new way to ride an elevator, a giant monitor lizard, a scorpion drinking game unlikely to catch on, a story with resurrection reminders of Jason Bourne and The Dark Knight Rises, a siege finale and a sense of yesterday's hero coming to terms with a brave new world.
The original screenplay has a computer hard drive, with a list identifying Nato agents covertly embedded in terrorist organisations, falling into the hands of former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).
Silva doesn't want world domination but to kill M (Judi Dench), whose head is already on the block for the security lapse and resulting deaths. Bond hunts Silva while trying to protect M.
The plot and action is set in Istanbul, London, Shanghai, Macau, the Scottish highlands and in an abandoned island city - although the filming of scenes wasn't always in these locations.
Some of the action and story either seems very fortuitous or requiring a prescience that someone will be in a certain spot at a certain time, for example the appearance of an Underground railway train in a scene involving Bond and Silva. As well, there are miraculous escapes moviegoers simply have to accept without explanation.
What makes these instances palatable is the movie's wild opening sequence that is as preposterous as it is audacious and entertaining - a pursuit involving vehicles ploughing recklessly through narrow crowded streets, motorcycles on city rooftops, a giant front-end excavator and a train-top struggle.
This opener gets the movie off to a rollicking start but also puts moviegoers into the film's comfort zone, ensuring their suspension of disbelief will find it easier to accommodate whatever follows, no matter how implausible.
It's part of a space the new Bond movies (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall) want to inhabit - an escapist place that's darker, grittier and more realistic but also where the outrageous and ludicrous can still occur.
Debut Bond director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, The Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) helps by keeping the story developing, moving and tense - with great cinematography from Roger Deakins (especially a skyscraper neon-lit fight scene). Mendes seemingly relishes the fun of making an action movie in which practically anything goes and with a story that arguably gets the most emotional since On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
The cast does its part to keep the film engaging. Craig is solid in his third outing as Bond. He's the movie's rock - and the screenplay not only gives him at least four scenes to be bare-chested but occasion to find a bit of depth and dimension in his 007.
His Bond has become vulnerable, both physically in fitness for duty and mentally in whether his skills are still what's required in combating shadowy cyberterrorists. He also has some cause to feel a bit of sympathy for lunatic Silva and to recognise his own expendability.
Bardem, who played the stone-cold killer in No Country for Old Men, walks a fine line between a ruthless madman and a victim with some justification for his vendetta.
With blond hair and an oral insert to mask damage inside his mouth and face by a cyanide pill, Bardem has the best scene, a sitting knee-to-knee confrontation with Bond, and the movie's best line (about how exhausting all this running around, jumping and fighting is).
In supporting roles, Dench's sixth time as flinty M is a meatier role, even putting her into the action; Ben Whishaw becomes tech-genius Q; Ralph Fiennes is sleek as M's bureaucratic intelligence boss; and Albert Finney shows up as a crusty gamekeeper at an old country manor.
As "the Bond women", Naomie Harris plays field agent Eve with a notable Bond-movie surname, and Berencie Marlohe is Silva's sex slave with whom Bond liaises.
Skyfall marks the 50th anniversary of Bond movies since the first, Dr No, in 1962 - and should please Bond fans and newcomers while leaving the franchise in good stead.
- © Fairfax NZ News