An outsider’s take on the James Bond saga: ‘Skyfall’ (2012) (Movie review)

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ith “No Time to Die” coming out in November, I’m looking back at the eight modern-era James Bond films from the perspective of a newcomer, from July 11-26. Next up is the 23rd Eon-produced film and third starring Daniel Craig, “Skyfall” (2012):

OVERALL THOUGHTS

Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins give us a gorgeous and stylish globetrotting adventure, consistently enhanced by Thomas Newman’s somber yet understatedly propulsive score. Similar to the previous year’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” “Skyfall” is an action movie as high art.

In what looks like it’ll be a torture scene, Silva instead gets sensually flirtatious, and it seems alpha male Bond would prefer traditional torture.

Perhaps correcting from the all-action “Quantum of Solace,” writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan slow things down and restore spy elements. That said, this is the simplest “Bond” plot in a while – a stripped-down version of 1996’s “Mission: Impossible” wherein a bad guy steals a list of MI6 undercover operatives. Bond’s ongoing climb up the ladder to find the head of a worldwide crime syndicate is temporarily shelved.

“Skyfall” is elevated, though, by its focus on characters – with Bond (who flirts with leaving the business) and the villain (who rebels against the business) serving as foils for each other.

TITLE/SONG

As the wounded (physically and emotionally, as MI6 has cast him off) Bond sinks to a river bottom, Adele delivers a coldly beautiful theme song that fits with the film’s reflective mood; it’s the first song of the Craig films that uses the film’s title.

In the final act, we learn Skyfall is the name of the estate where Bond grew up in Scotland, raised by groundkeeper Kincade (Albert Finney) after his parents’ deaths. It marks the second film of the modern era named after an estate, as “GoldenEye” takes its title from Ian Fleming’s home.

BOND GIRLS

Severine (Bérénice Marlohe) links Bond up with the villain, and her murder illustrates the emotional brutality of this movie. In the long run, the most important Bond Girl here is Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), whose identity is revealed at the end. As we know from the pre-Craig “Bonds,” Moneypenny and Bond have a mutual respect and attraction but never quite act on it.

VILLAIN

Silva (Javier Bardem) is the best villain of the last quarter-century of “Bonds,” a more robustly explored answer to the turncoat 006 from “GoldenEye.” After being disavowed on a mission back in the day, Silva secretly survives and vows revenge on his handler, M (Judi Dench), and MI6 and essentially the whole idea of the worldwide war on terror.

Although I stayed on the side of the good guys (who don’t intentionally kill innocents), Silva’s arguments (if not his actions) are sympathetic. And Bardem is mesmerizing to watch. In what looks like it’ll be a torture scene, Silva instead gets sensually flirtatious, and it seems alpha male Bond would prefer traditional torture.

BEST ACTION SCENE

Granted, “Skyfall” starts with a long sequence – highlighted by Bond chasing a baddie across a rooftop, both of them on motorcycles – that wraps with Bond getting accidentally shot by Moneypenny and falling into a river. However, the most striking action scene finds Bond and a sniper fist-fighting in a sleek, dark and otherwise empty building in Shanghai. They are backlit by a blue-and-white video billboard; at one point, it looks like the moon is rising behind them.

MOST RIDICULOUS MOMENT

The ways in which Silva hacks MI6 to get the list, and how he later frees himself from MI6’s cell, are not explained in any technical detail. “Skyfall’s” approach to hacking is to show computer screens that illustrate the bad guys out-computering the good guys. Truth be told, though, it doesn’t play as ridiculous in the moment; the somber tone of these Craig films allows them to get away with things that would play as cheesy in the Brosnan films.

BEST GADGETS

The Craig saga finally introduces quartermaster Q (the young Ben Wishaw, a contrast to prior, more seasoned Qs), and his first offerings to Bond are a handprint-activated gun and a small radio transmitter. He says MI6 has moved on from the days of exploding pens, a blunt statement on how these Craig films are more grounded in reality, whether old-school fans like it or not.

SEXUAL/GENDER POLITICS

That said, there is one old-school “Bond being Bond” moment, when he sneaks into the apartment of Severine and joins her in the shower – and of course she is receptive. They had met earlier that day and, granted, she does tell him where she’s staying. But suffice it to say, this scene won’t play well with the crowd who believes the process of consent should include a signed and notarized contract.

But really, “Skyfall’s” core relationship is the surrogate mother-son relationship between M and Bond. Surprisingly (considering the continuity of the group around Bond), M is killed off – just as the always great Dench gets to sink her teeth into the role – and tragically, any affection between handler and agent remains unspoken. It’s left for fans to debate whether the affection is there, whether it’s understood, and what it will mean for Bond down the road.

As Dench hands off the M position to a male actor (Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory), she ends a seven-film run as in the role (technically two roles, since these are two timelines) as the first female M. Her casting was a big deal in 1995, but now the gender of M is beside the point – a sign of progress on that count.

BEST ONE-LINER

Skyfall groundskeeper Kincade (after shooting two home-invading bad guys): “Welcome to Scotland.”

Schedule of Bond reviews:

Saturday, July 11: “GoldenEye” (1995)

Sunday, July 12: “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

Wednesday, July 15: “The World is Not Enough” (1999)

Saturday, July 18: “Die Another Day” (2002)

Sunday, July 19: “Casino Royale” (2006)

Wednesday, July 22: “Quantum of Solace” (2008)

Saturday, July 25: “Skyfall” (2012)

Sunday, July 26: “Spectre” (2015)