DVD Release Date: February 12, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: November 8, 2012
Rating: PG-13 (for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language, and smoking)
Genre: Action
Run Time: 143 min
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney

In the latest James Bond thriller Skyfall, 007 is fighting age and relevancy – two things the now-50 year old series resoundingly conquered in 2006 with the gritty Casino Royale. That character-rich reboot – which started things over with Daniel Craig (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in the legendary role – is exactly what the franchise needed, especially in a post-Bourne cinematic world that made the increasing camp of the Pierce Brosnon era passe’.

The Bond character had to be taken seriously, maybe like never before. This smooth and indestructable icon had to be broken down into a mortal and troubled man – and he was, inversely elevating him to the best and most fascinating rendition of the famed secret agent that we’ve seen in five decades.

But if the past two films were about deconstructing the icon, then Skyfall is clearly about rebuilding it. The end result feels like a compromise between the best and worst tendencies of the series. Thankfully the best outweighs the worst, and the movie is often an exhilarating jolt of popcorn fun. Yet while many will welcome this lighter, more straightforward approach, the oversimplified slickness seen here ultimately feels like a step back in the wrong direction.

The requisite pre-Title Song action scene doesn’t initially suggest that anything’s changed. It's a stylistic continuation of the previous two films, although it does trade the shaky hand-held trend for a more classic polished approach. Wildly inventive and superbly mounted, the lengthy string of stunts successfully top each other and derive much of their thrills from being largely practical rather than digital. By the time Adele begins to sing, you’re already satiated with the fact that you’ve just seen exactly what you paid for.

From there, however, the tone slowly but surely begins to double back from the series’ recent reinvention toward a clear and deliberate return-to-form. Craig, in his third go-round as 007, keeps Bond rough around the edges but the brooding has been exorcised. The script makes sure of that as his challenges this time – the effects of aging – are more practical than personal, and the villian Silva (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) comes close to the maniachial caricature that the Austin Powers parodies so adeptly satirized. Silva’s arc, actually, is much like the movie's: starts off strong before devolving into familiar tropes.

Bond’s relation to beautiful women has also been reduced once more to merely surface levels. Gone are any deep connections, leaving only winking flirtations and all-too-clever repartee. There’s good chemistry between James and agent-in-training Eve, and Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) is up to the role’s demands, but she’s there primarily to serve a function in this traditional Bond machine. The other Bond girl Severine is given some dimension by newcomer Berenice Marlohe, despite existing for the sole purpose of becoming another one of 007’s conquests before being disposed of.

The one dynamic Skyfall finally takes advantage of more than ever before is the relationship between Bond and M (Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). It’s always been one of both respect and conflict, with strong maternal undertones. Those tensions and affections are heightened as Silva’s schemes would make Bond and M  obsolete (and MI6 along with them), putting the pair’s fidelity to the test. In a job where each often has to put mission and country before the other (even to the point of being pitted against one another), they end up being all the other’s got – not just out of necessity, but loyalty.

The film’s other strength is in how, despite feeling like a regression, it plays as a respectful homage to its history. The working philosophy for director Sam Mendes (Away We Go) is literally verbalized in the line “Sometimes the old ways are the best.” From an ingenious resurrection of the original Aston Martin DB5 to the timing of when we first hear the full original Bond theme, and even in establishing Bond’s roots in Scotland (a nod to original 007 Sean Connery’s birthplace), this isn’t a lazy regression but rather a very intentional and at times adroit one. By film’s end the reconstruction is complete, forming a 21st century carbon copy of the MI6 core we first saw in 1962’s series debut Dr. No.

As preferrential as it would’ve been for Mendes to stay on the recent reboot’s more complex and modern trajectory, it’s hard to imagine an embrace of the familiar being done in a more classy fashion. It may make for the most widely appealing Bond yet.

Still, as the tongue-in-cheek tone increases, it broaches all-out kitsch. The problem with that is how it reduces the integrity of what’s at stake. Sure, it’s entertaining to hear a witty and well-timed one-liner now and then, but a reliance on them starts to wear. Worse yet, when they’re delivered in the midst of actual life-and-death scenarios, tension is severly undercut. Some of the traps laid for Bond also seem impossibly set.

The cumulative effect of each verbal and circumstantial contrivance is one where everything, no matter the scale of danger, seems safely inevitable. That may be a given for a long-running action series, but the previous shift to seriousness helped create a dramatic veracity – even mortality – that a Bond film inherently has no right orchestrating, and that’s impressive. But here, not so much.

Skyfall is a good movie, with a classic Bond. It’s just not a great one. Indeed, at a very fundamental level, the character and his 23rd film are exactly alike: each has lost a step, but both still get the job done.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Occasional drinking and smoking. One brief scene of a drinking contest with shots.
  • Language/Profanity: Five uses of the S-word. One F-word. One B-word. Vulgarity for men’s genital. One use of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Man unbuttons the top button of a woman’s blouse. A man and woman shower together, and kiss passionately (no nudity). Another instance of man and woman kissing passionately up against a wall. Man and woman lay in bed together. A few scenes of flirtatious exchanges between man and woman. A suggestion of homosexuality as man caresses Bond’s leg.
  • Violence/Other: A great deal of gunplay, multiple people shot and killed in various scenes. Some bloody wounds seen, though not terribly graphic. Two instances of point-blank killings of unarmed people. A man falls to his death from a high-rise building. A fight takes place in silhouette. A man removes a jaw apparatus that reveals a disfigured face. A fight to the death underwater. A woman is shot and severely injured. Lots of destruction, mayhem, explosions.

Publication date: November 8, 2012