BOND: Everybody needs a hobby.
SILVA: What’s yours?
When Daniel Craig’s James Bond, having returned to England to help MI6 track down a rogue cyber-terrorist and former Double-O agent, gets the results back from his physical and psychological examinations, M (Judi Dench) tells him he passed, “by the skin of his teeth.” The same might well be true of Skyfall, the third salvo in the most recent iteration of the Bond saga, which has been characterized by Craig’s rugged, grittily human depiction of the famous secret agent and by its (sometimes undue) emphasis on big set-pieces, tremendous explosions, and chase scenes that somehow always find their way onto some kind of rooftop. Skyfall, like the personalities of its two male leads (Craig’s bond and Javier Bardem’s nefarious Silva), continuously toes the line between being dynamically flawed and being extremely punchy, at the cost of complexity.
This round we find Bond, having somehow miraculously survived a sniper shot to the chest and a thousand-foot fall into a three-and-a-half foot river (???), returning to England after MI6 director and Bond’s controversial boss M finds herself embroiled in a cyber-terrorist assault that blows up the MI6 building, threatens her life, and jeopardizes dozens of agents in the field. M is played by the fantastic Judi Dench, whose performance is the only consistently great one in the film; Dench’s character struggles as a concerned administration tries to force her out and replace her with a new MI6 director, the ambiguous Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) .Bond, albeit rusty and more than a little wounded, ships off to Shanghai to track down the culprit, and finds himself drawing ever-closer to the ex-MI6 agent Raoul Silva, who has concocted a catastrophically destructive plan to bring down M, and MI6.
As I mentioned, the subplot involving Dench, even though no one gets shot or blows up, is one of the film’s most compelling, especially when Mallory proves himself to have more chutzpah than is originally implied. Q’s banter-full portrayal by Ben Whishaw, hot off a great performance in Cloud Atlas, is also notable. Naomie Harris plays Bond’s would-be love interest, does not have nearly enough time to shine before Bond trots away to hunt after Silva and leaves her in the dust. As for Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem, they both suffer the same problem, and that is the confusion between the human and the superhuman. Both are presented at some point as being complex characters with tragic pasts and varying motives. Craig is more human as Bond than ever, scoring pitifully low on marksmanship tests after returning to England. As the film rolls on, however, one finds the hero and villain slipping back into more comic-booky characterizations, once again performing superhuman feats and forgetting about their complexities for the sake of action (Silva even slides close to being as strange and superhuman a villain as Red Skull from Captain America at certain points). Neither of these traits is necessarily a bad thing, but both of them together just might be.
When in the throes of Skyfall‘s excellently directed, performed, and coordinated first half, though, these complaints hardly mean anything: there’s seduction, gadgetry, banter, and more than a few classy kills. It’s in the film’s last 45 minutes, when after Dench’s powerful poetic invocation of national pride via a Tennyson quote it roars off to the country to stage the climax, that it drags. One can only watch so many things blow up and watch the iron Bond grimace and say nothing as he shoots his way through ordeal after ordeal before feeling like this episode of the Craig series, if not the explosive caterwauling nature of the series itself, is growing tired. As a whole, though, Skyfall gives the impression that its cast, director, and screenwriters still have enough spunk in them to keep this incarnation of Bond, like the spread-thin but enormous British empire at the dawn of the twentieth century, alive. Score: 6.5/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor