If it weren't for a quick toot of iconic notes at the start of Skyfall, for a minute there you might find yourself wondering whether you'd wandered into a Spielberg alien movie by mistake. Silhouetted against a scrim of blinding light, a spindly, blurry figure, bobbing at an odd gait, moves down a corridor.
And then, finally, he comes into view, becomes defined: Craig. Daniel Craig. No extraterrestrial he.
And so begins the 23d (official) James Bond extravaganza, and the third with the steely Craig as Her Majesty's super spy, retooled for the gloom and doom of the new millennium, but still licensed to kill. Directed by Sam Mendes, with an Anglocentric bent that picks up where the London Olympics left off, Skyfall returns to the city where Sean Connery dashed around with Daniela Bianchi in the second Bond film, 1963's From Russia With Love: Istanbul. Coincidentally, that's the same city Liam Neeson dashes around in in the current Taken 2. In fact, both Taken 2 and Skyfall boast rooftop chase sequences atop the Turkish capital's Grand Bazaar. ("Hey, guys, can you get a move on? We need this patch of tiles with that view of the mosque for our film!")
If there's a theme in Skyfall (apart from John Barry's signature theme music, that is), it's to do with the conflict between old and new, bodies in the field versus drones in the sky, the need to keep an eye on history and an eye on your smartphone screen, too. In a nicely written scene (John Logan, who scripted Coriolanus for Ralph Fiennes, is one of the three credited screenwriters), Bond and the new Q (tousle-haired lad Ben Whishaw), meet on a bench at London's National Gallery, facing Turner's The Fighting Temeraire, a seascape of a retired three-masted warship being hauled away for scrap by a steamer.
When Bond realizes he's seated alongside MI6's quartermaster, he cracks wise about his youth, the "spots" on his face.
"Age is no guarantee of efficiency," Q counters.
"And youth is no guarantee of innovation," Bond quips.
Age becomes an issue with M, too. Bristling with gravitas, Judi Dench, who has played the agency's top gun since Goldeneye back in the last century, has the bad luck to be in charge as the agency's computers are hacked, its field agents outed, and its Thames-side headquarters attacked with a terrorist bomb.
Fiennes is Mallory, Parliament's intelligence committee chairman, and he pretty much demands M's resignation. She refuses.
The hacking and attacking, it's discovered - after Bond treks from Istanbul to London to Shanghai to Macau to some godforsaken isle and back to the U.K. - is the work of Silva (Javier Bardem), and a twisted soul is he. A disgruntled former MI6 bureau chief, Silva sports a blond wig (and matching eyebrows), a lispy affect, and a really big grudge. I'm not sure whether it's Bardem's hammy performance, or the way Silva has been cobbled together from bits of other cinema psychos (Hannibal Lecter, anyone?), but as Bond villains go, he's not terribly interesting. A sadistic sulky boy with really bad teeth. (The pitiful dentistry is explained.)
Skyfall's opening and epic chase sequence is expertly choreographed, its Bond girls are exotic (Bérénice Marlohe) and empowered (Naomie Harris), and a final-act retreat to the Scottish highlands gives us a little Bond backstory, introducing a bearded, bearish old gent, Kincade, played with bully charm by the great Albert Finney (once a contender to be James Bond himself).
With a clever nod to a missing Modigliani (Woman With a Fan), and Dench's recitation of Tennyson's Ulysses ("We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven"), Skyfall is certainly the most cultured Bond film to come along in some time. It's also the first of the three Craig endeavors to seriously (and wittily) acknowledge its pedigree. There's even a "shaken, not stirred" reference, and the discovery of Bond's trusty Aston Martin DB5, tucked away in a garage. Yes, the ejection seat still works. At least, so we're told, and then the sky starts falling in a hail of bullets and bombs.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.