The 007 franchise has been around for 50 years now, and in that time we’ve seen the good, the bad and the Lazenby. The tendency has been, however, to view the success or failure of each movie as resting entirely on the actor playing super-spy James Bond. People will talk fondly about the rugged, masculine Bond as personified by Sean Connery or the campy, tongue-in-cheek Bond of Roger Moore, but rarely does the director get any credit for making or breaking the series.
And yet, the director certainly does matter. Just take the most recent string of Bond films: Martin Campbell successfully rebooted the franchise with “Casino Royale” (2006), ushering in a new Bond in the form of Daniel Craig and bringing a tougher, more poignant tone to the series. (Campbell had similarly rescued the franchise with “Goldeneye” a decade earlier.) You really notice how good Campbell was when you watch the next film in the series, “Quantum of Solace” (2008): This too had Craig and the same screenwriters on board, and yet it just didn’t work. The new director, Marc Forster, was good with actors — in films such as “The Kite Runner” or “Monster’s Ball” — but just didn’t know how to shoot an action sequence except in a handheld blur, and working off a script delayed till the last minute by the Writers Guild strike didn’t help.
That brings us to “Skyfall” and director Sam Mendes. Skeptics will no doubt be wondering whether Mendes — who, like Forster, is best known for character-driven dramas such as “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road” — will be able to handle the stunts and other fun bits. That fear is dispelled in the first five minutes, as Mendes and his crew turn in a fabulously frenetic opening chase through a teeming Istanbul bazaar and a high-speed train-top pursuit that rivals any Bond opening, ever. Mendes moves straight from that into your classic “shagadelic” opening-credits sequence and a perfectly pitched retro theme song by Adele.
Bond doesn’t get any better than this, and Mendes hits nearly all the sweet spots quickly. Exotic Eurasian femme fatale? Check. Creepy evil genius? Check. Astounding locations from across the globe? Check. Hand-to-hand combat in a Macau casino’s Komodo dragon pit? Oh yeah. Some are calling this the best Bond ever.
Craig has his detractors, but for my money he’s been a refreshing change, bringing both an imposing physicality that makes you think yes, he could snap someone’s spine, and the sensation that there’s some sort of inner conflict behind those blue eyes. (Ah, poor old Vesper Lynd … )
Javier Bardem shows up as Raoul Silva, Bond’s nemesis who is determined to smash British spy agency MI6 in general and its director M in particular. Bardem brings the requisite characteristic for a 007 villain — a foreign accent — and sports the sort of bad hair he had in “No Country For Old Men,” while his actions seem modeled on the hacker group Anonymous spliced with al-Qaida.
Judi Dench is as stolid as ever as M, but the elevation of her relationship with Bond to the level of surrogate parent is really where the film hits a snag. A Bond with feelings of abandonment and parental “issues”? Please. A Bond with emotions, which Craig brought to the series, was a nice change, but this is really taking the whole character a bit too seriously. The need to resolve all this straitjackets the film into a climax that feels reminiscent of 1971’s “Straw Dogs” and runs on far too long while failing to recapture the excitement of the movie’s opening action sequence. The “Bond girls” — always a series selling point — are rather noticeable by their absence in the entire second half.
Yet for all the film’s claims to being a grittier, more realistic Bond — “Skyfall” makes a point of avoiding the usual wacky gadgets from Q Branch — a scene where Silva, escaping through a wartime tunnel under London, pulls off an implausible attack on Bond involving a Tube train is as silly as anything in the over-the-top “Moonraker.”
Overall, Mendes turns in a solid Bond, but it would be a stretch to say that nobody does it better.
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